Iraq: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Jacob Eriksson, University of York

Iraq is attempting to navigate a way forward through treacherous conditions shaped by rising tensions between Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States. Some of these conditions, such as the U.S. assassination of the leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, and the deputy leader of the Hashd al-Shaabi, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, in Baghdad on 3 January 2020, have been imposed upon them. Others, such as the prominent Iranian role in Iraqi politics or the presence of US troops as part of the fight against ISIS, are to a substantial extent a self-inflicted product of the policies of multiple Iraqi governments. Others are the unfortunate result of geography, lying between competing powers. The strength and independence of pro-Iranian militias mean that Iraq is likely to continue to be the epicentre and host of violent confrontation between regional and international powers.

Nationalism and sectarianism intersect in complex ways in Iraq. Fanar Haddad argues that although Arab Iraqis are generally committed to the notion of an Iraqi nation-state, distinct Sunni and Shia nationalisms have competed for primacy. Following the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist state in 2003, a new Shia-dominated state emerged to replace the historically Sunni-dominated order. Twin senses of victimhood in an unstable political context led to the assertion of aggressive sectarian identities and civil war.[1]

A combination of sectarian affinity, strategic interests, and chronic insecurity has led Iran to exercise unrivalled influence over the post-2003 Iraqi state.  While the United States exercised a commanding role in the immediate aftermath of the 2003 invasion and occupation, Iran’s role was consolidated during the 2006-2014 government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which emphasised a sub-state Shia sectarian identity which undermined a unitary nationalism to maintain the power of the ruling elite.[2] Under Maliki, Iran-aligned Shia militia gradually became embedded and institutionalised within the Iraqi state, a process consolidated by the rise of the Hashd, or Popular Mobilisation Units, through the war against the Islamic State.[3] Mowaffak al-Rubaie, a former National Security Advisor (2004-2009), described Qassem Soleimani, who oversaw these militia as head of the Quds Force, as “the most powerful man in Iraq without question. Nothing gets done without him”.[4] Continuing Iranian influence is exercised through key politicians and Hashd leaders such as Hadi al-Ameri and Qais al-Khazali of the Fatah Alliance, the second biggest bloc in the Iraqi parliament, who are closely aligned to Tehran and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Viewing the new Shia-dominated Iraqi state with suspicion, Saudi Arabia sought to limit Iranian influence by supporting Iraqi Sunni politicians, tribal leaders, and Sahwa militia.[5] The overt sectarianism of Maliki’s government and his close relationship with Iran meant that official relations between the two countries were minimal. However, relations thawed under the leadership of former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi who, seeking Saudi investment, sought to convince the Saudis that he was above all an Iraqi nationalist as opposed to an Iranian client.[6] Abadi’s nationalism dovetailed with a new Saudi interest in engagement strategies. Riyadh has placed their nationalist outreach in stark contrast to the Iranian strategy of exploiting sectarian divisions by emphasizing Iraqi patriotism and the unifying power of Arab identity as opposed to any specific sectarian identity.[7] This approach was perhaps best illustrated by the July 2017 visit to Jeddah by the powerful Iraqi Shia cleric and politician Muqtada al-Sadr, keen to burnish his non-sectarian nationalist credentials.

Saudi Arabia and Iran thus employ different strands of identity politics in their engagement with Iraq, the former an ethnic Arab identity and the latter a sectarian Shia identity. Although Iraqi leaders are keen to court economic investment from the Saudis, they remain acutely aware that Saudi interests centre on countering Iranian influence. Iranian assistance has been vital to the defeat of ISIS and reasserting government authority, but this may prove to be a double-edged sword as the independence of the Hashd undermines the state.[8] The challenge of harnessing the positive elements from each relationship and limiting the danger of being the staging ground for a proxy conflict remains a precarious balancing act.[9]

