Online Commentary

January 21, 2020

Protecting Iraq’s Sovereignty amid Geopolitical Tensions around Iran

The US airstrike that killed the commander of Iran’s Qods Force, Qassem Soleimani, as well as the chief of staff of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, is an act of aggression that lacks legitimacy and further undermines Iraq’s fragile sovereignty. Because the assassination also negatively impacts the prospects of reform-oriented protests, it paradoxically plays into the hands of the very pro-Iranian hardliners inside Iraq, which the Trump administration seeks to weaken.

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Bild: A Houthi militant stands by a billboard with posters of Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani during a rally by Houthi supporters to denounce the U.S. killing of both commanders, in Sanaa, Yemen January 6, 2020
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International audiences should keep in mind that any further escalation between the US and Iran will have a human cost paid, first and foremost, by Iraqi civilians caught in the middle of the conflict. Baghdad’s partners in the European Union should be especially mindful to avoid becoming accomplices in the geopolitical outbidding for power in the Middle East, which currently appears to overshadow the reform-driven agenda of a revolutionary protest movement.

Despite being neglected in the coverage of the airstrike against Soleimani by international media, the assassination of al-Muhandis (“the engineer”), the nom de guerre under which Jamal Jaafar Ibrahimi was more widely known, has far graver implications for Iraq. It is yet unclear whether the elimination of Al-Muhandis was a calculated move or collateral damage. Either way, it – along with previous attacks on PMU weapon depots, which were framed as preemptive measures against a terror network of Iranian-sponsored militias – was an unprecedented act of aggression by the US against a state-sanctioned organ of Iraq’s defense infrastructure.

Both the killing of Al-Muhandis and the airstrikes against the PMU are, according to the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC), attacks on an “integral” component of Iraq’s security sector – albeit a controversial one. Article 43 of the Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions (API) postulates that a nation’s military is comprised of “all organized armed forces, groups, and units, which are under a command responsible to that Party for the conduct of its subordinates. ¼ Such armed forces shall be subject to an internal disciplinary system which, inter alia, shall enforce compliance with the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict.” Because Iraq is party to the API, its executive branch will be encouraged to challenge the emboldened campaign orchestrated by the US that targets what has been endorsed by law as a state security agency.

Moreover, despite the fact that PMU’s popularity was compromised following reported involvement in the violent crackdown of peaceful protests, their chief of staff had maintained a level of battlefield legitimacy earned by fighting against the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS). Already perceived by many as the chief architect of Iraq’s PMU, Al-Muhandis has now been given what all prominent resistance fighters crave by President Donald Trump – a heroic death at the hands of a “foreign occupier.”

As to the killing of Soleimani, Iraqi leaders have, so far, strongly rejected any attempts to be weaponized in the escalating confrontation between the US and Iran. The Strategic Framework Agreement the US negotiated with Iraq in 2008 postulates that “the United States shall not use Iraqi land, sea, and air as a launching or transit point for attacks against other countries; nor seek or request permanent bases or a permanent military presence in Iraq.” This agreement, therefore, even forbids the US military to exploit its leverage to “watch” Iran as had been suggested by President Trump in February 2019, not to mention execute its Major General, who had been labelled “shadowy” by the likes of the US and Israel.

Such blunt scapegoating of Iraqi sovereignty feeds perfectly into the resistance narrative of the Iran-leaning spectrum in Iraqi politics. On January 4, 2020, Iraqis marched to Baghdad’s green zone to honor the martyrdom of Soleimani and his loyal soldiers and bid them farewell in an elaborately staged funeral procession. There, the chants of Iraq’s nationalist protest movement “Iran barra barra” (meaning Iran out) were, however, drowned out by cries of “death to America.” Ironically, the blood spilt may, at least temporarily, quash the hopes of the anti-Iranian demonstrators for reform and sovereignty. While the Iraqi government had long struggled to rally support for the Strategic Framework Agreement, its violation by the US played into the hands of those who, while denouncing it, advocated for expelling US troops from Iraq. Indeed, the vote by Iraqi parliament to oust all foreign troops from the country demonstrates how President Trump’s short-sighted retaliatory measures are bound to further cement the symbolic and institutional leverage of pro-Iran figures in the country.

Regardless of the current de-escalation, the stakeholders are still sitting on a powder keg. Rather than rolling back on its engagement, the European Union should – as signaled by EU Ambassador to Iraq Martin Huth – remain committed to shielding Iraq from long-simmering geopolitical tensions. Especially in view of the latest threats by the Trump administration to shut down Iraq’s access to its central account at the Federal Reserve Bank, an EU approach of maximum advocacy can present compelling arguments against plunging the fragile country into an even more severe economic crisis.