Still reeling from recent events in Syria, President Donald Trump and his administration face a looming crisis in neighboring Iraq. In a country where thousands of U.S. troops have died and thousands more are still deployed, both the United States and rival Iran are backing an embattled prime minister as popular calls for his ouster could threaten their influence and lead to civil war.
The latest round of protests first emerged in Iraq in July 2018, about a year after former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory over the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) in a campaign that united the Iraqi military, Iran-backed militias, a U.S.-led coalition and Kurdish forces. The unrest has pressured Abadi’s successor, Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, to the cusp of quitting.
While Iraqis are openly questioning if Abdul-Mahdi can bring unity and restore calm to Iraq, the Trump administration and some lawmakers support the current prime minister. A senior State Department official tells Newsweek, “The prime minister and the team that he has is a good government and probably the best we could have hoped for.”
Some lawmakers agree. “Abdul-Mahdi is a friend. I hope he can straighten this out. I think he’s a good guy, but corruption is rampant. Young people are tired of it. You see a backlash in Lebanon and you see a backlash in Iraq. Young people wanting their country to deliver better services and more hope,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told Newsweek. “I like Abdul-Mahdi, and I think he has the confidence of the Kurds and the Sunnis. But he’s got to get his government to be more acceptable to younger Iraqis, and this is sort of a, you know, an ‘Iraq Spring,’ for lack of a better way of saying it.”
The term “Iraq Spring” is a reference to the so-called “Arab Spring” wave of demonstrations that swept the Arab World in 2011 as a mass movement against long-standing leaders failing to address socioeconomic issues that disproportionately affected the region’s youth. Once seen as a beacon of hope, however, these protests devolved into deadly civil wars in Libya, Syria and, later on, Yemen—cautionary tales cited by Shiite Muslim militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr in his latest warning designed to urge Abdul-Mahdi to leave.
Neither the U.S. nor Iran want this, however, as they try to assert their own influence through a fragile system now the target of a mass uprising.
Abdul-Mahdi was elected last year as a compromise between influential rival militia leaders Sadr and Hadi al-Amiri. Sadr is threatening a no-confidence vote that could lead to a political breakdown as the top Sairoon coalition, of which Sadr was a member, entered the opposition amid worsening bloodshed. With large parts of the country’s infrastructure still decimated, economic woes unaddressed and lingering security concerns, Iraqis from nearly all walks of life have taken to the streets, where reports have risen significantly in recent weeks of deadly clashes with security forces and various militias incorporated into the armed forces.
Iraq has suffered from decades of conflict, stemming back to a devastating eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s, and two U.S. attacks in the next two decades, the latter of which saw the overthrow of longtime leader Saddam Hussein. The U.S. installed a new government, representing Iraq’s Shiite Muslim majority as a deadly Sunni Muslim insurgency ravaged the country.
During this period, Sadr and Amiri led Iran-backed Shiite Muslim militias that targeted both U.S. troops, who withdrew from the country in 2011, and Al-Qaeda, which rebranded as ISIS and only grew in strength over time. Recent years saw U.S. forces and Sadr and Amiri’s groups—known as Saraya al-Salam, formerly the Mahdi Army, and the Badr Organization, respectively, and now reorganized under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilization Forces—battling the jihadi organization that came to be known as ISIS.
When Iraq held its first elections since ISIS’ defeat last year, Sadr’s Sairoon alliance came out on top, followed by Amiri’s Fatah bloc. Both men have ties to Iran, but the former has increasingly pushed back on Tehran’s growing influence in Baghdad, as the latter embraced it.
Asked if any parties were instigating the deterioration in Iraq’s security situation, Shirwan Mirza, an Iraqi Kurdish member of parliament affiliated with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), told Newsweek it was “not very clear, but Sadr and Abadi want this.” Amiri initially signaled support for Abdul-Mahdi’s ousting as well but appears to have changed his mind, possibly under the advice of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, a vastly influential figure in Iraq. Reuters cited multiple sources attesting to a recent meeting between the two men.
Iran has managed to take advantage of regional unrest to establish itself as an active player in nations like Syria, where U.S. lawmakers were still widely focused on Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from the country’s north, a move that sought to avoid a fight between two partners—Syrian Kurds that helped the Pentagon defeat ISIS and NATO ally Turkey that considers some Kurdish militias to be terrorist organizations. Even amid the fluid situation in Syria, however, more members of Congress were keeping an eye on Iraq, though there was little consensus as to what the U.S. strategy was or should be.
Democratic Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia told Newsweek that “the instability and the protests in Iraq raise concern for a number of reasons.”
“The key is that the Iraqis are partners of ours so the first thing is, what do they think would be helpful. The last thing we need to do—because sometimes our involvement can be cause for unrest by some, so we have to do that in a way that the Iraqi government, our partners, think would be helpful,” Kaine said. “I don’t yet know what they think would be helpful, if anything, so that’s all part of trying to figure out what the plan is but the best way for this to happen is for the administration to come forward and ‘Okay, here’s what we see here’s what we think a good plan is, now ask us questions challenge us on pieces of it, and we’ll get to a better work product that way.”
Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego of Arizona served as a U.S. Marine in Iraq during the violent post-invasion period in Iraq and, while he felt the situation had yet to approach open conflict, he called for Abdul-Mahdi to resign before it did.
“This started, obviously, with a push by a lot of Iraqi citizens wanting a government that was less corrupt, more transparent and less abusive,” Gallego told Newsweek. “At this point, this is starting to spread along sectarian lines, which is very dangerous. I think, honestly, that the Iraqi government is just going to have to resign itself and start new to keep the country together.”
