Joe Kent: After embassy siege in Iraq, here is the way forward in Mideast for US

If you have not paid attention to Iraq beyond the fight against ISIS, having Iraqis lay siege to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad may seem surprising.

They are protesting the recent series of airstrikes the U.S. conducted against the Iranian proxy in Iraq, Katib Al-Hizballah. That group had conducted multiple rocket attacks on U.S. installations in Iraq in the last two months, with the most recent killing a U.S. contractor. Our retaliatory strikes were labeled a violation of Iraqi sovereignty by the Iraqi government and key members of the Iraqi government have vowed to strike the U.S. again.

These events come as a surprise because the U.S. national security establishment has told us that despite the controversial beginnings of the Iraq conflict, we were successful at building a real government that can be a strategic partner in the region. To quickly make a government we allowed Shia exiles and Iranian proxies into the Iraqi government and turned a blind eye to Iran’s control of the Iraqi state.

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The Bush administration began this lie for obvious reasons. The premise of the invasion was debunked early on and we lost almost 5,000 Americans and spent about a trillion dollars to get Iraq somewhat stable and needed something to show for it. But the stability we sold as a victory from 2008-2013 was just a tactical pause in the Sunni vs. Shia civil war that solidified Iran’s control.

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The Obama administration was eager to continue this lie because it allowed us to withdraw from Iraq with the fig leaf of success. Iran’s proxies wanted to make sure that we left on schedule and killed nearly 30 U.S. service members between May and August 2011 to ensure we left by the end of that year. The Obama administration had no desire to confront Iranian aggression; they valued cutting the so-called Iran deal above all other security priorities in the region.

Iraq’s Sunnis proved they were not defeated and would not live under Shia control when ISIS invaded Iraq in 2014. The Iraqi army promptly fled their posts, abandoned their U.S. weaponry  and handed large swaths of northern and western Iraq to ISIS. This was a major blow to the narrative that Iraq was a real country with a real army.

To replenish its defeated military, the Iraqi government allowed Shia militants to become part of the Iraqi security forces and put Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a U.S.-designated terrorist, in charge of the newly branded Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). When the U.S. returned to Iraq In 2015, not only did we have to re-equip the Iraqi army but we outfitted Iran’s proxies as well. Long-term considerations took second place to the priority of stopping ISIS immediately.

We cannot forget that we hold the upper hand – we don’t need Iraq but Iran does. Iran needs to retain control of Iraq to maintain links to its proxies in Syria, Lebanon and Bahrain and to maintain the ability to strike regional rival Saudi Arabia.

The PMF and their Iranian masters were more than happy to let us crush ISIS but they don’t want us in Iraq long-term unless they can provoke us into a confrontation. They use us to distract Iraqis and Iranians from their corruption and brutality – diverting the rage of their people from them.

So what options do we have? Do we stay and play tit-for-tat strikes until we find ourselves further entrenched in Middle Eastern wars, this time against the Iraqi forces we just equipped?

We cannot forget that we hold the upper hand – we don’t need Iraq but Iran does. Iran needs to retain control of Iraq to maintain links to its proxies in Syria, Lebanon and Bahrain and to maintain the ability to strike regional rival Saudi Arabia. Iran’s strategic strength lies in its proxies and to fund these proxies they need to be able to do business in Iraq. Our sanctions have suffocated most of their other income streams.

Therefore we should impose sanctions on Iraq, forcing the Iraqi government to make a hard choice, Iran or the world economy.

We should also move U.S. personnel to the Kurdish region of Iraq or send them home. They are a liability if within striking distance of Iran’s proxies. The Iranians can’t provoke a fight or kill Americans if we are not there to act as targets. We have 17 years of data on the Iranian militias we can use for strikes if needed.

Another factor on our side is the grassroots protest movement calling for the removal of the Iraqi government and demanding that Iran stop interfering with Iraq. We should support the protesters to destabilize the current government and to make the Iranians spend more resources that they don’t have in Iraq. We should do the same with protesters in Iran, making the Iranian government spend more at home instead of on their proxies.

We should not be tricked into thinking we have to stay in Iraq, partnered with a government that has done nothing but betray us. We can leave until they make a compelling reason for us to return. We do not need Iraq, they need us.

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The argument to stay centers on being able to react to a resurgent ISIS. This is an emotional and losing argument. ISIS will return regardless of what we do. That’s because the Sunnis of Iraq and Syria are surrounded by militant Shias – ISIS or something like it is their only recourse. We can use that to regulate Shia expansion and occasionally bomb ISIS if it appears to be gaining momentum.

The national security establishment has led us to believe that we must be deeply involved in Iraq, constantly spending, fighting and dying for some nebulous influence and stability that has never been realistically defined. We possess the most powerful economy in the world and have the ability to project power when needed; we must understand our strengths and use them effectively.

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