This is a moment -- in the wake of the Soleimani killing and the mild Iranian response -- when everyone needs to take a deep breath.
Iranian officials are clearly shocked and debating their options. They will have to factor in the fallout if, as evidence indicates, Iran mistakenly downed a Ukrainian airliner.
Whether or not it was necessary or wise to kill Gen. Qassem Soleimani, his death won’t produce World War III. The Iranian response, as I’ve written, will be asymmetric and occur over time.
Tehran’s goal is to drive the United States out of the Mideast, using the proxy Shiite militias that Soleimani fostered around the region. The immediate focus of their efforts is Baghdad.
“What we have is a pause, not victory,” says veteran US diplomat and former Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker. “For the next step, watch Iraq.”
So let us watch. The 2003 invasion opened the door to Iranian influence there after the US overthrew the Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein.
Iran shares a 900-mile border with Iraq, in which a majority of Arabs are Shiite, as are most Persians.
The George W. Bush administration naively believed that all Shiite Iraqis would welcome the US with open arms because Saddam had oppressed them. But when I traveled to the holiest Shiite shrine city, Najaf in southern Iraq, in May 2003, religious leaders told me the Americans owed them big time. The first President Bush, they complained bitterly, had called for them to rise against Saddam during the 1991 Gulf War, then let Saddam slaughter them when they did so.
“The Americans should stabilize Iraq and leave,” senior clerics said.
They did neither, instead helping to create a sectarian political system, with Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish political parties that corruptly divide the oil spoils and fail to meet the country’s basic needs.
Soleimani helped Tehran cement control over key Shiite political parties and movements. After ISIS swept into northern Iraq in 2014, the Iranian general also shaped Shiite militias into a powerful fighting force against it. Tehran still hopes to subsume the regular Iraqi army under the control of Shiite militias that are loyal to Iran.
After Soleimani’s death, pro-Iranian parties in parliament voted for the 5,000 or so remaining US troops to leave. But it’s not at all clear that most Iraqis want them out.
“The parliament’s decision was nonbinding,” I was told by phone from Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, by Hoshyar Zebari, Iraq’s longest-serving foreign minister (2003-14) and a leader in its Kurdish region. “The current Iraqi caretaker government doesn’t have the legitimacy to take this decision.”
Equally important, Kurdish and Sunni parties did not vote, nor are all Shia parliamentarians on board. “Any such move has to be done with a national consensus, which isn’t there,” said Zebari.
To understand why Iraqis are divided on this, one need only look at the massive street protests
that had been taking place in Baghdad and elsewhere before Soleimani’s death against Iranian domination of their country.
These young demonstrators -- of whom about 450 have been killed by Shiite militiamen, probably on Soleimani’s orders -- were also demanding an end to corrupt sectarian parties. This is the most powerful movement for change since the US invaded Iraq.
True, some demonstrators also spoke of the need for all foreign forces to leave, including Americans. “But,” said Zebari, “this is not really the public sentiment on the street.” And if US troops leave, Iranian proxy militias will have an even freer hand to crush the protests.
“The key message,” Zebari continued, “is that the US should not leave. If they evacuate, there would be a vacuum, chaos, a failed state. It would expose all US allies to the threat of terrorism, and regional interference.”
In other words, Iranian influence would grow around the region despite Soleimani’s death.
Morever, if US forces exit Iraq, the last troops would also have to quit northern Syria, which is supplied from Iraq. That means Iranian influence over Syria, and Hezbollah in Lebanon, would be cemented, to Israel’s detriment.
If the US gets nervous in coming days that Iran’s proxies may attack its forces in Iraq, Zebari has a solution. He says, “They could relocate to Kurdistan if they feel threatened.
“We welcome them,” he adds.
Right now, US officials are telling Iraqi leaders that the administration has no plans to pull out its soldiers. Yet on Wednesday, President Donald Trump talked of expanding a NATO role in Iraq (useless without a strong US presence).
Some see the president’s talk of NATO as a hint that he wants an early US exit. At the same time, in a true Trump contradiction, his bizarre threats to sanction Iraq if the government asks Americans to leave make it harder for officials to defend their continued presence.
Bottom line: It is time for Trump to clarify that US troops will stay in Iraq, despite the temptation to pull them before November elections. To remove them now would be as powerful a tribute to Soleimani as the ayatollahs gave him in Tehran.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. -- Ed.
(Tribune Content Agency)