Fierce Competition with the US in Iraq

Ten months after the fall of Mosul in northern Iraq, the military dynamic of the Islamic State group in Iraq has not only been contained, but has also been diminished. However, although the Islamic State group is showing signs of weakness in Iraq and, to a lesser extent, in Syria, several jihadist movements have pledged allegiance to the organization in Libya, the north of Nigeria (Boko Haram), Egypt, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Other organizations have aligned themselves with the Islamic State group in Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Turkey. In reality, it has more to do with identifying with the organization’s modus operandi in Iraq and Syria than the formation of an international Islamic State.

The declining jihadism in Iraq does not yet spell defeat. The issue of the aftermath of the Islamic State conflict is more newsworthy than ever, to the point that over the past few days it has overshadowed the conflict itself.

Despite the temporary partnership between Tehran and Washington to deal with the Islamic State group in Iraq, the two protagonists have never underestimated the future competition to stabilize their post-conflict spheres of influence.

The United States, of course, hopes to get rid of the Islamic State group, but it does not wish to hand Iraq over to Iran. Nevertheless, the U.S. accepts the limits of its current influence – hence the widespread media campaign and the political pressures against Shiite militias.

The Americans will no doubt continue to assist the Iraqi army, even though it is involved with Shiite militias here and there and sometimes even supported by the presence of Iranian soldiers. Iraq is still too weak to lead a large-scale counterattack, to liberate territories and, more importantly, to maintain them in areas where the Sunni population is far from secured, especially as this war has cost so many human lives on both sides.

Should Islamic State Group Be Armed?

The Americans, however, will not go as far as to wage war alongside Qasem Soleimani (commander of the special forces unit Quds Force in Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, whose role is to lead foreign operations), as the recent events in Tikrit demonstrated. In the past few days, Soleimani has exited the city with his advisors.

At a regional level, the Americans are putting pressure on Iran in order to limit its actions. When it comes to Iraq, the two countries are in agreement and even seem complementary at times; the U.S. prefers to observe events in Syria (where Iran and Hezbollah support the current regime) and could eventually put pressure on Bashar Assad to make a transition.

On the other hand, the U.S. supports Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Yemen conflict, slowing the advance of the Houthi rebels backed by Iran. At a diplomatic level, nuclear negotiations are continuing in a situation described by Washington as positive on the whole.

The White House’s stance is far from shared by all of the influential players in the United States, where many are betting on a long war involving Iran and questioning the recent cynicism expressed by a New York Times editorial asking if the Islamic State group should be armed in order to remove the threat that Iran poses in Iraq and the Middle East. The article naively states that a condition of American support in the war against the Islamic State group is ridding Iraq of all Iranian influence, something that Washington cannot do nor wishes to do in the current climate.

The fate of the Sunni Arabs depends on the conflict zone and the forces present there. The Sunni positioned in Baghdad’s Green Zone are waiting for the outcome of the situation to declare their victory and choose their political allegiance. In Erbil (Iraqi Kurdistan), like in Amman in Jordan, the fear and disillusionment of Sunni Arabs is played on to encourage them to take action against the Shiites.

At a local level, the tribal militias (the Sahwa, who were called back to Ramadi by the end of 2013) can expect integration with better conditions after the conflict, notably their integration into the National Guard project. That leaves the smallest group of those linked to Shiite militias. However, a large proportion of the Sunni Arab population, who are marginalized, humiliated and badly represented, is considering whether to give up and retreat or to make a pact with the devil (the Islamic State group), with the knowledge that it would be the first to lose out in the conflict.

Several Scenarios

What is taking place in Iraq (and today in Yemen) is largely a war of influence and monitoring in which the Iraqis in their diversity are more often than not the victims as opposed to the perpetrators. There are several foreseeable scenarios after the Islamic State threat is neutralized:

− New borders may be drawn in blood in an Erbil-Baghdad conflict affecting the disputed territories, but also Arab-Kurd conflicts, or even among the Kurds themselves (the American, Iranian and Turkish mediation would avoid this scenario). Contrary to what is often said about Iraq, the country is not only a victim of ethnic or religious conflicts; in case of irreversible defeat, the country will certainly experience a more widespread conflict rather than the expected division, which is even encouraged by some.

− State centralization may be strengthened under Shiite control (which is a rather unrealistic option given that the Americans, Kurds, Sunni Arabs and the majority of the States in the region have been fighting just that since 2003. Centralization would see Iraq delivered to the Iranians on a plate).

− The maintaining of the status quo with a three-party ethno-religious power (involving the Shiite, Sunni and Kurds), which has sadly failed elsewhere.

The most likely setup will be an economic and political settlement of the Erbil-Baghdad conflict, the establishment of a consolidated but inclusive central power and decentralization that will provide the means to govern and keep the peace in the provinces. This is a compromise that will guarantee that balance and stability is brought about in the country, and that will be favorable to both the U.S. and Iran.

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