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American threat to quit Iraq leaves its allies in the lurch

Mike Pompeo, Donald Trump’s secretary of state, last month threatened to withdraw the US embassy from Baghdad — unless Iraq’s government cracked down on attacks by powerful Iran-backed Shia paramilitaries on the diplomatic compound and US bases.

This threat led to speculation in Iraq and across the Middle East that the Trump administration was clearing the decks for a major attack on the Tehran-backed militias — thereby delivering a boost to the president’s re-election chances in November.

Be that as it may, the militia attacks are continuing and may anyway attract US air strikes against the militias contained within the umbrella group of the Popular Mobilisation Forces, or Hashd al-Shaabi. There have been dozens of these militia attacks, including on the airports at Baghdad and Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, on a British diplomatic convoy in the capital, and an American supply convoy from Kuwait.

These hits may well not be instigated by Iran. The Islamic Republic is reeling under US economic sanctions reimposed by Mr Trump. The US assassination of the top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in January, along with Iraqi militia chieftain Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, also undoubtedly weakened Iran.

Paradoxically, however, it also removed the two people who could control the Shia militias, which are tens of thousands-strong and now appear to be off the leash.

Mr Pompeo’s threat is indicative of how the Trump administration’s erratic policies continue in Iraq and across the Middle East.

In this instance, it is diplomatically and strategically inept for the US to threaten to do just what Iran and its Arab proxies want it to do: withdraw from Iraq. Moreover, doing so would jeopardise the future of an already failing state, as Iraqi leaders have warned.

Even if the threat proves empty, Washington’s implied lack of commitment to Iraq is bad news for Mustafa al-Kadhimi, the Iraqi prime minister and former spy chief. A caretaker leader until next year’s elections, he is trying to bring the militias under army control and prevent Iraq becoming a battleground between the US and Iran.

Mr Kadhimi, who has qualified support from both sides, seemed to have steadied his wobbly position after meeting Mr Trump at the White House in August. Yet, last month — shortly before Mr Pompeo’s threat to withdraw the embassy — the administration said it was cutting the 5,000-plus US troops based in Iraq by roughly half.

Many, if not most, Iraqis want an end to political tutelage and military intrusion by both Americans and Iranians. Emblematic of this is Moqtada al-Sadr, a Shia cleric whose party unexpectedly came first in Iraq’s previous elections in 2018.

Reincarnated as an Iraqi nationalist in those 2018 elections, Mr Sadr allied his mass following in the Shia underclass with the Iraqi Communist party and secular civil society groups, and called for US and Iranian withdrawal.

Then, last autumn, popular anger in Iraq exploded in a civic uprising in the capital and across the Shia south. The outraged citizens of oil-rich Iraq have revolted before against a corrupt political elite unable to provide basic services such as electricity and water, let alone basic security against Sunni jihadi outrages and Shia militia lawlessness.

But this time they fought — with the loss of over 500 lives — in nationalist protest against Tehran and its henchmen turning their country into an Iranian protectorate.

Mr Kadhimi appears to understand and sympathise with the protesters, and their opposition to the spoils system known as muhasasa, the heart of a failing state based on the looting of resources rather than sharing of power. As they rev up their campaign once more against nearly two decades of political disaster, the prime minister offers some hope to Iraqis.

The US practically gifted Iraq to Iran by invading it in 2003, toppling a Sunni minority regime in a Shia majority country, and paving the way to an al-Qaeda insurgency. That was defeated but its residue fused with former Saddam Hussein loyalists into Isis, the jihadi blackshirts who took a third of the country in 2014.

The present Iraqi prime minister is struggling against this bleak legacy and now is not the moment to abandon him. Leaving Mr Kadhimi in the lurch guarantees a return to the pursuit of factional advantage instead of the public good, and of zero-sum sectarianism rather than power-sharing.

It will also reopen Iraq’s gates to a jihadi comeback in a country already struggling to stay alive. Iraqis deserve better.

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