Terrorist Attack in Baghdad Underscores Need to Address US Presence in Iraq

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region


Two weeks since one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in Baghdad in recent years, regional observers continue to ask important questions about Iraq’s stability. Some fear that a US withdrawal from Iraq would lead to even greater security setbacks as ISIS struggles to remain politically relevant. Meanwhile, Iran and its allies are quick to instrumentalize the violence by shifting the blame, accusing the US of secretly assisting the perpetrators of the terrorist attacks. Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi, for his part, has been quick to strike back against ISIS elements in the country, while dealing with a pandemic and a country teetering on the edge of economic disaster.

Asharq Alawsat’s conclusion is that, given the timing of the attacks, it is clear they were an effort on the part of ISIS to underscore their continuing relevance to regional security and political calculations: “It appears that ISIS is seeking to achieve political gains in Iraq as the country prepares to hold elections, which are set for October, and as Joe Biden assumes the presidency of the United States amid ongoing tensions with Iran. Whether the terrorist group itself wants to exploit these conditions in its favor, or whether internal or foreign political forces are seeking to exploit them, ISIS has nothing to lose in either …the elections or in the potential American-Iranian negotiations…. Authorities must review the best methods to combat terrorism on the military and security levels and ministries and institutions should offer services to the people, as well as job opportunities and reconstruction to curb the organization’s ability to infiltrate society and exploit poverty.”

The suicide bombing that claimed the lives of over 30 individuals has sparked fears that Iraq may once again be consumed by extremist violence. This view is also shared by Khaleej Times’ Christiane Waked, who, after citing various government officials, concludes that, without the assistance of international actors, ISIS will continue to threaten the region’s security: “The situation in Iraq is also not reassuring, after an increase in violations and infiltration by Daesh elements…. After the fall of Baghouz, the final holdout of Daesh in Syria, the world thought the terrorist group that once controlled and proclaimed a caliphate over a territory which was the size of Britain is finally finished, but unfortunately that is not the case. For Syria and Iraq to get rid of terrorism, regional and international players must throw their weight behind them and new US President Joe Biden must think wisely about his political strategies for the Middle East, which deserves a chance to live in peace.”

Meanwhile, Iranian-backed militias, according to a Press TV report, have been quick to point the finger at the US and its regional allies, suggesting that they were responsible for the violence and warning them of potential retaliatory strikes:Iraq’s Kata’ib Hezbollah has said the ‘the American-Saudi-Israeli alliance’ is responsible for recent Daesh attacks, warning that the Iraqi resistance group and fellow fighters will target the main source of Takfiri violence. Abdul-Ali al-Asgari, Katai’b’s security chief, made the remarks in a tweet on Sunday. ‘The perpetrators of the massacres in Iraq are the US, Saudi Arabia, and Israel,’ he wrote, adding, ‘Revenge should be exacted by retaliating against the source and fountainhead of the fire, not its branches’. The remarks came after a twin bombing by the Takfiri terrorist group against a busy square in Baghdad claimed at least 32 people and wounded 110 others on Thursday.”

That narrative has been pushed back to a certain degree by Iraqi government officials who have been focused on going after ISIS leaders in an effort to retake the initiative in the fight against terrorist cells in Iraq. According to a report by the National’s Sinan Mahmoud, the government seems to be succeeding in doing so by announcing, “A senior leader of ISIS operations in Iraq was killed by the Iraqi military… a week after a rare double suicide bombing in Baghdad. Abu Yaser Al Issawi was an ISIS commander who had claimed to be the leader of the group in Iraq and its ‘deputy caliph’. ‘We promised and fulfilled’, the Iraqi Prime Minister wrote on Twitter…. A security official said the operation took place in the Wadi Al Shai area, south of the northern city of Kirkuk, on Wednesday where at least 10 ISIS militants were killed. The US-led International Coalition offered aerial support to the Iraqi security forces on the ground, launching five air strikes, he said. A number of car bombs, weapons and equipment were seized, the source told The National.”

Others have responded to Iranian accusations by proposing that Iran is in fact the true source of instability in Iraq. Iran’s continued meddling in Iraq’s internal affairs, in the view of the Gulf News editorial staff, makes the US and international presence an indispensable factor for stability: “The Iran factor remains one of the main obstacles to streamlining the security situation despite the repeated attempts of Al Kadhimi to bring them under the control of the national army. Iran’s typical policy of using armed militias, like it is doing in Lebanon and Yemen, in its proxy wars against the US and regional foes, has made it almost impossible for the Prime Minster to streamline the armed and security forces to enable them to fight terror groups and restore security…. Al Kadhimi needs all the help he can get. But as Iran continues its political and sectarian hegemony in the Arab country, Baghdad must get all the help it needs to ward off Iran’s interference and fight off the resurgence of Daesh.”

In an op-ed for Al Ahram, Bassem Aly admits that it remains to be seen what Mr. Biden decides to do. Aly also delivers a similar message about the importance of the US presence in the country, though  warning that Iraq’s deteriorating security situation is due in large measure to a partial US troop withdrawal: “Do last week’s bombings in Baghdad signal a re-eruption of the war against the Islamic State group in Iraq…. This was the first terrorist attack in the country’s capital in three years, though they are still routine events in northern areas of Iraq and in the country’s Western Desert, mainly targeting the security forces…. Backed by the United States and the Iraqi Shia Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), the Iraqi government said in December 2017 that its territory ‘has been completely liberated’ from IS control after the latter had managed to occupy large parts of Iraq and Syria three years earlier…. But the end of the IS chapter in Iraq was followed by diminishing security support by the Americans to Baghdad…. It is not yet known what new US President Joe Biden, Obama’s former vice-president, will do in Iraq.”

One of the reasons the US presence in Iraq is so vital, Osama Al Sharif opines in his latest Jordan Times op-ed, is that Iraq’s security is indivisible from that of the region. Given the multiplicity of actors and interests operating in and around Iraq, the US must learn to “separate its confrontation with Iran and Iraq’s complicated internal problems…. Biden’s personal Iraq legacy notwithstanding, he needs to step up and invest in Kadhimi’s efforts. He, along with Iraqi President Barham Salih, is trying to implement a progressive non-sectarian, reformist and civilian path for Iraq. He has already earned the wrath of militant pro-Iranian militias for attempting to curtail their influence. He needs to have a strong ally on his side. While Biden and his team appear to be focused on Iran’s nuclear deal as a priority, which is important, they should not take their eyes off what is happening in Iraq. Also, Iraq’s Arab neighbors should push hard to support Kadhimi’s efforts. A collapse of Iraq will be catastrophic for the entire region.”

Among those expressing less uncertainty about what President Biden’s decision will ultimately be is Iranian columnist Azin Sahabi. Writing for Tehran Times, he speculates, with an eye towards future US policy in the region, that, given US president Joe Biden’s previous statements and positions regarding Iraq, the United States is more, rather than less, likely to remain involved in Iraq: “Biden’s team is dominated by old hands from the Obama administration [who] would probably return to the region with new orders to revisit old issues…. Maybe. It remains unclear the kind of approach the new U.S. administration will adopt towards Iraq, but the new president has a long history of involvement in the oil-rich country and a controversial track record since the early 2000s. In October 2002, as the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he was one of 77 senators who gave President George W. Bush the authority to invade Iraq…. Moreover, as vice president, Biden was assigned by then-President Barack Obama to oversee the Iraq file.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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