Argument

If Trump Wants to Confront Iran, He Should Start in Kirkuk

The president talks a big game about standing up to Iran — but will he do anything about Iranian-backed militias attacking America's staunchest allies?

A member of the Iraqi security forces walks past a defaced Kurdish flag on the outskirts of Kirkuk on Oct. 16. (AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)
A member of the Iraqi security forces walks past a defaced Kurdish flag on the outskirts of Kirkuk on Oct. 16. (AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)

When decertifying the Iran nuclear deal last week, U.S. President Donald Trump cited Tehran’s destabilizing role in the Middle East as a reason for his decision. Just days later, as if to confirm Trump’s argument, Iraqi Shiite militias aligned with Iran launched an offensive on the Kurdish Peshmerga in the oil-rich, disputed territory of Kirkuk. Trump now has an opportunity to prove that his rhetoric on Iran is more than just grandstanding, and that he is serious about confronting what he described as Iranian attempts to sow “conflict, terror and turmoil” across the Middle East.

Since 2014, Iranian-backed Shiite militias have filled much of the vacuum left by the collapse of the Iraqi army. As part of a broader umbrella militia organization known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), they have played a central role in the war against the Islamic State, which is why the United States has generally been content to appease and placate them. But for too long, Washington has turned a blind eye to the way these militias threaten Iraq’s stability, by engaging in sectarian atrocities, participating in the deaths of thousands of Americans (and Iraqis), and infiltrating the Iraqi political system.

That should end now. As the dust settles from the war against the Islamic State, the United States can no longer sit on the fence. The Shiite militias have many Iraqi rivals — not just the Kurdish Peshmerga, but also Arab Sunnis and moderate Shiite factions, tribes, and clerics who do not wish to see Iraq fall further into Iran’s orbit of influence — who deserve America’s support, not least because they support an Iraqi political order that is ultimately in America’s own interests.

Over the past 24 hours, Iran-aligned militias retook Kirkuk alongside Iraqi security forces. Even some of the Iraqi government forces are in reality under the sway of these militias: The Interior Ministry’s emergency response division, for instance, is dominated and controlled by the Badr Brigade, which was established by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war. Badr’s head, Hadi al-Ameri, and the U.S.-designated terrorist Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the head of the Iran-sponsored Kataib Hezbollah militia, lowered Kurdistan’s flag today at Kirkuk’s provincial council.

The Kurdish defeat in Kirkuk was also defeat for the United States — but Washington can recover and regain its foothold in Iraq. It needs to establish red lines in the region that Tehran is not allowed to cross, under the threat of U.S. intervention against its proxies and interests, and under the threat that it may provide Kurdish forces with the weapons and training to act as an effective counterweight to Iranian power. With or without U.S. support, the Kurds will continue the fight for Kirkuk: The disputed city is to Iraqi Kurds what the holy city of Najaf is to Iraqi Shiites. The United States must reconcile this goal with its own policy of containing Iran, as well as facilitate a process of dialogue and reconciliation in the aftermath of the Kirkuk conflict and the Kurdish independence referendum, lest it continue to leave that process to its enemies in the region.

Most of all, the United States must look at the big picture in the Middle East. A political order is emerging from the ruins of war in Syria and Iraq, and America’s enemies are claiming their stake in the future of the region. The Kurdistan Regional Government is doing the same, holding a referendum on independence three weeks ago against Washington’s wishes. However, what is unfolding in Iraq and the Middle East today is much bigger than Kurdish independence — it will determine not just the geopolitics of the region in the coming decades but also whether events will unfold in a way that favors the interests of the United States and its allies.

When the United States pulls out of the Middle East, its enemies end up filling the vacuum. That’s what happened in 2011, when Iran saw its influence skyrocket in Baghdad after the U.S. troop withdrawal. Tehran not only gained a greater stake in Iraq – it gained a free hand to extend its resources and proxies into the ensuing civil war in Syria, where Tehran has secured the survival of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Iran’s investment in armed proxies across the Arab world has paid dividends. While many actors were ill-prepared for the emerging regional order, in which armed groups have in some places supplanted partly collapsed states, Iran has decades’ worth of experience on its side. Proxy warfare has been its stock in trade: Lebanon’s Hezbollah has played a decisive role in Syria since it captured the strategic town of Qusayr in 2013, and Iraqi Shiite militias have flooded Syria to fight alongside the regime, many of them battle-hardened from their decade-long experience of fighting American and British personnel in Iraq.

In northern Iraq, however, the United States has an opportunity to level the playing field. The Peshmerga dominated Kirkuk because the Iraqi army collapsed and withdrew from the province in 2014, when the Islamic State launched its offensive. If the oil-rich territory had remained under Kurdish control, it would have dramatically altered the relationship between Baghdad and Erbil at a time when Baghdad’s Shiite political class already faces a crisis of authority spurred by lack of jobs, services, and security. For Iran, an emboldened Kurdistan is tantamount to a stronger United States, which is in the process of building permanent military bases in Kurdistan. Kirkuk also lies in the vicinity of Tal Afar, where Iran’s proxies have consolidated their position during the course of the war on the Islamic State and which constitutes an important transit point for reinforcing fighters and supplies in Syria.

It’s time to end the impunity with which Iraqi Shiite militias and their patrons have acted in Iraq since the U.S. withdrawal. At the very least, these groups should be made to consider America’s position in their calculations. The political and symbolic importance of a U.S. presence in Iraq should not be understated — and it will be all the more powerful if it is backed up by the possibility of coercive measures used to enforce bright red lines that Iran and its allies are not allowed to cross in Iraq.

Ranj Alaaldin is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution Doha.

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