Alwaght – The US foreign policy under President Donald Trump has troubled and obsessive situation these days. The Washington confrontation with regional and international powers in tense cases is even driving its traditional allies to cast doubt about if they should continue the strategic relations with the Americans. In the meantime, Iraq, a country that over the past years has undergone hard times due to the rise of the largest terrorist group of history ISIS, is taking a center stage in the Trump hardline political approach.
Even before assuming the power following the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump made controversial comments on various issues. The comments continued to date. Last month, Trump said he was keeping the American troops in Iraq “to be able to watch Iran”, arousing the ire of Iraq’s political parties. In a recent move, the Trump administration has announced that the Office of Foreign Assets Control added the Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, Iraq’s voluntary force with 10,000 fighters, to its terror list. The OFAC also noted that it sanctioned a number of the movement’s leaders, including its Secretary-General Akram al-Ka’abi.
The move by the US administration should not be taken seriously. Rather, it is symbolic measure because the Department of Treasury two years ago blacklisted this movement and others participating in the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a force formed in 2014 in opposition to the ISIS. The step has given rise to a question: Why is Washington taking such measure amid increasing opposition among the Iraqis to the US military presence in the country?
On the other side, it cannot go without consequences for the Americans who will certainly face a level of reactions by various Iraqi factions.
Why sanction the Nujaba?
The Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, led by Sheikh Akram al-Ka’abi, is one of those movements that came to existence upon the US entry to Iraq after the invasion that brought down Saddam Hussein. In the beginning, Sheikh al-Ka’abi joined forces with Sayyed Muqtada al-Sadr, another Shiite leader, under the Al-Mahdi Army, an anti-occupation force that dealt fatal blows to the American forces occupying the country. When the anti-American armed struggle ended by al-Sadr, who disbanded the Al-Mahdi Army in 2007, al-Ka’abi did not approve of a respite in the fight against foreign forces. He then separated ways from al-Sadr in the same year and finally in 2013 founded his own movement Nujaba. The movement’s military wing was among the first to join the anti-ISIS fight in 2014 as a PMF subdivision.
When the self-proclaimed ISIS-led caliphate, claimed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, collapsed in 2017 as a result of fierce fight by the Iraqi army, the PMF, and the regional allies, Nujaba was the first political faction to raise its voice against the US forces’ stay in Iraq, arguing the Americans lost their excuse for deploying troops to Iraq. Apparent enough, Nujaba blacklisting by the US Treasury Department has its drives in the political record of the movement and its sheer objection to the US presence in Iraq.
Preemptive move as pro-withdrawal voices grow strong in Iraq
It is noteworthy that the US administration has imposed sanctions on a group legally approved and official in Iraq. In a reading of the US motivation, we should refer to the snowballing anti-American sentiment in Iraq, in the making since a month. It began building after Trump said his forces were remaining on the Iraqi soil to keep a close eye on neighboring Iran.
The remarks angered the Iraqi wide range of the Iraqi community, including the lawmakers. So, in the upcoming days, the parliament is expected to debate a bill asking the uninvited foreign countries, mainly the US, to pull out their forces of the country. This new ban on Nujaba appears to be an indirect warning shot to the pro-pullout voices inside Iraq. Washington wants to send this message: Any faction who seeks US withdrawal should expect a similar ban. The past few days witnessed the Americans warning the Kurdish parties not to show a green light to the Iraq parliament’s bid.
Despite the indirect threats to the Iraqi parties, it does not seem that they are working for Washington. The pressure not only fails to dissuade the Iraqi lawmakers from approving the US military expulsion bid, but also it will also stir rejuvenated anti-American sentiments among the Iraqi public opinion. In fact, a majority of the factions pressing for US exit never built their stances on the political interests or the behind-the-scenes deals. This means that even the ban cannot impact their decision and strategy.