Qassem Suleimani Wanted U.S. Troops Out of Iraq. If They Go, ISIS Will Be Back.
The slain Iranian general helped defeat the Islamic State in Iraq, but his death is likely to unleash the sort of sectarian strife that Sunni extremists thrive on.
Before his death last October, informants reported that Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi would hold strategy sessions in minivans packed with vegetables.
Now, as tensions escalate between the United States and Iran in the wake of the U.S. killing of Iranian military commander Qassem Suleimani this month, it is worth remembering that the Islamic State is regrouping in Iraq. Indeed, the militant group’s 14,000-18,000 fighters are returning to their guerrilla roots, assassinating tribal elders, taxing local populations, kidnapping soldiers, burning crops, laying roadside ambushes, and engaging in nighttime hit-and-runs. Training and support from U.S. forces in Iraq is essential to preventing its full-blown revival, but the standoff with Iran may yield the opposite result: removing the U.S. presence from Iraq altogether.
Iran has reached a dangerous juncture, in which hard-line factions are feeling considerable pressure. In misidentifying Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 as a cruise missile, and then going on to misrepresent what happened as a tragic air disaster, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has empowered its critics, in an unprecedented way, both inside and outside Iran. For many, the downing of the civilian jet captured the dysfunctional essence of the leadership in Tehran: at once deadly, incompetent, and dishonest. With the global spotlight on this “unforgivable mistake,” demands for accountability, and widespread anti-government protests inside Iran, the strain on the right wing of the regime will only intensify in the near term.
At this vulnerable moment for hawks in Iran, the embattled IRGC may well seek to prosecute its shadow war—whose architect was the slain commander Suleimani—with renewed vigor. The capstone in that covert project would be the departure, once and for all, of U.S. troops from Iraq.
The official Iranian response to the U.S. killing of Suleimani was to attack air bases housing U.S. and allied troops in Iraq. Iranian officials indicated that this therapeutic salvo of missiles drew a line under the matter. However, Iran’s regional allies clearly had other ideas: In a fiery speech, the leader of Hezbollah in Lebanon announced that “the response to the blood of Qassem Suleimani and Abu Mahdi will be to oust the American troops from our entire region.” Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the founder of the powerful Kataib Hezbollah and deputy head of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, was killed alongside Suleimani in the Jan. 3 drone strike.
Muhandis was an Iraqi national and, effectively, a government official targeted in his own country. Given his role in high command, we can assume Muhandis had many militia friends, who are now ready to inflict pain on U.S. troops to avenge his death. This includes the leader of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, who, on Jan. 9, promised that operations to avenge Muhandis’s death had not yet begun.
The Katyusha rocket attacks against the Balad air base on Jan. 12 and the Taji camp on Jan. 14 suggest that the crisis inside Iran could embolden, rather than inhibit, its militia allies in Iraq. But an escalation in Iraq could prove disastrous for the already fragile campaign against the Islamic State.
On Jan. 5, the global coalition against the Islamic State paused its activities to focus on “protecting the Iraqi bases that host Coalition personnel.” This announcement was made as the Iraqi parliament passed a nonbinding resolution, supported by the caretaker prime minister, calling for the expulsion of U.S. troops from Iraq. The mission apparently restarted Wednesday, according to anonymous U.S. military officials, with no official comment from the Iraqi government.
In 2014, U.S. forces scrambled back to Iraq after the lightning advance of the Islamic State, where, in places like Mosul, whole Iraqi Army divisions tore off their uniforms and fled. Since then, the coalition and its partners—which sometimes included Suleimani’s Iranian forces and Shiite proxies, for whom the fanatical Sunni ideology of the Islamic State represented an existential threat—retook 42,000 square miles of territory, drawing the curtains on the Islamic State’s proto-state.
In that fight, the main function of the small numbers of coalition troops on the front lines was to communicate with aircraft so that strikes were carefully targeted. U.S. air power remain key to keeping the pressure on the Islamic State militarily, but, as one former coalition commander told me, “If you have a U.S. plane with a U.S. bomb and an Iraqi national is calling in for you to drop that bomb, you’re confronted with a series of practical and legal challenges.”
