Social Navigation

Iraq’s delicate balancing act with Iran and the US


Baghdad-With the Gaza war threatening to spiral into a wider Middle East conflict, Secretary of State Antony Blinken earlier this month paid an unannounced visit to Baghdad, where he met with Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed al-Sudani. Mr. Sudani faces the delicate task of balancing his country’s ties between America and Iran and stopping Iran-aligned militias from attacking U.S. military and diplomatic personnel in Iraq.

The war in Gaza has inflamed Iraq, but sentiments are more nuanced than the country’s sectarian divisions might suggest. Shiite militias have grown in power and strength since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and the later fight against Islamic State. Though most receive financial and military backing from Iran, they are an integral part of Mr. Sudani’s government. But Iraq’s Shiite militias are privately resentful of Hamas for risking a regional conflict that could threaten their grip on power. Iraq’s militias are also weary of Iran’s tendency to encourage them to strike at the U.S., for which they will be the targets of retaliation.

Alongside this, Iraq’s elected leaders struggle to satisfy an electorate genuinely outraged by Palestinian casualties while maintaining diplomatic relations with the U.S. in the Iraqi national interest. Iraq’s security and economic survival depend on its U.S. ties.

Some of Iraq’s Shiite militias have intensified their attacks on America’s presence in Iraq. They have claimed responsibility for a series of rocket and drone strikes on U.S. military facilities since the Gaza war began. –

Not all these militias, however, are eager for a full-scale confrontation with Washington, and even less so on behalf of Hamas, a Sunni Islamist group. Officials and militias more in line with Mr. Sudani’s position would rather tap into Iraq’s $153 billion annual budget, expand their networks of cronies and supporters, and entrench their power. In reality, they have little sympathy for the Palestinian cause, which they associate with Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein, who persecuted Shiite dissent at home while supporting the families of Palestinian suicide bombers. Since the 2003 invasion, the number of Palestinian refugees in Iraq has dropped from about 34,000 to fewer than 10,000 because of attacks and persecution by militias.

Mr. Sudani, who has the backing of most of the militias, wants to avoid having his country used as a geopolitical chessboard—or as an expendable pawn on someone else’s. The Iraqi prime minister has warned Shiite militants not to attack U.S. personnel or interests, saying that such actions harm Iraq’s national interests and sovereignty. After meeting with Mr. Blinken, Mr. Sudani flew to Tehran for talks with Iranian officials.

It isn’t clear whether Mr. Sudani can maintain this balancing act and prevent the militias from escalating the situation. The few militias that are not part of the Iraqi government have launched more than 40 attacks on U.S. targets in Iraq since Oct. 17, but none of them have resulted in American casualties. Baghdad has said that it has acted on intelligence to thwart even more strikes. The U.S. has refrained from retaliating on Iraqi soil but has warned that it reserves the right to retaliate. The U.S. on Oct. 22 reduced the staff at its embassy and consulate in Iraq and beefed up its air defenses.

Iraq’s nightmare is a full-scale war between the U.S. and Iran on its territory in which Baghdad is a powerless observer. This isn’t merely hypothetical. As recently as 2019, when a militia rocket killed an American contractor in Iraq, the U.S. and Iran began a cycle of retaliatory strikes that culminated in the assassination of Iran’s top general, Qasem Soleimani, in Baghdad and a barrage of Iranian missiles on U.S. bases in Iraq. The U.S.-Iraq relationship was pushed to the brink of rupture, which was averted only by exceptional diplomacy.

Public opinion also adds an unpredictable element to Iraqi calculations. Many in Iraq privately say they felt repugnance for Hamas’s brutal Oct. 7 assault on Israel, the tactics of which reminded people of the Islamic State. But this sympathy is now increasingly overwhelmed by anger about Palestinian civilian casualties, which are omnipresent on TV screens and social-media feeds. America’s backing of Israel in turn affords irresistible opportunities for populist figures like Muqtada al-Sadr to rail against the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq.

Despite this, Iraqi leaders know that America’s military footprint in Iraq safeguards rather than undermines Baghdad’s fragile sovereignty. Continued militia attacks could easily tip this delicate balance, however. For Washington, the question is how to bolster Iraq’s emerging pragmatism while preventing the militias from becoming more entangled in the Iraqi government. The militias have avoided direct clashes with American forces, but they remain a threat to U.S. interests in Iraq.

To deter Iran and Iraqi militias, the U.S. needs to broaden its outreach to include the Iraqi Parliament, the Kurdistan Regional Government and other key players. It also needs to resist the temptation to try to wield Iraq as a cudgel against Iran. America’s long game should be to empower the Iraqi state and its institutions and avoid turning Iraq into a battlefield in a broader regional war.

Mr. Wahab is a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Joanna Swanson

Joanna Swanson is Europe correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Brussels covering politics, culture, business, climate change, society, economies and inclusive tech. With specific focus in breaking news, she has covered some of the world's most significant stories.