Since last fall, the U.S. embassy in Baghdad has been under constant attack by pro-Iranian militias. Now Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is threatening to shutter the vast complex if the Iraqi government can’t protect it. But cutting and running would be a huge mistake.
Every sensible person agrees the giant embassy is a burdensome anachronism: At 104 acres, it is the largest and most expensive American outpost in the world, an outsized relic of the George W. Bush administration. The scale reflects a vision in which the U.S. would be embedded throughout the Iraqi government.
American ambitions in Iraq have long since been downsized, so this giant footprint is an expensive and highly vulnerable target. Toward the end of last year, at the height of Iran’s “maximum resistance” campaign against the U.S., the embassy and other American installations in Iraq came under rocket attack almost weekly.
Eventually, American and British personnel were killed at a military base, leading to counterstrikes on the headquarters of the pro-Iranian militia group Kata’aib Hezbollah, killing at least 26 of its cadres. That group responded by besieging the embassy, which in turn provoked the Jan 3 drone strike that killed senior Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani and Kata’aib chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, among others.
Tehran swore Soleimani’s killing would be avenged, and Kata’aib Hezbollah seemed intent on continuing to bombard U.S. positions, including the embassy. In recent days, there have been indications that Iran may rein in its militias, but the reprieve is at best temporary.
For years, U.S. officials have demanded that the Iraq government do more to prevent such attacks. That never happened, because taking on these militia groups, which are technically part of the Iraqi security forces, is politically and practically daunting.
It would appear that Pompeo is serious about the threat to close the embassy. That would be counterproductive, since it would deal a real political blow to the government of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi.
The Kadhimi government is the most reasonable and forthcoming one the U.S. has dealt with in Iraq since the 2003 invasion. The prime minister, more than his predecessors, is making a real effort to weaken the pro-Iranian militias. His efforts are being undermined by the threat to close the embassy, which has been received as a victory by these militia groups and their Iranian patrons. The propaganda message is predictable: The U.S. is running away, leaving its Iraqi allies in the lurch.
No one doubts that Washington needs an embassy commensurate with the far more limited diplomatic role it intends to play in Iraq. But such a change must be executed carefully. A safe and secure transfer to a right-sized facility would require the outlay of hundreds of millions of dollars, which must be secured from Congress in advance of any such announcement. It’s also crucial that Washington doesn’t act in a manner that appears to reflect weakness, let alone defeat.
If the new embassy is successfully integrated into the local Baghdad infrastructure for supplies of electricity, water, telecommunications and so on – at least to some extent – that would also intensify the buy-in by Iraqis and broaden the local constituency for wanting the embassy to be where it is.
Douglas Silliman, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq — and, full disclosure, now a colleague at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington — observes that the way the U.S. pulled out of the consulate in Basra in September 2018, played into the hands of Iran and its allies. “A lot of people felt demoralized or abandoned by the U.S. and our allies, who left the field to our strategic competitors. A lot of Basrawis who dealt with us were harassed, kidnapped and killed.”
The lesson for the Baghdad embassy, he tells me, is to look for an option between keeping the presence as it is and shutting it down altogether, both of which would be big mistakes. “But,” Silliman notes, “the first thing is to decide what the main purpose of the presence is, and then suit the infrastructure to fit the mission.”
As with so much else about U.S. policy in the Middle East, the solution to this problem must start with Washington finally deciding what it wants to accomplish.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.