A series of seismic systemic shocks has rocked Iraq in recent months. Fragile internal cohesion was severely disrupted by a series of demonstrations in the final months of 2019, with young protesters denouncing corruption, unemployment, state dysfunction, and, increasingly, undue influence by Iran and its client militias. An ensuing crackdown by security forces and pro-Iranian elements of the Popular Mobilization Forces left hundreds of people dead and thousands injured. Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi resigned, leaving the country without a stable government or national consensus.
Perhaps even worse, Iraq has been increasingly dragged into the confrontation between the United States and Iran. A series of rocket attacks attributed to one of the largest pro-Iranian militia groups, Kataib Hezbollah, killed a U.S. contractor and two Iraqi police officers and injured four servicemen. U.S. strikes in response killed at least 24 Kataib Hezbollah militia members, prompting supporters of the group to besiege the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on December 31. Although that confrontation ended without loss of life, a U.S. drone strike on January 3 killed senior Iranian commander Major General Qassim Suleimani and Kataib Hezbollah leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, leading to angry vows of revenge from Iran and widespread calls in Iraq for the removal of all U.S. military forces from the country.
How can Iraq avoid being further dragged into the intensifying U.S.-Iranian confrontation? Can U.S. and other foreign forces stay in Iraq, even just in parts of the country such as the Kurdistan region, and if not, what impact would that have on Iraqi society? Will the anti-government, anti-militia, and anti-Iranian protests continue or has the national focus now shifted to the U.S. rather than Iranian role in Iraq? And how do these multiple and intersecting crises impact the strategic and foreign policy interests of Gulf Arab countries and their still-fledgling efforts to re-establish strong relations with Baghdad while limiting Iranian hegemony in Iraq?
Follow the conversation on Twitter: #IraqTensions.