An opportunity for Iraq, the US and the region
The United States and its allies face a dilemma and an opportunity in Iraq. The October 2022 general election produced a victor Muqtada al-Sadr, the traditionally anti-Western cleric who leads Iraq’s most powerful socio-political movement and one of its most dominant armed groups. Sadr has long been at odds with the West. Its militia, the Peace Brigades, fought American and British forces during the occupation of Iraq, and its fighters were involved in widespread atrocities.
But the cleric also has historical differences with the Iranian regime and is embroiled in ongoing violent rivalries with several militia groups that Tehran controls or is closely associated with. Since his victory, Sadr has made a vigorous push to form a majority government that excludes Iran-backed militias and their political supporters, a bold and unprecedented move that has met with significant opposition. These are strange times in Iraq. Sadr, who has a supporter base of some 2-3 million mostly destitute Iraqis, represents one side of a country long shackled by militias and radical Shia Islamist groups. The other side of the country is represented by a burgeoning civil society movement yearning for good governance and reform.
Sadr’s win presents less than ideal circumstances. But his triumph — combined with the electoral demise of Iran-allied militias and the alliance Sadr has forged with moderate US and Western-leaning political actors like the Kurds to form a majority government — suggests that the US may have a historical past have an opportunity to support and capitalize on a credible intersectional alliance. Such a partnership could reduce the space in which extremist militias thrive, bridge the gap between Iraq and the Arab world, and, in the long term, restore Iraqi state authority.
The enemy of my enemy
Sadr is by no means a natural US ally. His organization is involved in a catalog of brutalities, including sectarian violence against Sunni Arabs and the repression of activists. US estimates suggest that the Shia militias, which operated within and later left the once highly decentralized Sadrist movement, were responsible for the killing of 600 American associates. The most prominent commanders responsible for these deaths fell out with Sadr and formed their own factions after splitting from the movement with Iranian encouragement and support.
Both the Sadrists and Iran-allied militias operate under an ideological perspective underscored by Shia supremacy and the fight against Western imperialism. Both have spoken out against the presence of US troops in Iraq. But there are key differentiators that set Sadr apart from his rivals, and these are important to Iraq’s development and its relationship with the West.
First, Sadr and other powerful figures such as Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani are actively seeking to restore Iraqi state authority over a certain group of Iranian-backed militias involved in ongoing attacks on US and Iraqi forces at missile- and drone strikes on civilian targets in the Kurdistan Region. These militias continue to commit widespread atrocities against Iraqi civilians.
Sadr sees it as imperative that such groups be excluded or contained by the next government. The future of the Sadrist movement depends on preventing Iranian-aligned militias from extending their tentacles inside the state as part of the Popular Mobilization Force (PMF), the umbrella militia organization that controls these groups and has a budget of $2 billion dollars monitored. Iran’s proxies may have stumbled in previous elections, but these are groups whose young leaders and cadres are poised to mature politically. Sadr does not have an unlimited window of time.
Even the clergy’s own militias have yet to submit to state authority, posing long-term challenges. But the nature, scale, and scale of Iranian proxies’ daily attacks make their dominance a more immediate threat and containment an urgent priority beyond Iraq’s broader efforts to reform its security sector, a process aided by political containment dignity of the PMF.
Second, militias allied to Iran have struggled to make the transition from insurgents to viable social movements, not least because of their complicity in systemic human rights abuses and their deference to Iran. Iran-backed militias are the only political actors using missile and drone strikes to influence and pressure their rivals, using these measures as negotiating tactics. By excluding the Iran-backed PMF from the parameters of the Iraqi state, Sadr can break the political cover the group relies on to carry out attacks with impunity. This will add to the woes of an organization that has already lost public support.
Passed the political litmus test
The West has its own track record of working with its enemies in Iraq and elsewhere, including members of the Sunni insurgents who turned to the US for support and were instrumental in the defeat of al-Qaeda in Iraq as part of the US-founded revivalist movement were involved in 2007. The West does not have to cooperate with Sadr. But it should recognize its primacy as a political reality and find ways to strengthen its alliance, which is the lesser of two evils.
It should not be taken lightly that Sadr has partnered with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the ruling Kurdistan party led by Masoud Barzani, the former President of Kurdistan who led the Kurds’ historic push for independence in 2017. Sadr’s alliance with Barzani will not have been well-liked by his Shia support base, which has derided Kurdistan’s quest for independence and echoed Sadr’s earlier toxic ethnosectarian discourse on the Kurds. Similarly, Mohammed al-halbousi, the newly elected speaker of Iraq’s parliament who completes Sadr’s tripartite alliance with Barzani, has emerged as a champion of the Arab Sunnis and is popular in the Arabian Gulf and Turkey, both of which have come under ridicule within the broader Shia community.
In other words, Sadr passed the litmus test. Western observers should keep his actions – such as his alliance with the Kurds and Halbousi – in mind when deciding whether and how to take his electoral success into account. If Sadr can forge such an alliance with unconventional bedfellows, then so can the US forge a cross-sectarian, historic, and regionally-backed alliance that includes some of the West’s most ardent allies.
How the US can help
Iran and the PMF are doing their utmost to derail the tripartite alliance, launching missile and drone strikes on Erbil (the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan), assassinating rivals and exploiting divisions among the Kurds to impose a coalition government in Baghdad who does his bidding. In order to put economic pressure on Kurdistan, Baghdad’s Supreme Court, under pressure from Iran, recently ruled that Kurdish oil exports are illegal. However, the timing of the verdict and the fact that the court has no constitutional standing have rendered its verdict dubious and politically motivated.
The court’s ruling hasn’t stopped regional actors from forging closer ties with Erbil either, and they continue to support Sadr’s alliance. This has been particularly illustrated by Kurdistan Prime Minister Masrour Barzani’s energy-related visits to Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar since the February verdict. Iran’s decision to launch missile attacks on Erbil shows the desperate situation Tehran finds itself in, but it also shows the vulnerability of America’s allies. This should encourage Washington to work to maintain the momentum generated by Barzani’s regional reach as well as Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi’s attempts to put Iraq in the orbit of the Arab world.
Like Baghdad, the Kurdistan Region must continue to reform its security sector so that it can fight Iran’s proxies. But the US must also stop being a spectator of Iran’s coercive tactics and find direct ways to ensure that the Sadr-Barzani-halbousi political roadmap bears fruit. The alliance may give in to calls for a government that includes Iran’s allies, but it can still act as a buffer against these groups within government and parliament.
However, Washington’s attempts to mobilize its allies in Iraq and the region will be moot if Iran puts a gun to their heads. Tehran has been able to ensure that political infighting, such as Kurdish divisions over the Iraqi presidency, will have a disproportionate impact on the Sadr-led coalition’s ability to break the post-election deadlock in Iraq. Washington should consider appropriate retaliatory military responses to Tehran’s attacks on Erbil and consider providing Kurdistan with comprehensive air defense systems, a move welcomed in the Arab world that could be based on the vulnerability of US personnel and strategic interests in Erbil.
It is now recognized across the region that both Sadr’s determination to exclude Iran and his proxies from the next Iraqi government, and the alliance itself, present a unique opportunity to nullify their political reach in ways unimaginable in the past was. The Iraqis will have to do the heavy lifting. But there is a way for the US to empower an alliance that could be Baghdad’s least-worst option for dealing with the proxy Iranian threat and achieving some degree of stability in Iraq.