The deaths of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds Force Commander General Qasim Suleimani and the deputy head of the Hashd Commission and Kataib Hezbollah leader Abu Muhandis will have tremendous implications in Iraq. Both were intimately involved in Iraqi politics and security. To give his thoughts on this momentous event is Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He can be followed on Twitter @Mikeknightsiraq.
1. The war against the Islamic State allowed Iran to both become one of Iraq’s closest allies as well as undermining the Iraqi state. That was accomplished by promoting its friends in the Hashd al-Shaabi who became a separate arm of the Iraqi Security Forces beholden only to its own commanders rather than Baghdad. Under retired Premier Adl Abdul Mahdi their influence grew as Hashd members were given prominent positions throughout the security apparatus. General Suleimani and Abu Muhandis who was one of his main lieutenants in Iraq were behind these moves. Now that they are dead can you expect push back or even confrontations between pro-Iran Hashd elements and units from the army and the Counter Terror Forces that were being sidelined by Iran’s agenda?
Iraqis – and particularly the Iraqi Shia – will focus on the reduction of tensions at a moment like this. Fear of chaos and internecine fighting is foremost in their minds. While there are real tensions between the regular armed forces and the militias, the military will not act against militias unless they have a prime minister ordering them to do so, and Adel Abdalmahdi will never issue such an order. The selection of Iraq’s next PM is thus still the key driver of future events. Everything comes back to leadership in Iraq, and Iran just lost two of its best leaders.
2. Iran is likely thinking of ways to retaliate against the United States for the deaths of Suleimani and Muhandis. How do you think that might play out and what will that mean for Iraq?
Muhandis’ death will trigger a mix of emotions and thoughts. Even those who were his rivals will reflect on shared experiences and feel anger towards the US for killing him. They will also reflect on the brutality and decisiveness – some might say recklessness - of the US action, and consider their own personal safety. Many will consider how Muhandis’ death opens up new avenues for them, within the PMF, in Iraqi politics and with Iran.
Retaliation will be carefully considered. In Iran’s network, retaliation is always at a time and place of their choosing. They know of no other way. They will sit, grieve, confer with each other and with their new senior contact in the IRGC Qods Force, and set ground rules. They may be advised to lower the profile of their military action in Iraq, and let Iran retaliate patiently in other theaters. Iran may prefer the militias focus on dominating the new government formation or early elections in Iraq, as well as leading an effort to remove US forces by parliamentary action.
3. President Trump has never been a fan of America’s involvement in wars in western and central Asia. He’s wanted to withdraw troops from Syria and Afghanistan from the start of his administration, but has been talked out of it by his advisors. He’s never quite been interested in Iraq. He also called off a strike on Iran due to the intervention of Fox News personality Tucker Carlson. How do you think that might influence America’s response to any future attacks by Iran?
President Trump is allergic to the Iraq War of 2003-2011 but he is less opposed to the operations in Iraq since 2014, which are cost efficient, successful and characterized by burden-sharing. War with Iran was something he shied away from, but something changed recently. In my estimation, Secretary of State Pompeo invested some of his political capital to make the Kataib Hezbollah strike occur on December 29, triggering the attack on the US embassy, whereupon President Trump and Pompeo agreed to make a stand. The gloves have clearly come off since December 28, and it was just not the killing of one US contractor that did it. I think a lot of stars came into alignment, and something clicked at the senior interagency level, possibly driven by some incendiary threat intelligence.
4. General Suleimani had been paying more attention to Iraq recently due to the outbreak of protests in October and then the resignation of Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi in December. Suleimani helped orchestrate the bloody crackdown on the original demonstrations and had been pushing Iran’s candidates for premier. What might happen with Iran’s agenda on these two issues now?
Iran can replace a lot of Soleimani’s functions to varying degrees, but the hardest to replace will be his proven ability to midwife new Iraqi governments into being. Iran still has very capable alternative relationship managers who will try to step into his shoes, but even the master was finding Iraq increasingly difficult to control. That being said, he arguably lost some of his touch in 2014 (losing Maliki), in 2018 (failing to impose Falah Fayyadh and sidelining Hadi al-Ameri, upsetting an ally, and failing to decide the presidency), and in 2019 (failing to impose three successive PM candidates). The Soleimani effect was arguably failing, and his mishandling of the protests was a grievous error. He was arguably past his prime when he died.
5. Finally, General Suleimani and Abu Muhandis had been involved in Iraqi affairs since the 1980s. What has been their lasting impact?
Soleimani’s and Muhandis’ joint lasting impact may be the existence of a sixty-thousand strong militia force, currently making up the core of the PMF. In the broader sphere, Soleimani probably saved the murderous Assad regime by conceiving of Russia’s involvement and bringing them in. He arguably made Iran the most powerful external actor in four Arab capitals – Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and Sanaa - for a moment in time. He made an art form of fighting Iran’s wars to the last Arab, Afghan or Pakistani.