September 13, 2018
The U.S. Can Defuse Iraq’s Crisis
Iraq may be on the brink of its biggest crisis since 2006, when a civil war threatened to topple its nascent democratic system. Government formation talks have dragged out as pro- and anti-Iranian factions jockey for influence. Corruption and basic governance failures have triggered mass protests—particularly in Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city and primary oil-export hub. Armed militia factions are mobilizing. Iranian proxies have fired the first shots at the U.S. Embassy since 2014, showing their intent to use force to accomplish political goals. All this raises the prospect of an intra-Shiite civil war.
Such a conflict could lead to the collapse of the Iraqi state and allow Islamic State to re-emerge. It also could allow Tehran to consolidate control over the government in Baghdad while targeting American personnel throughout the country. A weak American statement telling Iran to control its proxies in response to two instances of mortars fired at U.S. facilities shows a lack of seriousness. Washington must act now to manage this crisis and deter further Iranian attacks.
The unfolding crisis results from two processes converging. On the political side, pro-Iranian leaders have tried to form a government that would include Hadi al-Ameri, leader of the Iranian-established and -controlled Badr Corps. The Tehran faction also backs Qais Khazali, a U.S.-designated terrorist who played a role in the murders of American servicemen and who has facilitated the training of Iraqi Shiite militias by Hezbollah. An anti-Iranian coalition that would exclude these Tehran proxies is fraying. American support for Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi enabled him to block Iran’s initial play, but neither side now has enough votes to form a government.
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