US and Iran should stop holding Iraq's political sovereignty hostage

US and Iran should stop holding Iraq's political sovereignty hostage
Comment: Iraqis have been decrying Iranian and US interference in their affairs for many years, it's time they were handed the reins, writes Imad K. Harb.
5 min read
10 Jan, 2020
'The fate of the anti-corruption and pro-democracy protests has been forgotten' writes Harb [AFP]
National sovereignty is an essential element of the contemporary international state system. It is a yardstick by which a state is judged as being in full charge of a national territory, and by which citizens judge their leaders.

But this national sovereignty is quickly lamented, when governments become unable to protect the integrity of the states they govern.

This unfortunately is the case in Iraq, and several other Arab states today. Both the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran have recently committed grave violations of Iraqi sovereignty that follow a long history of their disrespect for that country's territory and independence.

Iraq's sovereignty dilemma

On 2 January, the United States conducted an air raid on Baghdad's international airport that killed the commander of Iran's Quds Force, General Qasem Soleimani, and pro-Iran Kataib Hezbollah commander, Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes. Five others also died in the attack.

In retaliation, Iran launched ballistic missiles at coalition bases where American soldiers in Iraq are stationed. This attack caused no casualties, American or Iraqi, but shows that the Islamic Republic does not consider itself bound by the limitations of Iraq's sovereignty. 

In late December, American aircraft bombed bases of Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq (and Syria), killing two dozen militia members and wounding 50 others. That bombing was in retaliation to rocket attacks the Trump administration accused the Kataib of initiating, that killed an American contractor and injured several US soldiers.

But the events of the last two weeks are only the latest in a history of series of American and Iranian violations of Iraq's sovereignty. Since the calamitous US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iraqi sovereignty has been trampled on repeatedly. More recently, Trump announced that he wanted to keep US troops in Iraq to watch Iran, an announcement that was rejected by Iraq's Prime Minister, Adel Abdul-Mahdi as a violation of sovereignty.

Both the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran have recently committed grave violations of Iraqi sovereignty

Iran, for its part, has cultivated deep and consequential relations with numerous friendly political factions in Iraq. It also helps to fund and arm several powerful Shia militias in the country, as well as in Syria and Lebanon, all of which are practically independent of the countries in which they operate.

The late General Soleimani was de facto commander of said militias. In fact, his status became iconic after he led these militias and others, which coalesced as the Popular Mobilization Units (al-Hashd al-Shaabi), against the Islamic State following its occupation of northern and western Iraq in 2014. 

Recently released Iranian intelligence documents showed the Islamic Republic's pattern of political influence in Iraq, as well as in Syria and Lebanon. Specifically, Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Soleimani's Quds Force appear to be more in charge of relations with these countries than even the Iranian foreign ministry.

Iraq's complaints and American confusion

While this record attests to a serious violations of Iraqi sovereignty by the United States and Iran, it remains clear that said sovereignty has become hostage to political considerations.

To specifically respond to American violations, the Iraqi House of Representatives (HoR) approved a measure on Sunday to end the presence of foreign troops on Iraqi soil following Soleimani's killing. The fact that the measure passed 170-0 (out of a total of 328) with the overwhelming support of Shia members, speaks volumes of its anti-American political nature.

[Click to enlarge]

Sunni and Kurdish parliamentarians boycotted the non-binding vote or abstained. Caretaker premier Abdul-Mahdi is said to be slowly delaying implementation, perhaps after weighing the possible negative repercussions of a complete American withdrawal.

However, Iraq's president, Barham Saleh, HoR speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi, and the prime minister's office condemned Iran's latest ballistic missile attacks on Iraq, considering them violations of Iraqi sovereignty. But a parliamentary vote on Iran's presence or influence in Iraq is unlikely.

The United States currently has some 5,000 soldiers on Iraqi soil. Thousands more have been deployed to Kuwait and it would not be hard to imagine at least some of them dispatched to Iraq, if conditions warrant.

Following the Iraqi parliament's vote, a letter was delivered to Iraqi officials indicating that US troops were preparing to leave the country. Iraq's Abdul-Mahdi certainly understood it that way. But US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper quickly dismissed the idea, claiming that the letter was only a draft and was sent by mistake. Such mixed signals from Washington further muddy the issue of Iraqi sovereignty. 

Trump and his administration are clearly not on the same page. When discussing Iraq's demand for a US withdrawal, President Trump reiterated his desire to bring the troops home, but said now is not the time. He has even threatened to impose sanctions on Iraq, or make Baghdad pay for construction costs of bases where American troops are stationed.

What could restore Iraq's sovereignty?

It is hardly news that Iraqi sovereignty has been gravely violated, and repeatedly, by the United States and Iran. But in the current debate and uncertainty about it, what has been forgotten is the fate of the anti-corruption and pro-democracy protests that broke out in the country last October.

To be sure, those Iraqis who joined the demonstrations for a better life also decried Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs. Their defiance was best illustrated by their burning of the Iranian consulate in the holy city of Najaf.

Iraqis' protests for the restoration of national dignity are also the way to build the modern non-sectarian state

It is those demonstrations for civil rights, democratic freedoms, and ending official corruption that are the best guarantee for the Iraqi people's sovereignty over their own country.

Iraqis' protests for the restoration of national dignity are also the way to build the modern non-sectarian state that defends Iraq's sovereignty.

Conflicts between the United States and Iran on Iraqi soil are arguably side shows that deflect attention from that noble mission. Iraqis should not be made to forget about building their just society and state, while Washington and Tehran look out for their own national interests in Iraq.

Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC.

Join the conversation: @The_NewArab

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab.