How should the US react to Iraq’s crackdown on protests?

Protesters are unlikely to look favourably to the United States ignoring the actions of the Iraqi government.
Thursday 21/11/2019
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (R), accompanied by US Special Representative on Iran Brian Hook (L) and State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus (2nd L), speaks during a news conference at the State Department. (AP)
Watching 'very closely.' US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (R), accompanied by US Special Representative on Iran Brian Hook (L) and State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus (2nd L), speaks during a news conference at the State Department. (AP)

LONDON - The United States appears to be facing a dilemma in the way it is reacting to the Iraqi government’s crackdown on anti-corruption demonstrations.

Critics said Washington has not been as vocal in its condemnation of the Iraqis as it was in slamming the human rights records of its foes, such as Iran.

Baghdad is an ally of Washington and a partner in the fight against the Islamic State. The Iraqi government system was set up under the supervision of the United States after the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. It is that political order Iraqi protesters say is corrupt and are trying to depose.

“The US, back in 2003, shaped this current Iraqi government structure, which delivered this political class. Do they want to be engaged in rectifying it? I think the jury is still out,” a top Iraqi official told Agence France-Presse (AFP) on condition of anonymity.

One consequence of the US-led invasion was the rising influence of Iran over Iraqi politicians and militia leaders. Even Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi was described as having had a “special relationship” with Iran when he was Iraq’s Oil minister in 2014, stated leaked Iranian intelligence documents published by the New York Times and the Intercept.

In its bid to pressure Iran, however, the United States has been seeking to keep Iraq on its side. This remains a difficult task, given the influence Iran has over Iraq’s political class. Abdul-Mahdi is “probably the best we could hope for,” a senior US State Department official told AFP.

There are other reasons why the United States and other Western countries may not want to be vocally supportive of protests in Iraq. Iran-backed politicians in Iraq have alleged that foreign agents are behind the unrest and perceived Western support for the demonstrations could help such theories grow.

On the other hand, protesters are unlikely to look favourably to the United States ignoring the actions of the Iraqi government. Demonstrators have been chanting slogans against Iran for its influence on Iraqi politicians and militiamen.

This could be among the reasons why the United States has not been totally silent about the crackdown on protests in Iraq. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, on November 18, said Washington was prepared to impose sanctions on Iraqi officials should they be implicated in corruption or the death of protesters.

“We will not stand idle while the corrupt officials make the Iraqi people suffer,” Pompeo said. “The United States will use [its] legal authority to sanction corrupt individuals that are stealing Iraqis’ wealth and those killing and wounding peaceful protesters.”

Pompeo warned the United States was watching events in Iraq “very, very closely.”

Demonstrators in southern Iraq sought to block roads leading to a major oil field in Basra, actions that could be meant to send a message that, if they can’t enjoy the benefits of their country’s oil, then no one in government will.

“The fruits of these riches are rarely seen by the average Iraqi because of financial mismanagement, bureaucratic inefficiency and corruption,” Iraqi experts and officials told the Associated Press.

Another possible reason for the protesters’ attempts to disrupt oil is to attract wider international attention, which some observers said was lacking.

“There have been powerful reports of these abuses from journalists on the ground. Yet they have not been given the attention they deserve and there has been little international outcry,” Vice News correspondent Hind Hassan wrote in an opinion article for the Washington Post. “How many more people will have to die for this violence in Iraq to become the focus of international news?”

A serious distribution to the flow of oil from Iraq could attract the attention of US President Donald Trump, who has frequently underlined his interest in the region’s energy supplies.

“President Trump twice raised to [former Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi] the idea of repaying America for its wars with Iraqi oil,” reported the website Axios November 2018.

Trump also recently cited “only for the oil” as the reason for keeping US troops in Syria. “We’re keeping the oil. We have the oil. The oil is secure,” Trump said November 13.