The United States has also provided training and mentoring to Iraqi forces, as well as critical help with battlespace management. The Iraqis are said to be highly capable with regard to signals intelligence and have developed counterterrorism expertise, but they still lack the ability to knit together the moving parts of the intelligence and targeting cycle. However controversial U.S. troop deployments in the Middle East are, for the time being, the 5,000-strong U.S. presence in Iraq is necessary (though of course not sufficient) to retain cohesion on the ground and maintain strategic momentum. “The sad truth is that, if left to their own devices, the Iraqi security forces might rot while they stand, like they did in 2014,” the former commander said. “Maybe not next week, but eventually it would happen.”
Islamic State remnants in Iraq masterfully slip between the cracks of social and political divisions. A major safe haven is located in the valleys and caves of the Qara Chokh mountains in the north, which are controlled by the Iraqi security forces on one side and the Kurdish peshmerga on the other. In the no man’s land along the dividing line, where neither side patrols, the Islamic State has freedom of movement.
Deep in the Hamrin mountain range, which has long been a sanctuary for Sunni militant groups both established (al Qaeda in Iraq) and emerging (Jaysh Ahrar al-Sunna), the Islamic State is able to “preserve combat power.” It has built a tunnel network, ensconced weapons caches, erected solar panels, and exploited the higher ground. In nearby settlements, converted or coerced villagers leave out food and livestock for the fighters, who move freely at night. The Iraqi Army sometimes combs ungoverned spaces in the Sunni heartlands, but its forces cannot hold them. In an almost cartoonish fashion, the Islamic State actively inflames Sunni fears and frustrations related to the Shiite-dominated government—for example, damaging power lines during heat waves.
Beginning in early October 2019, thousands of young Iraqi demonstrators marched in Baghdad, Basra, and other cities, decrying the corruption and ineptitude of their government and connecting its failures to the coercive control of Iran in Iraq. Live fire from Iran-linked militia members has killed an estimated 400 protesters and injured 19,000 more. Away from the demonstrations themselves, there have been targeted killings of coordinators, medics, and fundraisers, as well as reporters who have covered the protests.
Iraqi Shiite grandees like Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and the firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr appear to have sided with the demonstrators, with Sistani reminding Iraq’s leaders that “the people are the source of power.” Temporarily quietened by the war drums between the United States and Iran, the demonstrations resumed last Friday.
An escalation inside Iraq, between the United States and Iran, would certainly strengthen the hand of Iran-linked Shiite militias, such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah. The further encouragement of these groups would only perpetuate the toxic sectarian environment that served as the political cradle for the Islamic State in Iraq.
These ideological militias would continue the fight against the Islamic State, no doubt, but with a divisive sectarian bent that would only validate the Islamic State’s self-declared role as the protector of Iraq’s Sunnis. The bolstering of Shiite militias would also harden yet another fault line in Baghdad, this time between supporters of the grassroots protest movement and the Iran-linked snipers and thugs leading the violent crackdown against them.
The demands of the youth on the streets of Shiite-dominated Iraqi cities overlap significantly with the grievances prevailing in Iraq’s Sunni areas, which were expressed through a large protest movement in 2013. The government’s militarization of that political crisis created the space in which the Islamic State gained its most consequential foothold in Iraq: As Sunni groups took up arms to defend themselves against government forces, the militant group began moving into the towns of Anbar province. Within weeks, the black flag was flying over parts of Fallujah and Ramadi.
Lurching from one crisis to the next, the Iraqi government has no alternative but to deliver reforms that finally reject sectarian politics. However, with its back to the wall in Iran, the IRGC may double down in Iraq and seek to ramp up the political and military costs of a U.S. presence there. Amid the fallout, the Islamic State would likely surge forward, taking Iraq and the wider region backward to an even darker place.