Table of Contents:
Amid COVID-19, Iraq Remains US-Iran Battleground: Kirsten Fontenrose, Barbara Slavin, C. Anthony Pfaff, David Mack, Thomas S. Warrick, Atlantic Council, Mar. 20, 2020
Iraq has a New Prime Minister. What Next?: Ranj Alaaldin, Brookings, Mar. 20, 2020
The Iraq War is Not Yet Over: Andrew Milburn, Military Times, Mar. 18, 2020
The Coronavirus Pandemic: Israel Is America’s Friend in Deed: Dr. Frank Musmar, BESA, Mar. 25, 2020
As the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic dominates world attention, US-Iran tensions are again taking a dangerous turn.
Just two months ago the world was transfixed after lethal attacks against Americans in Iraq by Iranian-backed forces kicked off a cycle of escalation that resulted in US President Donald J. Trump’s decision to kill Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani. Now, with far less fanfare, that cycle is returning. Americans have been killed once again during attacks on Iraqi bases, and a series of strikes have been made by US forces and Iranian proxies within Iraq, with no immediate sign that the hostilities will abate anytime soon. Iran is trying to force a US withdrawal, and the United States is trying to protect its interests and reinforce its red lines. Caught in the middle once again, Iraq is simultaneously confronting a security crisis, a health emergency, and an economic free fall—all without the benefit of a functioning government in Baghdad.
Atlantic Council experts analyze the current situation in Iraq and the growing conflict between the United States and Iran:
Kirsten Fontenrose, director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security’s Middle East Security Initiative:
“Iranian-backed militias killed two Americans on March 14 and the United States is choosing not to strike back? Why not? And for how long? The big picture in play is the fate of the US-Iraq relationship.
“When Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) proxies rocketed the Iraqi base in Taji on March 11,killing two Americans, a Brit, and injuring Iraqi and international troops, the United States responded with strikes on five militia logistics hubs and weapons depots. This response was meant to signal that the United States would retaliate, but with a focus on reducing the militia’s materiel as opposed to personnel.
“Three additional attacks against US forces and trainers followed within a week. Clearly ‘retaliation without escalation’ was not an effective deterrent.
“US Department of Defense (DOD) planners who read intelligence reporting believe that further attacks are on tap. So why hasn’t the United States responded?
“One reason is coronavirus. While Iran continues to enable assaults on the United States and others in Iraq despite the medical crisis at home, the United States does not want to be accused of kicking someone when they’re down. The US cultural brand is strength; Iran’s cultural brand is a half-century of victimhood. This creates a self-imposed double standard that has worked in Iran’s favor during this conflict. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
Iraq has a new prime minister-designate, almost three weeks after the previous nominee — Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi — failed to secure parliamentary approval for his cabinet. The new figure, Adnan al-Zurfi, is a veteran of the Iraqi opposition and a long-time member of the ruling class who worked closely with the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) during the U.S. occupation of Iraq.
A stern personality, he has a checkered and violent history with many of the people and groups with which the U.S. is currently clashing, including Muqtada al-Sadr (who has threatened to force the U.S. out of Iraq) and some members of the Iran-aligned leadership of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), whose militias have struck U.S. bases in Iraq these past few weeks. These groups have already derided his nomination and will attempt to torpedo his efforts to form a government.
THE POLITICAL SCENE
The challenge facing al-Zurfi is twofold.
First, Iraq has been pushed to the brink by protests demanding reform since October, resulting in the deaths of hundreds and injuries to thousands as state-aligned security forces and militia groups loyal to Iran responded violently. The impact of the protests has been cataclysmic, plunging Iraq into its worst crisis since the Islamic State seized Mosul in 2014, while also rocking the political class to its core.
Second, to compound the crisis, Iraq has been hit with the rapid decline in oil prices and the coronavirus pandemic. Yet, protesters are still determined to force the political class from power and have criticized Iran-aligned groups that are now more determined than ever to dominate the political landscape and consolidate their hold on the Iraqi state, especially since the U.S. assassination of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani in January.
