Just a day after Joe Biden was inaugurated as the 46th President of the United States, the Iraqi capital witnessed a double suicide attack, which analysts described as the most dangerous in nearly three years, killing 32 Iraqis and injuring 100 others. Only the following morning, ISIS claimed responsibility for the bombing.
This bombing and all of ISIS's recent moves indicate that the threat of extremism is still imminent in Iraq, and that the country is still far from being stable. The new "democratic" Administration should therefore not overlook its role which is capable of affecting the future of Iraq, stability in the Middle East, and the US global standing and reliability to its allies.
During his 2016 campaign, US ex-President Donald Trump described his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama, as the "founder" of ISIS, and he also attacked his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, saying she was a "co-founder" of the organization. Trump, with insinuation once but explicitly many times, blamed Obama for allowing extremists to spread, accusing him of being sympathetic to ISIS. These accusations today ring a bell in the minds of some, especially following the massive bombing in Iraq in conjunction with Biden's inauguration, making one wonder: Why was ISIS about to come to an end during Trump's term, and now is revived as the Democratic Party took office? Will Biden's term be just an extension of Obama's, during which ISIS expanded and aggrandized? Will all the achievements of the Trump era in terms of countering terrorism and fundamentalist Islamist movements be overlooked, and thereby the US administration will be back to square one in Iraq and the whole region? Will this apply to other important files in the region, such as the Syrian file or the Arab-Israeli peace file, so that all the efforts that have been made go unheeded?
The Biden administration is now at stake regarding the Iraqi file, as it, by force of circumstances, has to deal with a legacy of years of inaction and inconsistent blurry strategies that have left Iraq up for grabs in the face of sectarian divisions, extremism and regional - particularly Iranian - ambitions.
In fact, Biden's assumption of power raises many concerns among Iraqis at the official and popular levels, as he is seen by many as keen about dividing the country; for Biden is not unfamiliar with the Iraqi issue, as he was designated chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2002 and played an important role in giving President George W. Bush Jr. permission to start the war on Iraq.
A few years later, on May 1, 2006, Biden and Leslie Gelb wrote an article in The New York Times entitled "Unity through Autonomy in Iraq", calling to divide Iraq into three regions on a sectarian and ethnic basis (Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish). They considered this to be the only solution to the Iraqi problem.
To tell the truth, I hope that Biden, nearly 15 years later and after he became President of the United States, would change his mind; otherwise, the consequences would be dire.
Let us also bring back to our minds that the supervision of the Iraq file under President Obama was entrusted to Biden as vice president. Thus, he is well-versed in the entire Iraqi landscape and understands its significance (it is worth noting here that many specialists in Iraqi affairs tend to believe Biden is more likely to be responsible in a way or another for Qassem Soleimani's increased influence in Iraq, which has seen further growth during the recent period of Obama's term). In addition to the new President's experience in the Iraqi file, Secretary of Defense and Secretary of State Lloyd Austin and Antony Blinken have close knowledge of the situation in Iraq, so there is no pretext for the new administration not to give it a priority, or not to consider it a minor issue "attached" to the Iran nuclear deal file.
This view prevails among researchers and analysts, often because the previous democratic administration, the Obama administration, as it sought to sign the nuclear deal with Iran, ignored Tehran's destructive intervention in Iraq and gave it a free hand in Syria, Yemen and Lebanon as well. Today, many members of Obama's cabinet are now part of Biden’s, raising concerns about their intention to consume the same approach, especially since a return to the nuclear deal is on the agenda of the new President.
US engagement with Iraq will necessarily apply to all files of the region, and the appeasement of Iran suggests that the Biden administration is not committed to addressing political Islam projects in the region, and will therefore leave the region between the Iranian hammer and the Turkish anvil. The restlessness of Iran's increased influence in Iraq and Syria in particular has reached such an extent that the United States, with popular approval, can break the Iranian cordon from these two countries, in addition to Lebanon, and thus destroy Tehran's dreams of building an "Axis of Resistance" across Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to Gaza. The question arises here: Will the United States do so, or does it want to preserve Iran as a tool to annoy Egypt and Israel and influence the Gulf states in its own ways? Some might believe there some degree of exaggeration, but I find the question quite legitimate.
