2020 in Iraq: What Happens Now?

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Last night, at around 10:30 PM GMT, reports began to filter out of Baghdad that a series of explosions had rocked the vicinity of Baghdad International Airport (BIAP), with the initial cause unknown but attributed to a salvo of Katyusha rockets launched at the airport.1.https://twitter.com/ragipsoylu/status/1212860544039968771 Conflicting reports stated that the rockets had been shot down, that they had hit a joint US-IQ military base, and that aircraft were in the air over BIAP for unknown reasons.2.https://twitter.com/ragipsoylu/status/1212862079473979397 Some reports began claiming that unidentified aircraft had struck two vehicles moving away from BIAP, their occupants unknown. The truth of the night’s events would slowly come out over the following three hours, with the final reports confirming that a US airstrike on the “Tariq al-Matar” – the Airport Highway leading into Baghdad – had resulted in the deaths of prominent Hash’d al-Shaabi leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ top commander, Qassem Soleimani.3.Statement by the US Department of Defense. 

There is nobody on earth who knows, at this time, how this will play out. However, there are a few conjectures on the consequences for Iraq and Syria that can be made at this time. With the death of both Soleimani and Muhandis and the killing of several other prominent Hash’d al-Shaabi leaders in recent strikes prior to the end of 2019, the situation on the ground has radically shifted. But what might we expect to see in the coming weeks on the ground in Iraq, in the wake of such a drastic incident? 

While there is no official word on how the strike played out or how the US knew about Soleimani’s presence, it is more than likely that intelligence was shared between the US DoD, the US Marine Corps CENTCOM, other US military command and control structures in the region, and the Iraqi MoD. The likelihood that the Iraqi MoD provided information on Soleimani’s whereabouts to US command is high, suggesting that the MoD’s official stance came to regard Soleimani as a direct threat, or at the very least a possible contingency that could no longer be ignored. The relationship between US military command structures and the Iraqi MoD has been at times unstable but always consistent, and the recent conflict with the Islamic State has helped to cement parts of that relationship.4.Knights, Michael. “The Long Haul: Rebooting U.S. Security Cooperation in Iraq”, published by The Washington Institute for Near East Policy (2015) While the MoD released an official statement mourning the death of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and praising his contributions to the fight against IS, the statement made no mention of Soleimani and made zero effort to condemn the attack or the attackers, suggesting that the relatively defanged public response is masking the MoD’s real stance.5.Iraqi MoD statement from official Twitter spokesperson. If this is the case, it suggests that the powers that be in Baghdad will remain nominally friendly and continue to act as an auxiliary to American and Coalition forces, even if this relationship is not particularly publicised. 

However, the reaction of the Iraqi Council of Representatives will definitely be far more harsh, and drastic actions may be taken if parliamentary blocs are willing to pull together to pass legislation in response to the incident. The past three months have rocked Iraq, with the massive protests in Baghdad and other major cities, coupled with the recent escalation of tensions between the US and Iran producing a situation in which drastic legislation may be easier to pass. Firstly, the Prime Minister’s announcement after the incident today leaves no doubt that he has chosen a publicly pro-Iranian stance, in contrast to the more muted reaction of the MoD.6.PM Adel Abdul-Mahdi’s official statement on the strike. Additionally, it is certain that the Binaa coalition, which includes the Hadi al-Amiri led “Fatah Alliance”, will attempt to undermine every US institution in Iraq.7.Conclusion drawn from a history of Fatah MP voting patterns and the attitudes displayed on their official site, linked here. The Fatah Alliance was originally founded by a coalition of pro-Iran Hash’d al-Shaabi leaders, encompassing the administrations of all major Hash’d military groups, and has been consistently anti-American and pro-Iranian in their public stance.8.“Hashd commander from Badr organization to form new alliance for Iraqi election” : Rudaw Their MPs will attempt to forcibly evict military garrisons, shut down contract opportunities with American companies, and endlessly condemn the strikes while decrying the troubled history of American intervention in Iraq.9.https://twitter.com/HalaJaber/status/1213090155797647360 Whether or not other parties that have played ball with Fatah in the past, such as Nouri al-Maliki’s “State of Law” or the powerful Sayiroon bloc, will work with Fatah or isolate them in their attempts remains to be seen. For men like Muqtada al-Sadr, who heads the powerful Sayiroon, this incident is a potentially career-defining event. Their reactions will determine how domestic actors perceive them for years to come.