The odds are stacked against the protesters. The political system and the dominant political order that has emerged since 2003 is impervious to long-term, wholesale changes. There is a strong, unwritten understanding among the ruling elites that commits them to maintaining an equilibrium of power in Iraq that satisfies the interests of the competing blocs, based on the premise that no single actor can or should monopolize power. It is also based on the premise that their hold on power, access to resources, and overall survival is underpinned by their own interdependence.
This has underpinned power structures in Iraq since 2003 and has been reinforced in every election since 2005: No single party or bloc has been able to win a plurality, rendering it necessary to form coalitions that secure the vested interests of rival blocs. In other words, even if al-Zurfi was able to form a government that was amenable to the protest movement — one comprised of independents for example — it would likely be torpedoed by the ruling class and fail to acquire parliamentary approval.
Conversely, a government that does placate the ruling class could end up being challenged by the protesters, and it may even revive the movement after it was stunted in recent weeks by the coronavirus crisis. Iraq may consequently be stuck in a state of stalemate for months, if not years. In that case, the current caretaker government led by Adel Abdul Mahdi may continue in its current capacity until elections can realistically take place. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
Five coalition servicemen died this past week in Iraq. Capt. Moises Navas and Gunnery Sgt. Diego Pongo, both Marines, were killed in northern Iraq by Islamic State fighters, while a few days later, Army Spc. Juan Covarrubias, Air Force Staff Sgt. Marshal Roberts and British medic Lance Cpl. Brodie Gillon died in a rocket attack launched by a Shia militia group.
If media attention hadn’t been fixated on Covid-19, their deaths might have raised the question of what the United States is still doing in Iraq. It’s a fair question. The Islamic State’s physical caliphate is no more, and in the wake of the assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the Iraqi parliament recently voted to expel U.S. forces. Now, with Iranian-backed militia groups targeting U.S. troops, it’s probably a good time for the administration to assess its policy objectives in Iraq.
To be clear, this isn’t going to be diatribe against military involvement overseas. I have, over the course of a 31-year career, seen my share of wasted effort and lives in pursuit of incoherent policy objectives, but am not of the view that the U.S. can simply retreat behind its borders and expect its national interests to take care of themselves. And there is good reason for continued U.S. military involvement in Iraq: to pre-empt a resurgence of the Islamic State — a threat which, as this recent incident illustrates, has not gone away — and as a check on the malign influence of Iran. The 5,000 U.S. troops currently there might be a relatively small price to pay to achieve those goals, if that is indeed the plan. But at a time when the United States finds itself again at a decision point in Iraq, I am concerned that once again there are no clear policy objectives to guide U.S. military involvement.
I have, like many of my contemporaries in the military, some personal involvement in Iraq’s troubled recent history — most recently as the commander of the coalition special operations task force given the mission of defeating the Islamic State which had, by the beginning of 2016, reached a point only 30 miles from Baghdad. During the ensuing campaign which ultimately enabled the Iraqi security forces to re-take Mosul and effectively expel ISIS from Iraq, we in the task force were compelled to adhere to an uneasy truce with the various Iranian-backed Shia militia groups that fought alongside the Iraqi Army against the common foe.
In my subsequent billet as chief of staff at Special Operations Command Central (SOCCENT), it became clear that Iran would emerge from the counter-ISIS campaign in a position of strength in Iraq. And with ISIS now defeated, it seemed only a matter of time before Iranian-backed militia groups turned on U.S. forces. As SOCCENT planners prepared for this eventuality while working on a wider plan to counter Iran’s malign influence in the region, it became apparent that one person was holding the militia back from attacking U.S. personnel. And that person was one Qassem Soleimani. Why the nemesis of U.S. interests in the region should in this instance, oppose the spilling of American blood, we could only speculate. The reason, we supposed, was that Soleimani was, in the end, a pragmatist — he would have to have been to have survived as long as he did. And for those like him, accustomed to operating in what U.S. national security pundits like to call the “Gray Zone,” there are certain boundaries implicitly acknowledged by both sides to avoid all-out conflict.