One strategy to address this challenge has been to act as a mediator. Following the attacks on Saudi Arabian Aramco oil installations at Abqaiq and Khurais on 14 September 2019, which the Saudis and the US blamed on Iran,[10] former Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi travelled to Jeddah to mediate between the two regional rivals. Iraqi officials have offered different accounts of the de-escalation initiative’s origins. While one suggested it was undertaken at Iran’s request, another claimed it was at the behest of the Saudis out of concern for the lack of a robust US military response to the attack, something Saudi officials have denied.[11] Whatever the case, Abdul Mahdi communicated each side’s conditions for talks with the other: the Saudis insisted that Iran cease support for the Houthis in Yemen, minimize their role in Syria, and work with the Assad regime to reach an accommodation with Syrian rebel groups and devise a new constitution; the Iranians were willing to negotiate if sanctions against them were lifted.[12] Iraqi hopes of a potential meeting between the two sides hosted in Baghdad were complicated by the resignation of Abdul Mahdi in response to persistent protests against the government, and by the assassination of Soleimani. According to Abdul Mahdi, Soleimani was carrying an Iranian response to the Saudis when he was killed. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has dismissed such a notion, although this needs to be understood in the context of the Trump administration’s depiction of Soleimani as a terrorist above all else, and their supposed displeasure at the prospect of negotiations disrupting its “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran.[13]

In some ways, Iraq is an ideal mediator. As expressed by Iraqi official Abbas al-Hasnawi, “The Iraqi leadership has channels with both sides. Our Sunni brothers [in the government] liaise with the Saudis and our Shia brothers with the Iranians.”[14] Beyond those seemingly sectarian lines of communication, Iraq’s intimate relations with Iran mean they are familiar with Iranian positions on key issues and can aid their ability to communicate Iranian interests and red lines, while improved relations with the Saudis has created greater trust between them and the Iraqi government. The actions of certain pro-Iranian Hashd groups, however, endanger these improved relations and any potential mediator role. An attack on a Saudi oil pipeline on 14 May 2019 was found to have emanated from southern Iraq, not Yemen as previously thought. Abdul Mahdi was reportedly “very angry” and embarrassed about the incident, and urged Falih al-Fayyadh, chairman of the Hashd, to exert greater control over the groups to prevent any future attacks or provocations.[15]

Iranian interests are also being challenged by the protests that have been taking place in Baghdad and other major cities in Shia-majority southern Iraq since October 2019. Protestors are railing against the corruption of the ruling elite, the lack of service provision by the state, government mismanagement, and unemployment, but also against the level of Iranian influence in their country.[16] These are a continuation and intensification of the protests that took place in the summer of 2018, when protestors set fire to the Iranian consulate and multiple Hashd offices in Basra; in November 2019, protestors burned down the Iranian consulate in Najaf, and Hashd offices in multiple cities have been attacked.[17] Hashd units have been central to the brutal government response to the protests, reportedly coordinated by Soleimani and Iran, estimated to have killed over 500 and injured tens of thousands.[18] This has severely tarnished the legitimacy of the main pro-Iranian Hashd factions, who are now identified as being part of the corrupt political elite rather than separate from it.[19]

Iran remains intent on ensuring that the existing elite bargain in Iraq remains unchanged, and in this endeavour appears to enjoy the support of key political figures such as Sadr. Having initially supported the protestors in line with his old unfulfilled promises to tackle corruption, Sadr withdrew his support in February 2020, calling for his supporters to leave the streets and using his “Blue Hats” to violently subdue protests in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square and in Najaf.[20] As Mansour and Robin-D’Cruz have highlighted, Sadr has shifted closer to Iran, spending more time in Qom and relying on an Iranian-brokered cease-fire to keep the peace in an ongoing conflict with rival Shia militia Asaib Ahl al-Haqq. Together with the unpopularity of his stance against the protests, this may herald a decline of his autonomy as a political actor.[21] Ali, a 29-year-old protestor from Sadr City in Baghdad, refused to leave the streets despite Sadr’s call: “I love Muqtada al-Sadr because he was the one who fought against the American interference, the first one to call for demonstrations. … He’s a good leader but I’m participating in these demonstrations [for the] homeland, not al-Sadr and I will still be in the square participating until I achieve the demands of the martyrs.”[22]

Such defiance illustrates the scale of the challenge the Iraqi government and their Iranian sponsors continue to face. Moreover, it also reflects the sense of nationalism that has characterised the protests, and the widespread rejection of sectarianism as an instrument of elite manipulation to sow division among the people. However, decisions on key national questions such as the continued presence of US troops may stoke renewed sectarian divisions. For example, voting in Parliament on the expulsion of US troops ran along sectarian lines, with Shia members voting in favour while Kurds and Sunnis abstained.[23] Evicting US troops from Iraq remains a strategic Iranian goal, but runs the risk of being seen very clearly as a narrow Iranian interest rather than a national Iraqi interest. It is also noteworthy that Sadr’s 24 January “millioniya” protest against the continued presence of US forces was relatively brief and poorly attended, although this should in the first instance be understood as solidarity among the protestors as opposed to support for a continued US troop presence.[24]

As Iran searches for a new Hashd leader to replace Muhandis, intra-Shia divisions between groups supporting Khamenei, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and Sadr pose a serious challenge to existing power dynamics.[25] Simultaneously, Prime Ministerial candidates who lack a political base and are therefore unlikely to challenge existing elites or the power of the Hashd, such as Muhammad Tawfiq Allawi, have been roundly rejected by the protestors and failed to form a government. Given the continued strength and relative independence of the Hashd from the Iraqi government, the potential for further attacks against US forces in Iraq or indeed their Saudi Arabian allies, and the likelihood of protracted Iranian retaliation for Soleimani’s assassination, Iraq remains in a dangerous position. Continued Iranian and Saudi public statements to the effect that they are willing to negotiate will be welcome news in Baghdad, but their agency to effect such positive change is limited.[26] Still, a government that pursues Iraqi national interests rather than sectarian interests at the behest of a foreign power stands a better chance of weathering this storm.

It remains difficult, however, to see where such a nationalist political alternative would come from. As evidenced throughout the Arab Uprisings, translating popular protest and dissatisfaction with the ruling elite into a coherent, united, and viable political movement is extremely challenging. For all of the hope represented by the protestors, the structural obstacles to change remain formidable. Moreover, the issue is further complicated by the lack of national reconciliation following the territorial defeat of ISIS, with Sunni and minority communities in formerly held ISIS areas continuing to face extreme challenges inadequately addressed by the Iraqi state.[27] Without this, in the face of continuing mistrust, it is hard to envisage a truly nationalist political alternative successfully emerging.


[1] Fanar Haddad, Sectarianism in Iraq: Antagonistic visions of unity (London: Hurst, 2011)

[2] Toby Dodge, “Can Iraq be saved?”, Survival, Vol. 56, No. 5, 2014, p. 16

[3] Inna Rudolf, “From Battlefield to Ballot Box: Contextualising the Rise and Evolution of Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Units”, The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, 2017; Renad Mansour, “After Mosul, will Iraq’s paramilitaries set the agenda?”, The Century Foundation, 27 January, 2017, pp. 2-4, 6; Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi, “Strategic Depth, Counterinsurgency, and the Logic of Sectarianization: The Islamic Republic of Iran’s Security Doctrine and its Regional Implications” in Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel (eds.), Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East (London: Hurst, 2017), p. 173

[4] Toby Dodge, Iraq: From war to a new authoritarianism (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2012), p. 187

[5] Bassel Salloukh, “The Sectarianization of Geopolitics in the Middle East” in Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel (eds.), Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East (London: Hurst, 2017), p. 39

[6] “Saudi Arabia: Back to Baghdad”, International Crisis Group, Middle East Report No. 186, May 22, 2018, p. 4-5

[7] “Saudi Arabia: Back to Baghdad”, pp. 2, 7

[8] Hayder al-Khoei, “Al-Hashd al-Sha’bi: Iraq’s Double-Edged Sword”, in Jacob Eriksson and Ahmed Khaleel (eds.), Iraq after ISIS: The challenges of post-war recovery (London: Palgrave, 2019), p. 109

[9] Jacob Eriksson, “International and regional dimensions of Iraq’s post-ISIS recovery” in Jacob Eriksson and Ahmed Khaleel (eds.), Iraq after ISIS: The challenges of post-war recovery (London: Palgrave, 2019)

[10] The Houthis in Yemen claimed responsibility for the attack, but US intelligence suggests this is unlikely, with evidence pointing towards Iran. Iran has denied responsibility.

