Following the attempted siege of the American Embassy in Iraq, USIP’s Elie Abouaoun says the U.S. must increase its presence in Iraq because it “doesn’t have the choice but to increase its investment … so that the expansion of Iranian influence is basically contained.”
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Tim Farley: We've been watching closely the situation as it has been developing in Baghdad. We know now that the assault on the compound there has stopped, for now at the very least, but Arwa Damon is located in Baghdad and says that as the militia men withdrew from the U.S. Embassy compound, security analysts were interested in how so many protestors were able to march so easily through so many checkpoints to get to the perimeter of the compound.
Arwa Damon: Among the top leaders that we saw in the first images that came out when this was first unfolding were some key figures, notably one key figure who was once detained by the Americans back during the years of the U.S.-led occupation here. He was directly responsible for a number of attacks against U.S. forces.
Tim Farley: Let's get some more understanding of this issue, a deeper understanding with Dr. Elie Abouaoun, who is the United States Institute of Peace, Middle East [and] North Africa director, joining us from the Middle East [and] North Africa Tunisia hub of USIP, tweeting [@elie022.] Dr. Abouaoun, thank you for joining us on POTUS today.
Dr. Elie Abouaoun: Thank you and good morning. Happy new year.
Tim Farley: Happy new year to you, sir. Help us understand better what happened at the embassy and why the attack took place.
Dr. Elie Abouaoun: Actually, what happened was a reaction against the strike that hit a military base of the Popular Mobilization Forces, which is their para-governmental military force that is basically composed of several groups, many of them loyal to the Iran. And the U.S. strike itself came as a reaction, actually, after an attack against the U.S. military force near Kirkuk in northern Iraq, the result of which was one casualty, a civilian Department of Defense contractor.
So it was a chain of events starting with the strike against the U.S. base in Kirkuk leading to another strike by the U.S. Air Force against the PMF base, and then the demonstration or the attack against the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
Tim Farley: So now we understand more about exactly what happened. Did the U.S. make the right decision to respond to that original attack?
Dr. Elie Abouaoun: Well, the U.S. comes basically, as I said, as a response to the attack. And basically, this response is in line with the red lines that were announced initially by the U.S. government by saying that any casualty within the U.S. contractors or military will be responded to. So this is in line with the red lines that were set by the U.S. government initially. And I don't see how the U.S. would have ignored this given that, as I said, there was at least one casualty among the contractors, and if I'm not mistaken, four people were injured as well. Four U.S. military were injured.
Tim Farley: One other factor in this, Dr. Elie Abouaoun, is the United States engagement with Iraq and Iran, or as some have characterized, the disengagement with Iraq. Speak to that as part of the growing tensions between the U.S. and Iraq right now.
Dr. Elie Abouaoun: Yeah. Well, I mean, this engagement of the United States does not apply only to Iraq. It applies to the entire region. We've seen this in Libya, we're seeing this in Syria and Lebanon, other places including Iraq, of course. So it's not specific to Iraq, it's an overall foreign policy that the U.S. has basically chose to take. However, what's happening in Iraq right now is that I think the U.S. government doesn't have the choice but to increase its investment, especially the nonmilitary investment, so that the expansion of the Iranian influence is basically contained in a way or another.
I know that this is not ideal for the Iraqis, but at the same time, leaving the space will only embolden the Iranians and will lead to more expansion possibly beyond Iraq itself. And as I always say, is that Iraq is a workable case. So there is a likeliness of success in Iraq to contain the Iranian influence if the right investment is done.
Tim Farley: Dr. Elie Abouaoun is with us, the United States Institute [of Peace’s] Middle East [and] North Africa director. He's joining us from Tunisia.
You mentioned the nonmilitary investment. People will ask the question, "Why does the U.S. still have somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000 troops still in Iraq?
Dr. Elie Abouaoun: There are two missions for the force as far as I know. One of them is to support the fight against ISIS, which is still an unfinished task as everyone knows, and we've seen recently a surge in the activity of some dormant cells around Nineveh, Kirkuk and other places in Northern Iraq. So this is one more indicator that there is a need for a sustained effort in fighting ISIS in both Iraq and Syria, and U.S. is an instrumental part of this fight.
And the second mission or the second fold of the mission is basically the training and the capacity building of the Iraqi armed forces that the U.S. army has committed to do. So this requires obviously the physical presence of some trainers, advisors and other military officers.
Tim Farley: One last question, Dr. Abouaoun, this has to do with protests that were already taking place, unrelated protests in Iraq against the government there. Is it your sense that the government still has a handle on things? In other words, that there is still a strong chance of survival of the institutions or is that in jeopardy?
Dr. Elie Abouaoun: Well, the present government is a caretaker government, and even before the prime minister resigned, I think they lost control of the street. The two main actors at that time were the protestors, which was a constellation of different groups with a wide range of demands and ideological backgrounds, and the second key actor was the, I would say the loyalist, but they were not loyalist to the prime minister. They were mostly loyalist to Iran, so the PMF or the Popular Mobilization Forces and their affiliated groups, what could happen... I mean, sorry, the question was about the survival of the institutions.
I think institutions will survive as institutions, but the question is who will be leading these institutions and what will be their actions, basically. So this is the key question. It's not about whether the institution will survive or not as much as it is who's going to influence or lead these institutions. And I don't think there is a known answer for this question at this stage. It all depends, as I said, on how much there will be a nonmilitary investment in Iraq to counter the Iranian expansion, because clearly one of the two parties is affiliated with Iran, and I don't think that, as I said before, leaving the space is a good option at this stage.
Tim Farley: Last question: Is Iraq in a better place, and the U.S. with reference to Iraq, are we in a better place than we were 10 years ago when the decade opened?
Dr. Elie Abouaoun: Compared to 10 years ago? I don't think Iraq is in a better place, but up until two or three months ago, Iraq was basically taking the road to become a better place. The victory against ISIS in 2017, then the elections in 2018 and other political developments were positive, including economic development, were indications that Iraq was recovering slowly but steadily. The recent events in the last two to three months basically are a setback, and this is why I'm constantly calling for a concerted international effort, including the U.S., to support the Iraqis in basically taking back the recovery path.
Tim Farley: Dr. Abouaoun, I certainly appreciate you joining us here on POTUS today. Thank you very much. Happy New Year.
Dr. Elie Abouaoun: Thank you very much. Same to you. Bye.
Tim Farley: Dr. Elie Abouaoun, who is the United States Institute of Peace’s Middle East [and] North Africa director, joining us from their Middle East [and] North Africa Tunisia hub this morning to comment on the latest developments in Baghdad, the storming of the embassy, which is over, but the problem remains. The Twitter handle, by the way, is @elie022.