The MED This Week newsletter provides expert analysis and informed insights on the most significant developments in the MENA region, bringing together unique opinions on the topic and reliable foresight on future scenarios. Today, we focus on Iraq, where both US and Iraqi paramilitary groups’ attacks are on the rise, while Prime Minister al-Kadhimi's visit to Europe could pave the way for an enhancement of NATO’s engagement in the country.
In early July, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi embarked on a European tour to strengthen Baghdad's cooperation with some of its main allies in the West. Along with Belgian and EU authorities (such as the President of the EU Commission, Ursula von der Leyen), al-Kadhimi met with the NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Brussels. During the conference, the Iraqi Prime Minister asked for a prompt expansion and diversification of NATO's role in Iraq. While NATO has already committed to increasing its personnel to 4,000, Baghdad seeks to expand this cooperation through a purely non-combat, training, and advisory mission to enhance Iraqi security forces' resilience in counter-terrorism operations. Al-Kadhimi's requests come at a precarious moment for Iraq's domestic security context. Today, Iraq is still struggling with the persistent threat posed by the Islamic State (IS), widespread power outages, and the growing confrontation between American and Iranian-aligned forces. Since the beginning of 2021, over 40 attacks have been carried out against US personnel in Iraq, where 2,500 US soldiers are still deployed as part of a global coalition to fight IS' dormant cells. On June 28th, the US Air Force conducted retaliatory raids on pro-Iranian militias' facilities along the Syrian-Iraqi border, causing complaints by Iraqi authorities and escalating the risk of tit-for-tat attacks by Iranian-supported militias in Iraq. At a time when US military presence in Iraq is shifting, NATO's support is becoming pivotal to provide ISF the help they need. At the same time, this cooperation would also open a new window of opportunity for European countries, including Italy, who will lead the NATO Military mission in Iraq (NMI) from next May.
Experts from the ISPI MED network react to Iraq's domestic turmoil after PM al-Kadhimi's visit in Europe.
A long-term strategy is needed to de-escalate and halt attacks in Iraq
“The recent US strikes on Iraq-Syria border have rallied key Iraq’s Shiite political forces behind the ‘Axis of resistance’ in calling for the withdrawal of US forces, deepened tensions between the government and paramilitaries and offered reasons for these groups to launch more attacks in retaliation. Attacks are likely to increase, driven by domestic and regional motives. While conducted by Iraqi groups, attacks also help Iran apply pressure on the US to speed up sanctions’ relief and project power against regional competitors. For their part, Iraqi paramilitary groups seek a new role in the Iraqi landscape after the defeat of the Islamic State. Attacks help their commanders boost credibility in front of their members and reassert hierarchies after the death of their leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. In the coming months, Biden may have to alternate military responses with a long-term strategy to de-escalate and reach a sustainable halt on attacks. Responding with a confrontational approach may backfire. It offers these groups and their commanders’ roles and reasons to double down on attacks, exposes the weaknesses of the Iraqi government, and forces the Biden administration into military interventions at a time when it wishes to pivot away from the Middle East.”
Maria Fantappie, Special Adviser for the Middle East and North Africa region, Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD)
American strikes could further strain the already limited Iraqi trust
“The Biden administration’s recent attack against Iranian-backed paramilitary groups in Iraq and Syria shows a continuation of the Trump-era policies. In February, the US launched airstrikes against Iraqi paramilitary groups in Syria, which was interpreted as a departure from the Trump administration’s blatantly infringing upon Iraqi sovereignty policy. However, the most recent airstrikes show that this was short-lived and, from the perspective of the Iraqi government, could not have come at a worst time: Baghdad was hosting a tripartite summit with Jordan and Egypt as the airstrikes took place. US presence in the country is already quite limited at 2500 troops. Still, these airstrikes and American decisions in Afghanistan will likely strain whatever trust the Iraqis have left towards their ally.”
Marsin Alshamary, Post-doctoral Research Fellow, Foreign Policy Program, The Brookings Institution
Not only a local dilemma
“Ongoing escalation between the US and Iran-allied Iraqi paramilitaries can have a knock-on effect on the Vienna talks if the US and European partners see this militia escalation as a supplement for Iran’s hard-line position in those talks. The attacks in Iraq would also help Iran increase its bargaining power in talks with Riyadh. While Gulf Arab countries could potentially reject talks with Iran in light of the posture Iraqi groups are taking — posing a mounting threat to those capitals — US military retrenchment is pushing them to accept talks despite unfavourable circumstances. But as the escalation increases, it remains critical whether Baghdad will continue to be perceived by Gulf interlocutors as a secure venue for talks.”
Tamer Badawi, Analyst, CARPO; and Al-Sharq Institute
A new window of opportunities for the NATO mission in Iraq
“Iraq is considering further developing its cooperation with NATO by increasing training and logistical support operations while reducing international combat forces. This approach will guarantee ISF the skills required to improve professionalism and efficiency by providing them with the appropriate equipment. Since February, NATO plans to increase the number of personnel stationed in Iraq (up to 4,000), with the explicit intention of carrying out actions to combat the threat posed by Daesh with greater commitment. Nevertheless, this expansion must be carried out on the basis of Iraqi security priorities and the government's interests to ensure the stability of the country and the region. At the same time, the Iraqi delegation's visit to Rome confirms the increasing role Italy is taking on in the context of the Iraqi situation. Rome is thus preparing to enhance its presence in the country by assuming command of the Atlantic Alliance’s mission in Iraq from next May.”
Europe needs to put Iraq at the center of its Middle East policy
“Iraq plays a critical role as far as the security of the wider Middle East is concerned: as such, there is an urgent need for Europe to put Iraq at the centre of its Middle East policy. A key first step is to hold a comprehensive dialogue on Iraq with the Biden administration as the United States has begun to reduce its commitments in the country. On security matters, an expanded role for NATO should be considered. On the political and economic front, Europe and the EU should take a leading role in terms of reconstruction, reconciliation, dialogue mechanisms, economic recovery, and social stability. Europe simply cannot continue to rely on others to stabilize the region.”
Christian Koch, Director of Research, Gulf Research Center (GRC)