By Azin Sahabi

Baghdad explosions and the plausible new U.S. orders for the old wounds

January 24, 2021 - 11:4

On Thursday morning, only a day after the inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden, Baghdad witnessed twin suicide bombings in a busy market that killed 32 people and wounded more than 100 others. The attack took place in the same area in 2018 shortly after then-Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi declared victory over the terrorist group. As expected, ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attack. 

This bloody blast at the same location which claimed the lives of many civilians nearly 3 years ago under the same pattern is worth deliberating; given the fact that new president of the U.S. has declared to reduce American military presence in Iraq as well as Afghanistan.
Maybe the recent Baghdad bombings only four kilometers from the U.S. embassy compound could be the Biden administration's first challenge let alone having certain implication for Iran and other regional players. In fact, Biden’s team is dominated by old hands from the Obama administration would probably return to the region with new orders to revisit old issues.

Biden admin: Renowned fellows at Baghdad

Maybe, it remains unclear the kind of approach the new U.S. administration will adopt towards Iraq but the new president has a long history of involvement in the oil-rich country and a controversial track record since the early 2000s. In October 2002, as the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he was one of 77 senators who gave President George W. Bush the authority to invade Iraq. Also, in a 2006 op-ed in the New York Times, Biden proposed dismemberment of Iraq along sectarian and ethnic lines. Moreover, as vice president, Biden was assigned by then-President Barack Obama to oversee the Iraq file.

His Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, and nominee for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, are both well acquainted with the country. Austin served as a commander in the 2003 Iraq War, later headed the U.S. Central Command, where he oversaw the drawdown of U.S. troops.

“Biden is well known to all the major Iraqi leaders who have met with him many times,” said Michael Knights, a fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a Washington-based far-right think tank, formally affiliated with AIPAC.
Although Biden has not elaborated on his likely approach to Iraq after the recent deadly blasts, he may talk about Iran, ISIS (called Daesh in its Arabic acronyms) and the future U.S military presence. 

Iraq: Threats and opportunities for the U.S. 

Some West Asia experts believe that the current situation in Iraq, as a key player in the region especially after the reemergence of ISIS, creates an opportunity for Washington to redefine its role as a global leader. For example, Kim Ghattas, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says: "I think there is definitely a moment of opportunity, it’s going to be very difficult. But there is a moment of opportunity to rethink America's role in the world and to rethink the Middle East (West Asia).”

While Biden played a defining role not just in the Iraq war itself but in its chaotic aftermath, which enabled the rise of ISIS, his new administration seems to have learned from those past experiences. At the same time, given the stated U.S policy to reduce the number of troops stationed in West Asia, analysts believe such a move may be to the detriment of Iraq.

Experts envision a scenario that a power vacuum in Iraq coupled with a further decrease in U.S. troops would lead to a surge in the terrorist group’s activities.

Colin P Clarke, a senior research fellow at The Soufan Center, argues: “The quantity and severity of such attacks would surely arise in the absence of the U.S. and allied military pressure.”

Also, Husham al-Hashimi, a fellow at the Center for Global Policy believes: “ISIS has been able to use recent developments in Iraq as substantial operational opportunities, widespread public protests since October, the government’s resignation and the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.”  

Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has played a significant role in these developments, forcing the international coalition to suspend its training of Iraqi soldiers in order to prevent outbreaks among the troops in early 2020. 

U.S. not to reduce its military presence in Iraq

Biden himself has voiced his support for maintaining a U.S. military presence in Iraq and Syria, but it would be challenging for him to redeploy troops to Iraq, as American public opinion is generally against it. If the security situation remains the same, he will likely keep the same number of troops in Iraq. As the administration has the option of turning a new page in Iraq, perhaps it will decide to maintain boots on the ground. He has pledged to restore U.S. relations with allies and the NATO alliance.

As Knights mention: “U.S. participating forces in the coalition are scheduled to remain in Iraq under the Biden administration, which is a strong supporter of the U.S support to Iraq’s military against Daesh.”

In this regard, French President Emmanuel Macron expressed hope on January 19 that U.S. President will show a greater military commitment to fight against terrorism in several theaters of conflict, especially in West Asia. 

Calling for the U.S. to get more involved in multilateral defense cooperation, Macron stressed that France has maintained its efforts to fight ISIS in the region. The Charles-de-Gaulle aircraft carrier will rejoin the operation in the coming months, he said. 

Iraq: A likely issue in the so-called U.S. “follow-up” negotiations?

Biden and his key picks for the White House have made clear that they want to re-enter the nuclear deal with Iran under certain conditions. Among them are ending what they call Iran’s “destabilizing and other malicious activities in the region.” 

Blinken has stated that the U.S. will consult with Persian Gulf Arab States in probable negotiations with Iran. 

In addition, the Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, said on the 5th of December 2020: “Primarily what we expect is that we and our other regional friends are fully consulted in what goes on vis a vis the negotiations with Iran.”

Maybe, given Saudi Arabia’s interests in Iraq, besides its apparent support for ISIS, Iraq will be one of the plausible issues at the negotiation table that the U.S would talk about to fulfill their permanent claim of establishing democracy and promoting human rights in the oil-rich country.