I don't want to sound pessimistic, or to suggest to the reader that I see all the doors for a solution blocked; on the contrary, despite all the concerns, I see that Iraq today still has opportunities that the US administration can employ to save the country which it has contributed to its situation. The first opportunity is the Iraqi youth, who rose up in late 2019 to reject quotas and sectarian-based policies that sow the seeds of division and strife between the Sunnis Shiites and Kurds, and force some components of Iraqi society to rely on foreign allies against their partners at home, and enable countries such as Iran to penetrate Iraq and form militias as well, thus robbing its decision and doom it to a future of conflict and instability.
Iraqi youth have lost confidence in their former leaders, and the Kadhimi government is no better than the previous ones, since it has also failed to attract young people and meet some of their aspirations. The prestige of the state remains violated, and its decision is still not its own, while the Iranian-funded "Shiite" militias roam and dominate the national army, targeting the youth of the "October Movement" by killing, imprisoning and kidnapping. Nevertheless, the large proportion of rebellious young people are Shiites who have lost confidence in their political elites who claim to adhere to religion and delude the general public of being responsible for preparing for the expected reappearance of al-Mahdi.
Despite the gloom of the current landscape, the majority of Shiites, including the opposition, have rejected the political Islam leaders after revealing that they are mere tools in Iran's hands, and that they are hungry for power, indifferent to the Iraqi people and their future. Let us not forget the poor economic performance and the security breach clearly demonstrated in the assassination campaigns targeting members of the Kadhimi administration itself. The prime minister has tried to play on the rope of tight tensions between Iran and the United States, but this has exacerbated the country's landscape.
Today, Iraq is at a critical stage, preparing for national elections in October, which means that a new government will be formed. It is therefore necessary to protect the elections from attacks by corrupt sectarian political forces, militia leaders and Iran's proxies in Iraq, both Shiites and political Islam entrepreneurs in its Sunni version, and to make the true voice of Iraqis heard and bring their competent representatives to parliament. This is an important opportunity to change the situation in Iraq, investing it will not be easy, however.
The United States cannot play a constructive role in Iraq if it considers it a secondary file, besides that it cannot protect progressive political parties if it continues to allow extremist elements to attack US interests, not only the US Embassy and bases but also the Iraqi infrastructure and superstructure, oil facilities, borders with Jordan and Gulf countries, and the Iraqi youth. President Biden, who has promised to spread "the values of American democracy," should support Iraqi youth in their "war" against sectarianism and all the accompanying corruption, favoritism, exclusion and extremism.
Whatever the case, the US administration should not deal with Iraq from the perspective of the Iranian agenda, for this is shortsightedness. Iraq is at the heart of Iran's ambitions and expansionist policies in the region, which are a key part of the problem that must be addressed, especially as it continues to play politically on the religious and sectarian chord, and invoking the defense of the shrines of the Al al-Bayt and the Shiite holy shrines, while its purpose is to violate and control Iraq's sovereignty, knowing that it has never been delayed in defending the sanctities of all its sects, and has always welcomed visitors from the Arab world and the whole world, whether Shiites or Sunnis. Although Iran is trying to imitate Israel in secret (the issue of reaching the Wailing Wall for Jews) it fights it in public, but unlike the Iranians, Canaanite Jews had been living there before they were driven out by ancient Palestinians.
In sum, any US retreat in the Iraqi file, no matter how minor, will inevitably mean Iran's takeover of this Arab state, and its expansion, which will of course not stop at Iraq's borders, but will contribute to feeding Tehran's ambitions for hegemony in the Middle East and striking any attempts to achieve peace.
If the new Administration wants to find a sustainable solution to Iran’s nuclear issue, it must govern Iran’s expansionist agenda in the region, for this is inseparable. Iraq, therefore, is an important starting point for this confrontation, and it is important to help it regain its sovereignty, achieve its independence and stability, regain its position as a force in the region, capable of playing an important role in the Middle East, and tipping the scale in favor of peace. Iraqi politicians should deal more openly with the US ally and rely more on their regional allies in Riyadh, Amman, Cairo and Abu Dhabi in the face of Iranian incursions.
*From Al-Arab Newspaper