Trump, known for sending shockwaves through his diplomacy across the Middle East, defended his surprise decision of gradual pulling out of 2000 troops from what he describes as “sand and death Syria” and also gave a green signal of the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. Later analysts predicted that the withdrawal move would lead its way to Iraq as well. But this air was cleared when Trump ‘secretly’ visited the troops at the Al Assad air base and affirmed that he had no intentions of retreating the military from Syria and asserted that the base could be used if he wants to re-enter Syria, suggesting that the concern persists of the strong resurgence of Islamic state in neighbouring Syria. The resurgence of the Islamic state, and adorning the Iraqi Forces with tactical training and basic weapons to fight ISIS acted as an ideal pretext to maintain a military presence at the heart of Middle East. The reality is that the importance of Iraq for the USA stems from the fact that it is also paramount to Iran’s ambitions of establishing a “Shia Crescent” extending from Bagdad through Damascus, Beirut to the Mediterranean Sea. Iran’s aggrandisement pricks its beloved enemy USA, who sees its military presence as the only gateway to curb Iran’s nefarious activity.
Trump’s visit to the Al Assad base in Iraq, without meeting the Prime Minister Abdul al Mahdi and other subordinate politicians received flak from the pro- Iranian puppet like Hadi Al Amir’s Fatah alliance and external branch of Iranian military Popular Mobilization Units who help eradicate ISIS from Iraq as they claimed that this diplomatic move undermined the territorial sovereignty of Iraq and promised to frame a law to expel the USA forces from Iraq. The troops are present as a part of a coalition against the Islamic State and aim to stabilise the war-ravaged Iraq. They withdrew in 2011, after the American invasion of Iraq and returned at the invitation of the Iraqi government. But now as Iraq declared victory over Islamic State a year ago, Trump’s ‘genius’ and impulsive move blessed the pro- Iranian factions with the valid justification to drive USA out of Iraq and consolidate their position of ‘illegitimate’ presence of USA’s troops as the arrival of the USA’s forces is only backed by the executive order. Though without any parliamentary assurance, the strategic framework agreement signed in 2008 by Washington and Nouri Al Maliki government forms a legal framework for the USA’s presence in Iraq. Given the desperate attempts of Iran’s pawns to oust the USA military from the Iraqi soil, a legislative order to legalise the USA’s military is a dim possibility. If any such bill is passed in the parliament, Iran will checkmate the USA in the Middle East after Trump’s hasty decision of draw-down of troops from Syria which has cleared the pathway for Iranian expansionism.
Whether the cards will turn in favour of USA or Iran depends on the political landscape of Iraq. This time the election results are a backlash against the foreign influence and act as a real curveball against USA and Iran. The interesting and the tragic phenomena of the 2018 elections was a deepening Shia versus Shia rivalry deflecting from the “age-old” Shia versus Sunni sectarian politics. Iran loyalist, fire band Shia leader, turned Iraqi nationalist Muqtada al Sadr’s Sairoon alliance and the Iranian poodle, and the head of Iranian militia’s Badr organisation Hadi Al Amiri united to form a government and came to a conclusion to choose a “ compromised candidate” Abdul Mehdi as the prime minister of Iraq. But this alliance has fallen in the pit of jeopardy as the most important posts of the interior minister, and defence minister lies vacant over deflecting opinions of Hadi al Amiri and Muqtada al Sadr.
On the one hand, where Abdul Mahdi’s suggestion Fayyad, an Iranian partisan, was wholeheartedly accepted by the Hadi Al Amiri’s Fatah Alliance, Muqtada al Sadr’s Sairoon alliance staunchly opposed this decision as he wanted technocrats to take up the important positions in the cabinet. Muqtada Al Sadr’s Sairoon alliance is the face of new multi-sectarian Iraq as the party comprises of the equal representation of Shia, Sunni and Kurds. Iraqis being tired of the foreign intervention of USA and Iran wanted its country out of the black-hole of bloody sectarian war, so they voted for Sadr’s vision. Taking this into consideration, Muqtada al Sadr’s Sairoon alliance made clear that all Iranian sympathizers were not welcomed in the government posts as already a pro- Iranian Sunni candidate was elected as a speaker. The tussle between both the parties is also a reflection of how paralysed Prime Minister Abdul Mehdi is who “patiently’ waits for his approval of his cabinet ministers as he doesn’t belong to any block of rival factions. Ironically, a non- partisan candidate like Mehdi is just a titular head in the contemporary Iraqi politics.