“I believe there could be a collapse of government,” he added. “I don’t think, necessarily, that leads to a civil war. I was in the middle of the last civil war, where there was an active Sunni uprising against the Shia-led government. I don’t think that is where Iraq’s history is right now, but I do think that there’s going to have to be an overhaul in government.”
Gallego argued that “these Iraqi citizens are also sick of the influence of Iran and Iran is, I think, afraid of losing more control over this Iraqi government. And unfortunately, I think they’re going to try to influence the outcome, also.”
Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois similarly said he “shares the concerns over this political unrest in the region but also about the role that Iran has played in the strife here.”
Iraq has been among the most volatile venues of the U.S.-Iran feud that has played out across the Middle East. The U.S. initially backed the Iraqi invasion of Iran that followed the latter’s 1979 Islamic Revolution and—though the U.S. tacitly offered support to both sides of the conflict—came to view both countries as foes until regime change against Hussein made Baghdad an ally of both Washington and Tehran.
The U.S. and Iran overcame decades of diplomatic isolation in 2015 to forge the 2015 nuclear deal, an historic accord also endorsed by China, the European Union, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom. Last year, Trump unilaterally ditched this deal, setting off a cycle of tensions that have brought the U.S. and Iran to the brink of exchanging blows.
The result has been a new air of hostility for the U.S. presence in Iraq, especially among the many Iran-backed militias now officially part of the state security apparatus. After apparent rocket attacks last year near Washington’s embassy in Baghdad and consulate in Irbil, the State Department evacuated all non-emergency personnel, but about 5,000 troops on the frontlines of what may be a new intractable bout in the region.
Citing Iraqi sources, Democratic Rep. Tom Malinowski of New Jersey described pulling these diplomats out as “the U.S. washing their hands of the country.”
In a statement published shortly after Newsweek‘s article was published Friday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo addressed Baghdad directly, saying that “the United States welcomes any serious efforts made by the Government of Iraq to address the ongoing problems in Iraqi society.”
“The Government of Iraq should listen to the legitimate demands made by the Iraqi people who have taken to the streets to have their voices heard. The United States is closely monitoring the situation and from the beginning we have called on all sides to reject violence,” Pompeo said. “The Government of Iraq’s investigation into the violence in early October lacked sufficient credibility and the Iraqi people deserve genuine accountability and justice.”
“As the efforts announced by President Salih begin, the recently imposed severe restrictions on freedom of the press and of expression must be relaxed,” he added.
“Press freedom is inherent to democratic reform. The U.S. government continues to support Iraqi institutions, the Iraqi people, and Iraq’s security, stability, and sovereignty.”
Though the beleaguered Abdul-Mahdi has vowed to stay until Sadr and Amiri could come up with a replacement, one Iraqi intelligence official told Newsweek that his time may soon be up.
“The young Iraqi Shiite youth want overthrow PM Adel Abdul-Mahdi, the Iranians don’t want to lose him,” the official said. “The Iranians lost this battle, but they’re far from losing the war.”
“We are worried about the whole system of Iraq because of this unrest,” Mirza told Newsweek. “It may cause that Turkey and Iran and even Saudi Arabia may intervene in Iraq and it may lead to the worst.”
Mirza said the current situation was “the result of being guns in the hands of militias and the weakness of state in Iraq,” along with the fact that “the USA did not support Adil Abdul-Mahdi and the Iraqi government to do good things for Iraqi people, especially after fighting ISIS.”
As for the Kurds, who are largely split politically between the PUK and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in administering the north’s autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government, Mirza said that, so far, they have managed to “act as one force,” not “divided” in order “to defend the Kurdistan region.”
“They are not with any militia,” Mirza told Newsweek, only the peshmerga, the official Iraqi Kurdish self-defense forces. Asked if the Kurdish region was prepared to defend itself in the event of a crisis elsewhere in the country, he said, “it must be because, if the situation continues, we do not know what is the future of Iraq.”
Abdul-Mahdi has watched on as the country’s politics polarized and persistent rumors have emerged regarding his desire to resign. Sarkawt Shams, a member of parliament affiliated with the New Generation party, told Newsweek he witnessed the prime minister’s desperation nearly firsthand during a meeting with Iraqi President Barham Salih.
“I was meeting with the Iraqi president when the PM called him and told him that he is done,” Shams said, describing how the prime minister “found himself alone and somehow betrayed by those who vowed to support him.”
Shams ascribed the unrest to “protests and political rivalries among Shia Groups” but noted that “no doubt foreign powers play a huge role, Iran directly.” He said “Saudi Arabia and the U.S. may play indirect roles through media campaigns and pushing Iraqi figures to either make things worse or better.”
With the situation growing more dire by the day, the lawmaker told Newsweek, “I am concerned that a government resignation may open the door for armed conflict if forming a new government takes longer.”
This article has been updated to include a statement published by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Tom O’Connor is a senior writer focusing on foreign conflicts and politics. Prior to joining Newsweek, he formerly reported for the International Business Times and the New York Post. You can follow him on Twitter at @ShaolinTom
Ramsey Touchberry is Newsweek’s congressional correspondent. Prior to joining Newsweek, he reported at the local NPR and PBS affiliate WUFT News and USA Today. You can follow him on Twitter at @Ramsberry1.
Naveed Jamali is a Newsweek columnist and a former FBI double agent. He is the author of “How to Catch a Russian Spy.” You can follow him on Twitter at @NaveedAJamali