BAGHDAD — Iraq, now and always, sits on the fault line between Iran and the Arab world. Its current leader, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, wants a diverse, democratic Iraq to act as a bridge. It is a noble vision, but right now it’s a perilous one.
Kadhimi spoke in his stylish office in a building that is a modern recreation of the ancient tower of Ziggurat. Around him was a Baghdad that looked almost normal, as the April heat began to make the city sizzle. The 2003 U.S. invasion that shattered Iraq’s stability, but also brought democracy, seemed far distant.
Kadhimi wants continued U.S. support, including a small non-combat military presence, to help stabilize his nation. “We truly believe in our relationship with the United States, as a country that helped us get rid of dictatorship and also … advance our democratic system,” he argued. It is hard to find a leader in the Middle East these days who is so unabashedly pro-American.
But at Ain al-Asad air base, in the white desert sands about 100 miles northwest of Baghdad, you can see how vulnerable Iraq’s balance remains. In the early morning on April 8, three days before I visited there, an Iranian-made Shahed-131 drone was shot down as it entered the U.S. zone of the base.
Packed with shrapnel and a carrying a powerful shaped charge in its cone, the drone could have killed or wounded many Americans. It was fired by one of the Iranian-backed militias here; it targeted the American presence and, indirectly, the U.S. alliance with Kadhimi and other Iraqis who oppose Iranian meddling. The next time, one of those drones may hit its target.
U.S. Army Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla met with Kadhimi — and also visited the al-Asad attack site — during a visit to Iraq last weekend on which I accompanied him. It was Kurilla’s first stop in the region since becoming the new head of U.S. Central Command (Centcom), which oversees U.S. military forces in the region. Kurilla said he was impressed by Kadhimi’s eagerness to work with the United States. But what interested him most was talking with the troops at al-Asad who shot down the Iranian drone — and hearing how they operated their weapons systems and what they need.
As Kurilla begins his command, he is examining the essential puzzle for Centcom: What are the core missions that can advance U.S. interests in the region, even as the United States’ overall troop presence shrinks? Kurilla, who was badly wounded in Mosul in 2005, knows better than most the huge costs of the past two decades of “endless wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan. He also knows that this region remains the place where U.S. troops come under regular fire.
Iraq, at the pivot point between Iran and the Arabs, remains the most tantalizing but also most frustrating challenge in the region. It’s big and fertile, blessed with energy and other resources, with a dynamic but volatile population mix of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. In Kadhimi, Iraq has a leader who is strongly backed by moderate Arab nations such as Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, but also talks with Iran.
The problem for Kadhimi and his American friends is that, for now, Iraq remains enfeebled by corruption, political feuding and Iranian interference. Iraqis want a strong, well-managed state; the pro-Iranian political parties did badly in last October’s elections. On paper, there’s a parliamentary majority now for a coalition of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds to organize a new government, perhaps with Kadhimi remaining as prime minister.
But forming a government has been impossible so far. Pro-Iranian militants, who tried to assassinate Kadhimi last year and denounce him as a tool of the United States, claim the election was stolen. Meanwhile, Kurdistan’s leader, Masrour Barzani, is opposing a new term for President Barham Salih, a fellow Kurd but a political enemy. It’s a maddening impasse. Until a new government is formed, Kadhimi remains in power — but relatively powerless.
Iraqi corruption and Iranian manipulation reinforce one another. When he became prime minister in 2020, Kadhimi tried to clean house by appointing Iraq’s toughest cop, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Abu Ragheef, to run a crime commission to pursue militia killings and corruption. But under Iranian pressure, an Iraqi court last month ordered Abu Ragheef’s arrest. Kadhimi refused to carry out the warrant, but it is a depressing spectacle.
The situation could get worse if nuclear talks between the United States and Iran collapse, leaving Kadhimi precariously in the middle. If the talks fall apart, “Iraq is likely to be a casualty,” warned a U.S. official.
When I asked Kadhimi what his agenda would be if he gets a new mandate as prime minister, he immediately answered, “consolidating Iraq’s sovereignty,” so it can resist outside attempts to manipulate the country. His second goal is to “establish state monopoly on weapons,” which I translated as disarming the militias. He went on to discuss economic reform and privatization.
These are the right goals, and I hope Kadhimi can pull it off. But he will need help. That brings us back to the United States, which has been at once Iraq’s best and worst friend in recent decades.
Iraqis worry that U.S. interest and power in the Middle East are waning. One Iraqi quoted for me the admonition of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak: If you are a friend of the United States, you sleep without a blanket. If the Iran nuclear talks blow up, it’s going to get chilly out here.
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