By James M. Dorsey
The United States stirred a hornet’s nest that stretches far beyond Iraq when it this weekend attacked an Iranian-backed militia.
The fallout of the US strikes was immediate in Iraq with pro-Iranian militiamen besieging the US embassy in Baghdad in scenes reminiscent of the run-up in 1979 to the 444-day occupation of the American diplomatic mission in Tehran.
The strikes threw into question the future of the US military presence in Iraq, 17 years after US-led forces toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein.
They came at a moment that mass anti-government demonstrations are demanding a radical overhaul of Iraq’s political system.
If protesters focussed their demand for a withdrawal of all foreign forces primarily on Iranian influence prior to the US strikes, they now focus equally on the presence of US forces.
Of equal, if not more far-reaching consequence, is the fact that the strikes potentially bolster efforts to counter moves by Saudi Arabia to position itself as an Islamic hegemon based on its financial muscle and appeal as the custodian of Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina.
The backing of the efforts by allies and states with whom the United States maintains, sometimes increasingly complex relationships, including Malaysia, Turkey and Qatar, complicates issues for the Trump administration.
The efforts involve both joint initiatives that last month culminated in an Islamic summit in Kuala Lumpur outside of the confines of the Riyadh-based, Saudi-controlled Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) that groups 57 Muslim majority states.
Ultimately, the summit dashed hopes that an anti-Saudi block would challenge the kingdom by taking on major problems confronting the Muslim world, including China’s crackdown on Turkic Muslims in its troubled, north-western province of Xinjiang; repression of Rohingya in Myanmar that has prompted hundreds of thousands to seek refuge in neighbouring Bangladesh; and civil wars in Syria and Yemen.
Despite its billing, the summit avoided such sensitive issues. Nonetheless, it signalled strong currents in the Muslim world that seek to counter the influence of America’s closest allies in the Middle East.
Part of the Kuala Lumpur summit’s problem was that rivalries in the Muslim world transcend political and geopolitical fault lines in an environment of a few cash-rich and a majority of economically and financially troubled states.
Countries like Saudi Arabia; the United Arab Emirates, the kingdom’s closest ally; Turkey; and Iran are, moreover, competing with one another globally using religious soft power by investing in the building of mosques and religious entities in countries as far-flung and seemingly marginal as Cuba and New Zealand and the funding of key Muslim institutions.
The US military strikes, widely viewed as a violation of Iraqi sovereignty, potentially handed a whip to Saudi Arabia’s detractors at a moment that the summit spotlighted the divisions in the Muslim world and participation in the gathering was determined in part by the kingdom’s ability to wield its financial muscle to prevent states from attending.
Russia and Iran were quick to condemn the US strikes. So far, others have remained silent.
That could, however, change with Iraqi public demands for a withdrawal of all foreign forces and pro-Iranian militias ending their siege of the US embassy in Baghdad on condition that parliament adopts a timeline for the withdrawal.
Pro-Iranian militias are counting on the fact that they are Iraqis with close ties to the Iraqi security establishment, which they expect will exclude them from the moves to withdraw foreign forces that would primarily target the United States.
For its part, the Trump administration is likely counting on Saudi and UAE financial muscle to prevent the Iraqi crisis sparking a groundswell of anti-US sentiment elsewhere in the Muslim world.
Saudi financial muscle persuaded Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan, believed to be one of the instigators of the Kuala Lumpur summit, from attending the gathering.
Saudi Arabia reportedly threatened to withdraw some US$ 10 billion plus in investments and financial aid to Pakistan if Mr. Khan participated.
Saudi opposition to the gathering coupled with Chinese concerns that it would target the crackdown in Xinjiang influenced Indonesian president Joko Widodo’s decision not to participate.
Indonesian vice-president Amin Ma’ruf, a leading figure in Nahdlatul Ulema, the world’s largest Muslim organization, cited medical reasons for not attending.
A forced US withdrawal from Iraq, even if countries like Saudi Arabia are able to limit the fallout in the Muslim world, would significantly bolster anti-US forces and hand them a victory on par with the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
The anti-Soviet insurgents, despite being backed by the United States and Saudi Arabia, ultimately turned their backs on their benefactors.
A forced US withdrawal from Iraq would likely not spark the jihadist movement that emerged from Afghanistan, but it would put considerable wind in the sails of those seeking to counter US and Saudi influence in the region.
“Everyone is breathing a sigh of relief. A situation that could have easily escalated out of control was handled with tactical restraint, and everyone was able to walk away,” said Maj. Charlie Dietz, a spokesman for the US military in Baghdad, after protesters withdrew from the US embassy.
The problem is the relief is temporary at best. Seventeen years of engagement in Iraq and US$1 trillion later, the United States risks the kind of humiliation it suffered with the 1979 occupation of its Tehran embassy.
Only this time, it may occur against the backdrop of a United States that has suffered a loss of credibility and whose power is perceived to be waning, irrespective of whether by design or default.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture