U.S. Takes a Risk: Old Iraqi Enemies Are Now Allies


Several former militia commanders have risen to high-level political positions. Now, a coalition of them is expected to be among the biggest winners in parliamentary elections this Saturday, giving them even more prominent roles in the new government and possibly determining the future of the American presence in Iraq.

The United States has expanded secretive military ventures and counterterrorism missions in remote corners of the world, but in Iraq it is taking a different tack. Here, the United States is reducing its troop presence and gambling that common interests with former adversaries will help prevent a resurgence of the Islamic State. The bet seemed to pay off with the announcement this week that a joint Iraqi-American intelligence sting captured five senior Islamic State leaders.

And as President Trump pursues a confrontational approach with Iran, the American military hopes to use its evolving Iraqi partnerships to peel away Shiite factions from Iran’s orbit and chip away at Tehran’s influence in Iraq and the region.

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American and British troops at an Iraqi military base in 2016, where they trained Iraqi forces.

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Ahmad Al-Rubaye/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“This is a time when Iraqi patriots can build their nation,” said Lt. General Paul E. Funk II, the commander of the American-led coalition fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. “There is an opportunity here. We will do all we can to give them all the help they need and want.”

Last year, Congress appropriated $3.6 billion to train and equip Iraqi security forces, with a priority on units under Mr. Araji’s Interior Ministry. They include border guards monitoring the long Syrian-Iraqi frontier, a place where American and Iraqi commanders fear that Islamic State remnants could regroup, and which Iran sees as part of its corridor to move fighters and weapons to Syria and Lebanon. The funds also equip the Iraqi SWAT teams responsible for arresting and detaining terrorism suspects, and train a national police force in charge of daily security.

It was the Islamic State’s conquest of a third of Iraqi territory in 2014 that first brought together once-rival Iraqi militias and security forces with an American-led military coalition in a united effort to defeat a common enemy. The United States wanted to prevent the Islamic State from building a caliphate in Iraq and Syria, and the Shiite militias saw the Sunni extremist group as a sectarian threat.

After Iraq’s regular armed forces crumbled in the face of the Islamic State blitz, a coalition of Iranian-financed Shiite militias took up front-line positions against the extremists. The militias never worked directly with the Americans, but a joint command helped coordinate their efforts to defeat the Islamic State.

Now, some of the most influential militia leaders are working directly with the Americans and pressing for a continued American military presence.

For some of these former militants, America’s display of superior equipment and skills side by side with them in battle brought a newfound respect. Others say they had an ideological reckoning, a realization that years of sectarianism and interference from Iraq’s neighbors had made their nation vulnerable to invasion. Partnering with the world’s superpower, they said, was the best way to bring Iraq back up from its knees.

“We all made mistakes in the past, the Americans, as well as us,” said Hadi al-Ameri, the leader of the Badr Organization, the largest of the Shiite militias that helped battle the Islamic State and the leader of the electoral alliance of former militia members, known as Fatah. “Now, we need their help. We can’t let our country become a playground for other powers and their agendas.”

The vote on Saturday could determine whether the United States military stays in Iraq or leaves.

Most polls show that the front-runners are the current prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, Washington’s closest ally in Iraq, and Mr. Ameri, whose electoral list includes the interior minister, Mr. Araji. If either of them lead the new government, the military partnership is likely to continue.

However, Iraqi political analysts say that the previous prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, who demanded the withdrawal of American forces in 2011 and still has close ties to Iran, could play spoiler. They believe he has a good chance of being included in a new coalition government, giving Iran a way to foil America’s growing influence.

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