Iraq may be on the brink of its biggest crisis since 2006, when a civil war threatened to topple its nascent democratic system. Government formation talks have dragged out as pro- and anti-Iranian factions jockey for influence. Corruption and basic governance failures have triggered mass protests—particularly in Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city and primary oil-export hub. Armed militia factions are mobilizing. Iranian proxies have fired the first shots at the U.S. Embassy since 2014, showing their intent to use force to accomplish political goals. All this raises the prospect of an intra-Shiite civil war.
Such a conflict could lead to the collapse of the Iraqi state and allow Islamic State to re-emerge. It also could allow Tehran to consolidate control over the government in Baghdad while targeting American personnel throughout the country. A weak American statement telling Iran to control its proxies in response to two instances of mortars fired at U.S. facilities shows a lack of seriousness. Washington must act now to manage this crisis and deter further Iranian attacks.
The unfolding crisis results from two processes converging. On the political side, pro-Iranian leaders have tried to form a government that would include Hadi al-Ameri, leader of the Iranian-established and -controlled Badr Corps. The Tehran faction also backs Qais Khazali, a U.S.-designated terrorist who played a role in the murders of American servicemen and who has facilitated the training of Iraqi Shiite militias by Hezbollah. An anti-Iranian coalition that would exclude these Tehran proxies is fraying. American support for Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi enabled him to block Iran’s initial play, but neither side now has enough votes to form a government.
On the populist side, major failures of government service provision have been driving large, violent protests since early July. Iraq’s electrical grid has failed to provide consistent power during the hot summer. And the Basra water-treatment facility has failed, leading to as many as 30,000 hospitalizations for waterborne illnesses. The electrical crisis has been exacerbated by Iran’s decision to withhold the power it usually provides southern Iraq to service the restive population in its own Khuzestan province. Power outages there also have caused violent protests.
The first deadline for Iraq’s government formation passed on Sept. 3 without a resolution. The protests in Basra turned violent around the same time, merging the two crises.
Basra largely has been denuded of security forces other than police since 2014 as army units went north to fight ISIS. As a result, rival armed militias have proliferated. Those groups have been strong enough to prevent attempts by the Iraqi government to send armored military units back into Basra.
Iraqi security forces attempting to manage the protests do not have anything like a monopoly on the use of force—they aren’t even always the most powerful military forces present. They have also fired on protesters repeatedly, fueling the protest movement and driving it further toward violence. Mr. Abadi has gone to Basra multiple times but failed to quell the protests.
Iran’s proxies fired munitions at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and the U.S. Consulate in Basra on Sept. 6 and 8, respectively. Nationalist Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has reportedly directed his militia to fight for his interests. Mr. Abadi deployed reinforcements to Basra on Sept. 10 in an effort to prevent further violence. Iranian proxies may target these forces. The situation is reminiscent of early 2008, when then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki launched what became a massive operation to regain control of Basra. But there are three critical differences.
First, there is no American military presence in Iraq sufficient to support Baghdad as there was in 2008. Second, Mr. Abadi does not have enough Iraqi army forces reliably under his command to wage such a battle. Third, the populist protests are so widespread and violent that they have developed their own momentum even without militia support. Protesters have burned political party headquarters, the governor’s residence and the Iranian Consulate. They have attacked state-run television stations, oil facilities and hospitals. The odds are very high that the violence will escalate and possibly become uncontrollable.
Yet the news is not all bad. A strong and determined anti-Iranian movement at the populist and elite political level is coalescing and appears determined to resist Iranian domination. The U.S. must assist it.
Washington should not send military forces into this effort. But it has the technical and financial capacity to respond to the humanitarian disaster in southern Iraq, which Iran and its proxies have exacerbated. The U.S. and its regional partners can provide potable water, temporary power, medical assistance and other resources. This could make a decisive difference to Iraq’s political future and America’s national security, but it requires swift action.
The U.S. need not foot the bill or act unilaterally. It should lead its Gulf partners—Iraq’s other neighbors—in an effort that could be an important step toward reintegrating Shiite Iraq with the Sunni Arab world and disentangling Iraq and Iran. It could de-escalate tensions and violence, averting a catastrophic intra-Shiite war. It would demonstrate the reality that America and its partners are more capable and competent than Iran. And it would show U.S. commitment to creating a positive future for all Iraqis. Better yet, it would demonstrate that commitment without using military force. And it would show the Iranians that the U.S. stands by Iran’s foes in Iraq even in the face of potshot escalations.
The cost to the U.S. is low. The risks of action are low. The costs and risks of inaction—beginning with an emboldened, expansionist Iran—are enormous. Helping Iraq is a fast way to demonstrate American leadership at least cost with the potential of high reward.
Ms. Kagan is president of the Institute for the Study of War. Mr. Kagan is director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute.