The assassination of Qassem Soleimani has capsized Iraqi politics in the most dangerous of ways, making it possible that the country will be plunged once again into a state of permanent crisis and war from which it has escaped in the last two years.
President Trump is threatening sanctions against Iraq if it expels the 5,200 US military personnel in the country, while the Iraqi parliament has passed a non-binding resolution demanding the eviction of foreign troops after what it sees as a flagrant breach of Iraqi sovereignty.
Some commentators draw comfort from the fact that any official move by the Iraqi government to kick out US troops is far down the road and so, consequently, are any countermeasures by Mr Trump.
In reality, the crisis over the presence of US troops on the ground in Iraq is already with us and will get worse. The US troops returned to Iraq in 2014 to combat Isis after it captured Mosul and was advancing on Baghdad. The US forces provided logistics, intelligence and, crucially, helped orchestrate US air support for Iraqi soldiers and paramilitaries fighting Isis. These anti-Isis forces consist of the Iraqi army and the Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilisation Forces, the Shia paramilitary umbrella group, whose fighters are paid by the Iraqi government and headed by a senior Iraqi government official. Many of these paramilitary groups have Iranian links or are under Iranian control.
From the moment that a US drone killed General Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the leader of the powerful Kata’ib Hezbollah group, the priority for US troops in Iraq changed. It was no longer to pursue Isis and prevent its resurgence, but to defend its highly vulnerable bases from possible attack by Shia paramilitaries. This immediately relieved pressure on Isis which is trying to stage a comeback. The biggest cheer in Iraq after the US drone strike last Friday will have come from Isis commanders in their isolated bolt-holes in the desert and mountains of Iraq and Syria.
The US bases in Iraq are in fact more usually compounds within Iraqi military facilities. This means that from day one the US troops there are close to being hostages surrounded by potentially hostile Iraqis. Iraqi security units made no effort to protect the US embassy in the Green Zone in Baghdad last week. Even if the compounds are not directly assaulted or subjected to rocket fire self-protection, will be their priority.
Mr Trump, supported by Boris Johnson, has justified the killing of Soleimani by pretending that his sole role in Iraq was to organise attacks on US and British forces. But the real history of the relations between the US and Iran since Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 has in fact been a strange mixture of rivalry and cooperation. This is not obvious because the cooperation was largely covert and the rivalry explicit. Iraqis, whose leaders balanced nervously between Washington and Tehran, used to say of them: “They wave their fist at each other over the table and shake hands under it.”
This contradictory approach stretches back 30 years: the US and Iran both vied to be the predominant foreign power in Iraq, but they also had dangerous enemies in common. The US had not finished off Saddam Hussein after his defeat in Kuwait in 1991, because they feared that his fall would open the door to Iranian influence. Washington changed its mind on this in due course and, by the end of the 1990s the CIA and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards both had bases in Salahudin in Iraqi Kurdistan that publicly ignored each other’s existence, but communicated privately through third parties.
Rivalry intensified after the US became the dominant power in Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. But in the long term both countries wanted a stable Shia government in power in Baghdad and realised that this could only happen if both the US and Iran agreed on Iraqi leaders acceptable to each other. Nouri al-Maliki was the choice of the US ambassador in Baghdad to be Iraqi prime minister in 2006 in the knowledge that Iran would approve – the British ambassador of the day objected and was shown the door.
This same system of joint decision-making at distance produced Maliki’s successor, Haider al-Abadi in 2014 and the current prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, in 2018. The same convenient US-Iran arrangement decided the appointment of other senior officials, such as President Barham Salih, who was long close to the Americans, but was the surprising choice of Iran.
The common interest of these two outside powers was particularly close when Isis was at the peak of its strength between 2014 and 2017. The links were weakened by the election of Donald Trump as president in 2016, damaged further by his withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, and finally destroyed by the assassination of General Soleimani.
A great danger in the present crisis is that Mr Trump and his advisers know even less about Iraq than did George W Bush and Tony Blair in 2003. For instance, a problem about attacking the pro-Iranian Shia paramilitary groups is that they are part of the Iraqi state. The Iraqi interior minister always belongs to the Badr Organisation, a pro-Iranian grouping. The military muscle of the Iraqi security forces, which the US is in Iraq to support, comes in part from such groups with whom the US has just gone to war.
It is not a war that the US is likely to win, but it will inevitably reduce Iraq to chaos. Thanks to such confusion, with its enemies at each other’s throats, Isis may again take root and flourish. In the Islamic world, the killing of General Soleimani will be seen as not only anti-Iran, but anti-Shia. Everywhere conflicts are being stirred to life, of which Mr Trump knows nothing, but is about to find out.