The aftermath of the strikes: one of two vehicles destroyed on the Tariq al-Matar leading out of BIAP.

The most belligerent of the Hash’d al-Shaabi outfits – Kataib Hezbollah, Asaib ahl al-Haq, Harakat al-Nujaba, Katibat Jund al-Imam – will likely be encouraged to take action by the audacious strike, but their imminent reaction is being overstated by some analysts. There will almost certainly be an intensification of the campaign of rocket attacks on US military bases across the country, and the geographic scope of the campaign will broaden – no US military infrastructure will be spared targeting. There will possibly be more aggressive attacks on US military infrastructure, but only if opportunities present themselves – and the likelihood of these attacks being successful are minimal, suggesting that more direct confrontation is unlikely (but still possible). A broader conventional war is wholly unlikely, to the point of being an absurd concept to broach. Both Iran and the Hash’d are aware of their limitations and the risks that come with a conventional conflict, and will seek other means of exacting retribution and evening the playing field.

Given the likelihood that Iraqi military intelligence was involved in these strikes, there may be a general direction of anger from the Hash’d and their supporters towards the military and government establishments. Already emboldened by their attack on the US Embassy on the 31st of December, Hash’d forces will be painting targets on the backs of both American and Iraqi personnel, and Iraqi military officers and civil personnel will be among the foremost targets for kidnappings, assaults, and killings. While combat actions between Iraqi military forces and Hash’d units are unlikely, they are possible – a dangerous situation for Iraqis caught in the middle. However, there is limited interest among most Hash’d leadership in escalating attacks against Iraqi forces when there are still American military units to be presented as targets.

It should also be emphasised that the general opinion of the Hash’d rank and file, the riflemen and support troops who make up the bulk of the force, is that shedding the blood of fellow Iraqis is counter-intuitive. A sense of brotherhood between organised Iraqi military units and Hash’d factions exists in part because of bonds forged on the battlefield during the conventional conflict against the Islamic State in recent years, but also because of a general sense of Iraqi national identity. That is not to say that there will be unbreakable peace between the Hash’d and the federal military command; there are certainly those eager to draw the blood of anyone they perceive as being “collaborators” with their ultimate enemy, that being the United States. Iraqi soldiers and government personnel are no exception, and their status as collaborators will encourage some Hash’d outfits to attack or take more subtle violent actions. Among Iraqi military cordons, too, there is some sense that the militias need to be put in their place and have their violence kept in check – particularly as there are some who are publicly aggrieved over how the militias have violently repressed recent protest movements.10.https://twitter.com/RashaAlAqeedi/status/1213005499915997184 However, there is very little interest among the Hash’d in engaging in all-out warfare with the federal military – such an idea feels sour to most.

Regardless, the escalation of violence will likely leave hundreds dead in the coming weeks – a grim reminder of the consequences of such drastic actions. Iraqis across the country are rightfully worried about what the coming days will bring, and what might come to their doorstep in the near future. Soleimani’s death is one of the most prominent regional events of the last ten years, marking the start of a new decade where there will likely be more questions than answers, and the fallout from his killing will be felt for years to come – in Iraq, and elsewhere.

Trent Schoenborn

Trent is an analyst and contributor who has worked with the IR since its inception. He specializes in Iraqi politics and the civil war in Syria, and has been studying the latter conflict since it began. He has previously worked on Syrian Civil War Map as well as some academic research projects related to the region. He can be contacted directly at tschoenborn.00@gmail.com.

References   [ + ]

1. https://twitter.com/ragipsoylu/status/1212860544039968771
2. https://twitter.com/ragipsoylu/status/1212862079473979397
3. Statement by the US Department of Defense.
4. Knights, Michael. “The Long Haul: Rebooting U.S. Security Cooperation in Iraq”, published by The Washington Institute for Near East Policy (2015)
5. Iraqi MoD statement from official Twitter spokesperson.
6. PM Adel Abdul-Mahdi’s official statement on the strike.
7. Conclusion drawn from a history of Fatah MP voting patterns and the attitudes displayed on their official site, linked here.
8. “Hashd commander from Badr organization to form new alliance for Iraqi election” : Rudaw
9. https://twitter.com/HalaJaber/status/1213090155797647360
10. https://twitter.com/RashaAlAqeedi/status/1213005499915997184