When, several months after my retirement, I heard of Soleimani’s death, I assumed that those who planned it understood these rules, and that the decision to break them was taken deliberately, with a plan to mitigate the inevitable repercussions for doing so. Now I’m not so sure. That Kataib Hezbollah — a virulently pro-Iranian militia — would respond by launching rockets at coalition personnel was an entirely predictable response. … [To read he full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
The Israeli drug giant Teva has announced that 6 million doses of hydroxychloroquine will be delivered to US hospitals by March 31 and more than 4 million more will be delivered within a month. “We are committed to helping to supply as many tablets as possible as demand for this treatment accelerates, at no cost,” Teva executive vice president Brendan O’Grady said.
Teva is the world’s leading generic drug manufacturer, employing 43,000 employees around the globe. In 2018, Teva produced 120 billion tablets, with one in nine generic prescriptions in the US containing the company’s products. Despite its global position, Teva says it has a unique understanding of local markets.
Many American detractors of Israel are giving a new airing to the myth that the Jewish state receives the lion’s share of US military aid. The suggestion conjures the demon of an all-powerful Israel lobby that has turned the US Congress into its pawn. Rashida Tlaib and Minnesota Democrat Ilhan Omar, the first two Muslim women elected to Congress, are at the forefront of those detractors. President Donald Trump, along with many others, view Rep. Tlaib and her compatriots within the Democratic Party as antisemites, a perception they bolster by repeating the slander about Israel’s aid relationship with the US.
The reality is that the US’s alliance with Israel is based on two key factors: intelligence sharing and ideological unity, according to Michael Koplow, a Middle East analyst at the Israel Policy Forum. The Teva announcement is clear evidence of this ideological unity.
Hydroxychloroquine sulfate tablets were in short supply throughout March, according to a report by the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists. Hospitals have been rushing to stockpile the decades-old antimalarial drug, which has been touted by President Trump and others as a possible treatment for the new coronavirus. From March 1 through March 17, US hospitals bought an average of 16,110 units of hydroxychloroquine, compared with an average of 8,800 units a month from January 2019 through February 2020, according to Premier Inc., which helps 4,000 member hospitals buy and manage their supplies.
Teva indicated that it will do everything possible to accelerate production of hydroxychloroquine and also conduct research to see if, in its vast catalog of 3,500 drugs, others can be used to fight coronavirus. Another Israeli drug cited as possibly helpful is remdesivir, an experimental antiviral from Gilead Sciences. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
For Further Reference:
Hundreds of Thousands Defy Iraq’s Coronavirus Curfew to Visit Martyred Imam’s Shrine: Henry Austin, NBC News, Mar. 21, 2020 — The Iraqi government has been forced to deploy troops after hundreds of thousands of people defied coronavirus restrictions and attempted to visit a shrine sacred to Shiite Muslims, two senior security sources with knowledge of the situation told NBC News.
Iraq Forces Continue Fight against ISIL without US Air Support: Al Jazeera English, YouTube, Mar. 6, 2020 — The recent crisis between Washington and Tehran could have a long-term impact on neighbouring Iraq, where efforts to root out remaining ISIL fighters are ongoing.
‘I’m Mentally Preparing for a Few Months’: Meet an Israeli doctor on the Coronavirus Front Lines: Uriel Heilman, JTA, Mar. 19, 2020 — When it became clear that the COVID-19 pandemic would reach Israel, Elli Rosenberg was one of a small number of medical professionals at the Soroka Medical Center in Beersheva to answer a call for volunteers to treat the sick.
Why American Jews Are at Greater Risk for Coronavirus: Samuel J. Abrams, Forward, Mar. 20, 2020 — More than 100 people tested positive for COVID-19 in Brooklyn’s ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods Borough Park and Williamsburg in what is New York City’s first cluster of novel coronavirus cases. But while the COVID-19 virus may appear to be a problem most pressing for more religious, geographically clustered groups of Jews, this pandemic is actually an existential threat to all Jewish Americans.