This is not just a heated clash between Hadi al Amiri and Sadr, but a tug war between USA and Iran. The major setback for the USA in the May 2018 elections was a major win of Al Fatah Alliance belonging to the Popular Mobilization forces, which was constituted by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard of cops (IRGC). Al Fatah won the second most majority seats as a result of their role in countering ISIS in the region and people saw them as a “saviour’ from the ISIS caliphate. The PMU units form the backbone of the Iranian geo-strategic lynchpin across the Middle East by participating in the proxy wars across the Middle East. For the United States, the ever flourishing popularity of PMU is nothing to sneeze at. Hence, USA shares a common cause with anti- Shia factions and believes that cracking down on the artery of the Iranian back militia which will block the flow of Iran’s aggressive ambitions is the utmost priority. But the contemporary situation shows that USA has miserably failed at knocking down the PMU. The pro -Iranian militiamen like Hadi Al Amiri dominating the Iraqi politics pushed for a law in the parliament which formally inducted the PMU in the Iraqi forces. They will be getting equivalent salaries and the same rights as that of the military. Though the PMU has to report to the Prime minister, they are unofficial under the control of Iran as they take orders from the IRGC leader Qaseem Suleimani who is a brainchild of exporting 1979 Iranian revolution. Therefore it becomes even more important for Iraq’s government to stray the Iranian puppets from the defence and the interior posts particularly dealing with Iran’s internal security as they continuously try to paint a picture of ‘ independent’ and sovereign Iraq. Ironically, a surprise visit by president Trump violated its sovereignty, but not the infiltration of Iran in Iraqi politics defence and all spheres of life through all these years.
USA is concerned about the latest development of Iran of delivering missiles to the Shia militia in Iraq so that Iraq can be exploited as forwarding missile base for launching missiles not only on the American facilities in the region, but also USA’s closest allies Saudi Arabia and Israel. “We have bases in many places and Iraq is one of them. If America attacks us, our friends will attack American interests and its allies in the region; a top IRGC commander told Reuters. (IRISH and RASHID, 2019) Iran’s escalation in Iraq was fanned by Trump’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehension Plan of action and re-imposition of harsh sanctions on Iran. The deeply rooted independent footprint of PMU in the Iraqi army conforms to the model of Hezbollah, a party of God in Lebanon, who moulds Lebanon’s politics suited to the Iranian interests. Washington was fearing this sight, imposed sanctions on the two most powerful Shia leaders Qais al Khazali and the leader of Hezbollah al Nujba, but this bill miserably failed to undermine the authority of Iran’s closest parliamentarian partner in Iraq. Iraq constitution prohibits any military outfit to hold political positions, yet the Shia militia vehemently violates the laws of the constitution. A bitter reality is that Iran backed militias pollute the idea of ideals like sovereignty and make a mockery out of the hope of Iraqi’s.
