From Fallujah to Karrada: Declining US influence in Iraq

From Fallujah to Karrada: Declining US influence in Iraq
4 min read
07 Jul, 2016
Comment: As American influence in Iraq dwindles and Iranian influence grows, Abadi finds himself a prisoner of his ruling coalition, and reform is as elusive as ever, writes Joe Macaron
Iranian influence has been reinforced in Iraq at the expense of the US [AFP]

After every major terrorist attack, there is a tendency for Iraq's political system to search for a scapegoat in shifting the blame, or to put off conclusive action with an exit strategy. While the suicide bombings last May precipitated the military campaign to liberate Fallujah, the recent deadly attacks in Baghdad's Karrada neighborhood exposed once again the country's rickety security apparatus. The common denominator in both instances is the steady decline of US influence in Iraq.

With tension between Washington and Tehran restricting his ability to govern, the fallout from the Karrada attacks was particularly telling of the Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi. His first impulse was to resort to familiar tactics: Sacking the security officers in charge and spotlighting the bygone issue of fake bomb detectors.

However, his Interior Minister Mohammad al-Ghabban put the ball back in the Premier's court, presenting him with a choice between either accepting his resignation or reforming the security apparatus.

At the core of Iraq's governance crisis in the past decade have been the numerous intelligence agencies acting as independent entities, either to protect the ruler or serve the patronage system. The National Intelligence Service (INIS), that was formed by the US in 2004, ended up serving as a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) tool for spying on individuals and groups targeting US assets as well as a challenger of Iranian influence in Iraq.

When the US began to recognise the inevitable influence of Tehran, the Ministry of State for National Security Affairs was formed in 2006 and gradually became an Iranian backed rival security agency.

However, the US leverage in INIS was gradually reduced since the Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq in 2010. The national security structure the US helped Mowaffaq al-Rubaie build was dismantled as he was replaced by the Iranian backed Faleh al-Fayyad, a protégé of former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari who, since 2010, has been the kingmaker of the National Alliance, the ruling Shia coalition.

Since then, al-Fayyad has been at the center of Iraq's national security with no accountability or civilian control

Since then, al-Fayyad has been at the center of Iraq's national security with no accountability or civilian control. He now holds unprecedented powers, with three portfolios: The national security adviser, the national security agency (NSS) chief and the head of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF).

NSS identifies three main targets for its operations: Terrorist organisations, forces affiliated with Saddam Hussein's regime, and civil society and foreign companies operating in Iraq. The job description shows a self-declared mandate that goes beyond the 2010 national security law which restricted its role to mere prevention. Last year, part of the Iraqi government's reform agenda, the agency was supposed to come under the interior ministry's control, and the INIS under that of the defense ministry.

However, Abadi has been reluctant to implement this plan and recently appointed Mustapha al-Kazemi as head of INIS, is reaffirming his own control over intelligence and security agencies. While al-Kazemi is an independent figure accepted by Iraqi factions, his appointment as a Shia in a traditionally Sunni position once known to be a bastion of US control showed how much Washington's influence is dwindling.

In the case of the NSS, the current political pressure to reform the agency was meant to drive a wedge between Abadi and al-Jaafari. Yet, the resignation of al-Gabban, who is a member of the Iranian backed Badr Organization, was swiftly accepted as Abadi will not curtail al-Fayyad's many security hats. The Iraqi Prime Minister and his allies won a new round in purging the appointees of al-Maliki and his allies from key security positions, as now Akil al-Khizaali (appointed by Abadi) is the second person in line to take over the interior ministry.

If Abadi does not face his demons, sooner or later the US might lose its residual power in Iraq

While the Iraqi premier is gradually consolidating power, he remains a prisoner of the ruling coalition that brought him to office, instead of independently making bold changes that alter Iraq's political dynamics. If Abadi does not face his demons, sooner or later the US might lose its residual power in Iraq.

Since last year, the country's political crisis has been dominated by an elusive quest for reform and a series of suicide bombings. Iran's bet on liberating Fallujah did not protect Baghdad and its suburbs, which also raises questions about the limits of Iranian security support as well as its political ability to keep the ruling Shia coalition in check.

Yet in the wider context, the more IS launches attacks in and around Baghdad, the more the Iraqi government looks inward to protect the capital rather than liberating Mosul, in turn granting the PMF increased political and security leverage. For now, both those trends are reinforcing Iranian influence at the expense of US interests.

Joe Macaron is a Middle East Analyst at the Arab Center Washington DC.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.