[11] Farnaz Fassihi and Ben Hubbard, “Saudi Arabia and Iran make quiet openings to head off war”, The New York Times, 4 October, 2019,; Laura Rozen, “Pompeo mocks claim Soleimani was part of Iraq-brokered Iran-Saudi indirect talks”, Al-Monitor, 8 January, 2020, soleimani-mediate.html

[12] Mustafa Abu Sneineh and Simon Hooper, “Exclusive: Saudi Arabia gives ‘green light’ for talks with Iran”, Middle East Eye, 1 October, 2019, ; “Iraqi PM Abdul Mahdi says Riyadh wants to avoid war with Iran”, Al Jazeera, 30 September, 2019,

[13] Rozen, “Pompeo mocks claim”; Declan Walsh and Ben Hubbard, “With US help no longer assured, Saudis try a new strategy: talks”, The New York Times, 26 December, 2019,

[14] Abu Sneineh and Hooper, “Exclusive”

[15] Louisa Loveluck and Mustafa Salim, “As tensions boil in the Persian Gulf, Iraq seeks to rein in Iran-aligned militias”, The Washington Post, 26 September, 2019,

[16] Pesha Magid, “Angry Iraqis demand new government”, Foreign Policy, 7 October, 2019,

[17] “Protestors set fire to Iranian consulate in Basra”, The Guardian, 7 September, 2018, ; “Protestors burn down Iranian consulate in southern Iraq”, The Guardian, 27 November, 2019,

[18] Aziz el-Yaakoubi and Nadine Awadalla, “Violence escalates in Iraq as government pushes to end protests”, Reuters, 27 January, 2020,; Mustafa Saadoun, “Are Iraq’s PMU militias planning to put an end to protests?”, Al-Monitor, 6 January, 2020,; Pesha Magid, “Enraged Iraqi protestors blame Iran for killings”, Foreign Policy, 1 November, 2019,

[19] “Iran’s Networks of Influence in the Middle East – Chapter 4: Iraq”, International Institute for Strategic Studies Strategic Dossier, November 2019,

[20] Adnan Abu Zeed, “Who are Sadr’s Blue Hats in Iraq and what side are they on?”, Al-Monitor, 13 February, 2020,

[21] Renad Mansour and Ben Robin-D’Cruz, “After latest turn, is Muqtada al-Sadr losing influence in Iraq?”, Chatham House, 12 February, 2020,

[22] Sofia Barbarani, “Confusion, violence in Iraq as al-Sadr pulls support for protests”, Al Jazeera, 8 February, 2020,

[23] Ali Soufan, “Soleimani is dead, Iraq is in chaos and ISIS is very happy”, The New York Times, 14 January, 2020,

[24] Mansour and Robin-D’Cruz, “After latest turn”; Omar Sattar, “Has Sadr lost the Iraqi street?”, Al-Monitor, 19 February, 2020,

[25] Ranj Alaaldin, “What will happen to Iraqi Shiite militias after one key leader’s death?”, The Monkey Cage, The Washington Post, 29 February, 2020,; Hassan Ali Ahmed, “Iran struggles to regain control of post-Soleimani PMU”, Al-Monitor, 23 February, 2020,

[26] Tom O’Connor, “Iran and Saudi Arabia express potential for talks amid Middle East tensions”, Newsweek, 23 January, 2020,

[27] Jacob Eriksson and Ahmed Khaleel (eds.), Iraq after ISIS: The challenges of post-war recovery (London: Palgrave, 2019); Ben Taub, “Iraq’s Post-ISIS Campaign of Revenge”, The New Yorker, 17 December, 2018,