Surprisingly Iran’s deeply entrenched multi-layered role in Iraq is not as secured as it once was. The abhorrence of Sunni civilians towards the PMU has reached a peak as its factions in the wake of fighting ISIS, committed grave human rights violations against the innocent Sunni civilians as a sign of revenge attacks destabilising Iraq and fuelling sectarian tensions. Though the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan has preserved strong ties with Iran, the Kurdish civilians appear cold towards Iran after Iran helped the Central government in Baghdad to forcefully cede the oil-rich Kirkuk province. The retaking of Kirkuk was an intense response to the failed Kurdish referendum. In southern Basra, a major oil generating province, the government failed to quell the public’s anger over dire power shortages, rampant corruption, unemployment and sanitation. More than 3000 people were hospitalised in Basra after drinking polluted war. To add to the suffering, Iran cut off the electricity supply due to the unpaid fees by the Iraqi government in Basra where the temperatures in summer reach 50 C. The anger was not only translated into violence against the government but also by torching the Iranian consulate in Basra over Iran’s rampant intervention in Iraq. The Shia community in Iraq also hate Iran equally as in the wake of sanctions; it continues to dump cheap quality goods in Iraq especially in Basra taking away the jobs of local people, depriving them of their livelihood. Anger is a symptom-directed to the Iranian controlled Shia militias who run the Basra province. Lately, there has been a shortage of water supply in Basra province as Iran is trying to divert the course of Tigris River by building dams for the aid of the Iranian farmers. The USA can fill the vacuum created by the sclerotic bureaucracy of Shia militia, but they will act as a barrier to delivering aid or building new infrastructure at Basra. The social problems can serve as a common ground for the national reconciliation, but there is an absence of a pure representative voicing people’s concern in the parliament as dominant PMU factions are engrossed in their “ritual” of sectarian politics.
It is pretty evident that the hatred at the grassroots civilian level failed to penetrate the topmost political system and hence Iraq has decided to not abide by the USA’s sanctions imposed on Iran as the collateral sanctions not only damage Iran but USA’s ally Iraq, who is the largest trading partner of Iraq. Iraq, the second most producer of oil in the OPEC cartel, imports 45 per cent of its natural gas from Iran, to power the generators and for other electricity purposes. In the face of sanctions, Trump has granted Iraq with a 90-day waiver to make payments for its natural gas imports. But, the foreign minister has implicated that Iraq vows to buck the USA’s sanctions clearing stating that Iraq is not obliged to follow the unilateral USA sanctions. Given the boosting trade ties between Iraq and Iran which Hassan Rouhani wants to increase from 12 billion to 20 billion dollars, growing energy security dependence and deep clout in the political and defence arena, USA has to provide exclusive concessions to Iraq to obstruct it from gravitating towards Iran. That does not include putting forward Trump’s business first policy in Iraq like pushing the American companies to secure deals for the extraction of natural gas and coaxing its partner Saudi Arabia to replace Teheran as a significant energy partner.
Further, Trump’s dream of seeing Iraq as a self- reliant energy force cannot be immediately fulfilled as it will take almost two years for Iraq to produce its natural gas. Trump can convince its ally Qatar, the top producer of Natural gas, to suffice Iraq’s electricity needs at reasonable rates, as Iraq continues to funnel 10 billion funds for the reconstruction of Mosul. Trump’s dumbfounded policy of re-imposing sanctions on Iran and Iraq’s behaviour of not paying heed towards its sanctions might have strengthened Iranian confidence that Iraq is still an Iranian colony. But the triangular relations of Iraq, Iran and USA will take a which course cannot be understood without the new emerging central player of Iraqi politics Muqtada al Sadr.
All these years Muqtada Al Sadr, an old player and a spectator of Iraqi politics has mastered himself in the art his anti- American and anti- Iranian posture. When George Bush invaded Iraq in 2003 on a ‘suspicion’ that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and reinforced the ‘link’ between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 was seen as a legitimate invasion to save the Shias’ and the Kurds from the wrath of the Sunni Saddam Hussein. After Saddam was toppled, and the majority Shias were given a major share in the Iraqi politics by the Bush administration, the minority Sunnis felt even more powerless after Paul Bremer ordered the disbandment of the thousands of Saddam loyalists’ Sunni army, who within a fraction of second were left on streets without a job, but with battlefield experience and knowledge. This reckless decision threw Iraq into the turmoil of ethnosectarian conflict, and many Shia and Sunnis turned to extremist’s sectarian groups for protection and started cursing the presence of the USA in America. One of the fiercest opponents of the USA’s military presence in Iraq was Sadr, whose Mahdi army militarily backed by Iran, was embroiled in sporadic clashes with USA army killing many USA troops in 2007. He is also ‘neutral’ in his hate equation with Iran. Over the years as Iran’s meddling into the Iraqi affairs started destabilising Iraq, he distanced himself from the former patrons of Iran. Now as his ‘Iraq first’ agenda appealed voters across all sectarian divides, he has still formed a coalition alliance with a blind Iranian Hadi, who boasted about fighting Iran Iraqi war on behalf of Iranian forces. Apart from that while he pushes forward the dream of independent Iraq, he is taking the Iraqi’s to the shrine of lies. Iraq is increasingly dependent on the international actors, and the UN as the country tries to recover from the rubble of war, and hence he cannot rid the country of all the external ties. His promises to Iraq’s are more idealistic rather than realistic and tap the emotional nerve of Iraq’s which might turn the tables against Sadr himself.
