There may be an “uneasy quiet” in the Middle East, but Iraq has been making some noise Americans should listen to. One justification for the American strike on top Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani was that a Shia militia tied to Iran — Khataib Hezollah — had attacked a U.S. base and killed an American contractor. However, Iraq is now claiming that ISIS was behind that attack.
That’s troubling for two reasons. Either America got its info wrong or Iraq’s Shia-run government is purposefully running cover for a Shia militia and is instead blaming the conduct of Shia militias on Sunni terrorist groups — of which ISIS is the most infamous.
The latter possibility should trouble the American policymakers who say the U.S. needs to stay in Iraq to check Iranian influence. It makes it increasingly possible that America is risking lives and spending resources on a project that has zero strategic value, and doesn’t align with core American interests.
To add insult to injury, Iraqi officials are now in talks with their Russian counterparts in order to deepen Russia’s involvement in Iraqi security. The push for the discussions comes from Iraqi Shiite parties, angry over America’s strike on Shia Iran’s Soleimani. They are looking for a security partner that doesn’t have a bone to pick with Iraq’s neighbor, Iran, and these Iraqi officials tout Russia’s record of taking on Sunni terrorist group ISIS in Syria.
None of this should surprise the experts in official Washington. Iraq is about 30 percent Sunni Muslim, 10 percent Kurdish, and 60 percent Shiite Muslim. Turning Iraq into a democracy inevitably empowered this Shiite majority — who had long suffered under the rule of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni.
It also makes sense that the Middle East’s only Shia power, Iran, would seek to dominate Iraq. Iran is correctly accused of meddling across the Middle East, yet it is less-understood that Iran only meddles in areas where fellow Shias are fighting Sunnis — this includes Yemen, Syria, and even Iraq during the Shia-uprising period. This may be troubling, but Sunni countries, like Saudi Arabia, do the exact same thing on the other side.
Next, apart from religious reasons, the history of conflict between Iraq and Iran dictates that Iran views an Iraq not under its influence as an existential security threat. During the decade long Iran-Iraq war, there were a million casualties, not counting civilian deaths and injuries.
Because of this, Iran will always have more skin in the game. Now, even with America’s lengthy military presence in Iraq, Iran has successfully acquired influence over Iraq. Shia militias with direct links to Iran are allowed to operate in Iraq with a huge degree of autonomy. The two countries also coordinated on the fight against ISIS, and on a host of geopolitical and security issues. Much of this coordination is done in secret, but it’s very much an open secret. Indeed, Iraq’s government has cozier relations with Iran than it does many other Middle Eastern power brokers.
This is why America allocating resources and putting lives at risk to check Iranian influence is a fool’s errand. The U.S. checking Iranian influence requires reversing 1,300 years of religious history, 40 years of geopolitical history, and the will of the Iraqi people.
That said, many Iraqis of all creeds do not wish to see Iran run roughshod over their country. And there has been a growing resistance to overt Iranian influence, even from Shia leaders. Yet instead of empowering this Iraqi nationalism, America’s continued presence may be hampering Iraqi national unity. Where Iraqi people wish Iran wasn’t involved in their affairs, they certainly wish that America was not involved, and American meddling — however well-intentioned — provides an excuse for Iranian meddling.
In other words, America’s overreach and never-ending footprint in Iraq is exacerbating strains in that country. And a fledgling democracy is being deprived of its ability to make hard decisions about national sovereignty, the rights of religious and ethnic minorities, and the relationship it should have with its neighbors.
The solution is for America to withdraw from Iraq. It isn’t our fight. And the ongoing tensions between Shias and Sunnis in Iraq — and across the broader Middle East — has never been our fight, nor has it been in America’s interest to intervene in this millennium-long sectarian struggle. It’s in the best interest of Iraq and America for both countries to forge our own paths.
Willis L Krumholz is a fellow at Defense Priorities. He holds a J.D. and MBA from the University of St. Thomas, and works in the financial services industry.
Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, firstname.lastname@example.org.