The Iraqi parliament’s approval last month of a new government under Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi was a welcome development for a country devastated by terrorism, decades of violence and corruption. Facing COVID-19 and an economy in recession, Mr. al-Kadhimi could not have inherited a more challenging job.
But fortunately, Iraqis could not have chosen a more qualified leader to meet the challenge, one who has already begun directing his government to combat ISIS and counter Iranian influence.
A lawyer, political refugee and respected human rights advocate, Mr. al-Kadhimi also served as director of Iraq’s National Intelligence Service. He led a highly effective strategy to dislodge Islamic State terrorists from Iraqi territory and played a key role in the operation which killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in October.
ISIS, which has thrived in Iraq’s petri dish of economic and political upheavals as well as ethnic and sectarian divide, has melted into an insurgency. The terror group, however, is poised to replenish its ranks, especially the mid-level leadership which the Iraqi military decimated following the successful strike against al-Baghdadi.
Mr. al-Kadhimi promoted Lt. Gen. Abdul Wahab al-Saadi, who led the military campaign that successfully wrested Mosul from the jihadists’ control, to head of Iraq’s elite Counterterrorism Service.
Iranian proxy militia groups — most prominently Kataib Hezbollah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, which operate outside Iraqi government control as part of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) — are a tool Tehran uses to wield power across the border. The militias have ruthlessly launched sectarian attacks in liberated ISIS-held territories, which only created the conditions for Islamic State to regenerate.
Mr. al-Kadhimi’s plan to “impose the state’s prestige” by bringing these proxy militias under Baghdad’s control reflects the will of the brave Iraqis who took to the streets starting in October 2019 to protest Iran’s interference in their country. The new prime minister’s first executive order was to release these protesters from detention and to declare that their attackers would be brought to justice.
At a press conference in Cairo in 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo noted that “when the U.S. retreats, chaos follows.”
Mr. Pompeo highlighted painful lessons learned from the Obama administration’s precipitous withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq in 2011, which helped create the security vacuum for the massive growth and spread of ISIS in the region.
We learned from September 11 that terrorists plan attacks against us from ungoverned space in failed states. There are roughly 18,000 ISIS fighters still at large, as well as 10,000 ISIS members in detention. Iraq’s fight against ISIS is our fight as well.
Following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Iran took advantage by directing its ally Syria to provide al Qaeda with a safe haven, which enabled attacks on U.S. troops. Iran also deliberately benefited from al Qaeda’s attacks on defenseless Shi’a civilians, which drove them into the arms of Iran’s proxy militias. Iraq will only fully function as an independent state capable of winning the war against ISIS when it has cast off the baleful influence of the mullahs in Tehran.
Mindful of the lessons learned from failed reconstruction programs in the past, the Trump administration justifiably has little appetite for a massive commitment of resources to Baghdad. But the U.S. can take three modest steps in our own self-interest.
First, the U.S. should carry on valuable tactical collaboration with the Iraqi military, track the potential resurgence of ISIS, and mount the necessary operations in defense of our national security. There would be no nation-building, just enabling and leveraging our partners to eliminate threats before they reach our shores.
Second, the U.S. should facilitate closer relationships between Iraq and its Gulf Arab neighbors, which could supply Baghdad with desperately needed financial, diplomatic and military support.
Third, the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign, the coronavirus outbreak, and the airstrikes which targeted top Iranian commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani and PMF leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, have hurt Iran’s capacity to support its regional proxies. By remaining diplomatically engaged in support of Iraqi sovereignty, the U.S. would be an effective counterbalance to Iran’s economic predation and efforts to weaken and control the government in Baghdad.
Having secured an expansive base of domestic support, Mr. al-Kadhimi is poised to demonstrate Iraq has the full power of governing over itself. Now is a most propitious time for the U.S. to renew its commitment to Iraq and its promising new leadership.
• Daniel N. Hoffman is a retired clandestine services officer and former chief of station with the Central Intelligence Agency. His combined 30 years of government service included high-level overseas and domestic positions at the CIA. He has been a Fox News contributor since May 2018. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHoffmanDC.
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