Though Iraq’s move of rebuking the USA sanctions on Iran might be seen as a win by Teheran, an anti- Iranian Sadr is good news to the USA as supplanting Iran’s influence on Iraq is pivotal to USA’s foreign policy. To free Iraq from the clutches of Teheran, Sadr has also cultivated ties with Riyadh by visiting Crowned Prince Mohammad Bin Salman. To free Iraq from the clutches of Teheran, Sadr has also cultivated ties with Riyadh by visiting Crowned Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) in Jeddah which was Sadr’s first visit since 2006. A surprise visit by Al Sadr and other high profile officials was returned with goodwill gestures of re-opening the Arab border crossing between Iraq and Saudi Arabia after 27 years and by announcing plans to open a consulate in Basra. Additionally, Riyadh also pledged 1.5 billion for the reconstruction of Iraq. This diplomatic turnaround will erode Iran’s sway and make the USA happy due to Iraq’s blooming relations with its ally Riyadh. Indeed, Al Sadr has eschewed from outwardly denouncing Iran’s interference, but subtle progress in relations with USA allies should make Iran a bit nervous. However, as long as Iranian aligned Fatah alliance is partially in power, it will act as a bulwark against a stringent and rapid action on Iranian supremacy in Iraq
Iraq is loyal to Iran as it owes Iran for its support for defeating ISIS. Without its backing of PMF armed militia, the conflict would have been dragging. When the Iraqi government called on the neighbours, and other allies to intervene, Iran was the first one to come to its rescue. USA entered Iraq much after ISIS has already captured swathes of territory in Iraq. The opportunity and the credit for the lion’s share of halting the ISIS drive went to Iran, as there were clear limits to the resources the USA was prepared to counter the extremists. When we look back in the past, USA’s withdrawal of 45,000 troops in 2011, followed by the USA’s invasion of Iraq, accelerated the growth of ISIS, emerged from the ashes of Al Qaeda and left a void for Iran, disguised as a golden opportunity to safeguard Iraq from the depredation of ISIS. Obama’s decision to withdraw troops came amid the declaration that Al Qaeda has lost its strong base and Iraq has rehabilitated from the years of civil war. The Republicans still blame Obama for his lack of diplomatic acumen for Iraq, leading to the rise of ISIS. With Trump announcing the departure of USA’s troops from Syria, he not only isn’t giving Iran an upper hand in Syria but also giving ISIS one less enemy to fight against. As Trump criticises Obama for his failed strategy, he is following Obama’s footsteps of diplomatic deficiency.
While Muqtada al Sadr emerges as a new kingmaker of the Iraqi politics, not running for the office of prime minister, he still has a significant say in the composition of the important government posts of the interior ministry and defence ministry. By no doubt, he will block the recommendations of the Iranian puppets. Muqtada al Sadr and Hadi al Amiri political differences will not only keep the efforts of government formation lingering, but also the hegemonic ambitions of two major parties behind the scenes USA and Iran. In the struggle for power, the Iraqi civilians are caught in the crossfire as they continue to suffer from lack of services like potable water, electricity, adequate health care and employment opportunities. But the result of this election underscored that the Iraqi’s irrespective of their ethnicity were less concerned about the USA or Iranian influence, and hoped for a life with health, dignity and opportunity. To avert the crisis, both the blocs will have to reach to a political compromise for the more significant cause of Iraqis as well as to demoralise external powers from exploiting the cracks in the coalition which will paralyse the government.
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Image Credit: Financial Times
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