Which War for Mesopotamia? Iraq Must Choose Between Iran and the US
In the coming month, following Eid al-Adha (August 21st), Iraq will be on the horns of a dilemma. The Federal Court has confirmed the results of the manual recount of the May parliamentary elections with insignificant changes to the previously announced results. After the holiday the Iraqi coalition that can assemble more than 165 parliamentary seats will have to choose the new ruler of the country. Whoever is selected as Prime Minister, whether he is pro-US, pro-Iran or even a neutral personality, will not save Iraq from serious consequences and difficult years ahead. If the new government implements the sanctions on Iran announced by interim PM Abadi, internal unrest and insecurity can be expected in the country. Many Iraqis, including some armed groups, will refuse what is perceived as US interference, and US forces themselves will likely come under fire. If the sanctions are not implemented, Iraq will face serious US sanctions in turn, international companies will pull out, and the return of the terrorist group ISIS (ISIL, Daesh) cannot be excluded. Any decision will certainly have a major effect on the economy of Mesopotamia, and perhaps even on its security.
The Iraqi government is normally formed following an agreement between one or more groups with the largest number of MPs, with several Iraqi parties (Shia, Sunni, Kurds and other minorities) holding a smaller representation in the Parliament joining in. The largest coalition is then eligible to select the future Prime Minister within one month of forming a governing coalition. Members of the coalition decide amongst themselves the distribution of power and posts including not only that of Prime Minister, but also Speaker, President and all the other key positions (Vice-Presidents, vice ministers, and the various ministerial positions in the government).
The latest formation to be officially announced is the coalition of Sayroon (Moqtada al-Sadr), al-Nasr (Haidar Abadi), al-Hikma (Ammar al-Hakim) and al-Wataniya (Saleh al—Mutkaq). These groups are still far from reaching the number of MPs necessary to form a government. And this means Iraq risks waiting for several months before seeing a new Prime Minister take power.
The Iraq-Iran borders run for 1,458 km from Shatt al-Arab in the Persian Gulf to Kuh e-Dalanper. Long borders and the large commercial and trade exchange between the two countries (over $12 billion per year) impose a special strategic relationship between Tehran and Baghdad. Moreover, the volume of religious tourism (for pilgrims visiting Imam Reda in Iran and many other shrines of prophets and Imams in Iraq) imposes itself on the countries’ leaders despite political differences. Although the majority in Iraq and Iran are Shia, religious ties do not inhibit the political independence of Iraqi Shia, who are Arabs; their patriotic interests prevail over any shared religious identity.
The Marjaiya in Najaf, led by the highest religious authority in Mesopotamia (and the whole of the Shia world), the Iranian national Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Ali al-Sistani, does not tolerate Iranian interference in Iraqi politics. Some analysts attribute this refusal to differences between the rival theological schools of Najaf (Iraq) and Qom (Iran), but other factors are more important, notably the Marjaiya’s desire for independence and Iran’s heavy hand in dealing with Iraqis. The Marjaiya in Iraq stood firm against Iran’s choice of Prime Minister in 2014, refusing to renew Nuri al-Maliki’s tenure, although the constitution gave him the legal right to become the leader of Iraq since he sat at the head of the largest Parliamentary coalition.
Al-Maliki was called by some “the Shia dictator of Iraq;” he refused to share strategic decision-making with his government and the parties who had helped him remain in power, as had been agreed before his second nomination by all Shia groups. Al-Malki was wrongly accused of being responsible for the emergence of ISIS and its occupation of a third of Iraq in 2014. In fact, neighbouring countries Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and also the leader of Kurdistan Masood Barzani who called ISIS a “Sunni revolution,” supported the group with the aim of partitioning Iraq into three states. In 2014, the US decided to watch ISIS expand and was very slow to intervene in support of the government of Baghdad, unlike Iran who offered arms and advisors to both Baghdad and Kurdistan. The US intervened only when ISIS didn’t stop at the limits of Kurdistan and headed for the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
I was in Baghdad and Najaf at the time when the Iranian General Qassem Soleimani tried hard to impose first al-Maliki and then the ex-Premier Ibrahim al-Jaafari, but without success. It was not a religious but a political conflict, in which Sayyed Sistani stood firm in opposing Iranian efforts to decide the leadership of the country.
Iraq finds itself in a bind due to the US sanctions on Iran. Any Prime Minister who accepts the unilateral sanctions on Iran will be vilified as an American puppet and will face opposition from both pro- and anti-Iran forces and political groups in Mesopotamia. In fact, the US’s unwise political move of announcing that it is staying in the country “as long as needed,” despite the request of Baghdad that it reduces the number of its 5000 servicemen in the country, is a direct challenge to all Iraqis. It is interpreted by the people in the street I spoke to, and by decision-makers in both Baghdad and Najaf, as an expression of the US will to impose a Prime Minister by force, notably Haidar Abadi.
The Iranian leadership needs to sit still, watching from afar the Iraqi internal reaction to the US decision to impose Abadi for a second term before reacting through its domestic allies.
Sources in the Iraqi government say “the Prime Minister ad interim tried to convince political leaders to accept the presence of the US forces in Iraq till an undisclosed date.” Iraqis understand this to mean that there is an agreement between Abadi – eager to stay in power for a second term – and the US – eager to see Abadi remain in power to stand against Iran – that US forces will stay in Iraq even if ISIS no longer controls any city or village in Iraq (vestiges of ISIS remain as insurgents, and outlaws in hiding.)
Both Abadi and the US forces seem unaware of the presence of a strong popular movement among the population. These forces fought against ISIS for over four years and are ready to fight a long insurgency war against the US forces in Iraq, without even asking for Iran’s support, help or guidance. There are many groups who fought against ISIS and among the ranks of the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) but returned to their own parties once the war ended and refused to be integrated within the Ministries of Defence or Interior.
The wrong-headed US policy (and not only in Iraq) is even calling for a coalition between Sayyed Moqtada al-Sadr and Haidar Abadi to form a coalition with the largest number of MPs, sufficient to select a new Prime Minister. Some analysts go even further, asking Washington to invite Moqtada al-Sadr to the White House to keep Iraq away from Iran.
They seem not to realise that Sayyed Moqtada will be at the head of the first group called upon to fight the US forces in Iraq if these decide to stay longer in Mesopotamia and to impose a leader of Iraq. Moreover, Abadi is incapable of controlling Moqtada who did not hesitate to send his horde to the “Green Zone”, invading various ministries to “pull Abadi’s ears” and call him back in line. Moreover, Moqtada locked the Vice Speaker, a member of the al-Sadr group, and other members of his inner circle in a lavatory at al-Hannanah (Moqtada’s HQ) in Najaf for two days.
Sources within Sayyed Moqtada’s inner circle told me: “Sayyed Moqtada rejects the implementation of any sanctions against Iran agreed by Abadi and will not accept a new Prime Minister riding into the green zone on a US tank”.
Other forces in Iraq are said to be “watching closely the US forces movement in all the military bases in Iraq”. “If they have bad intentions (to stay in the country) we shall intervene to convince these forces to leave”, said a high-ranking Iraqi source within the popular armed forces-who fought against ISIS over most of the Iraqi territory.
No Iraqi official has explained to the people the advantages and disadvantages of implementing the US unilateral sanctions on Iran. No one has explained what are the risks, what would be the reaction to the US steps and what would be Plan B, if any. Who would compensate the enormous damage to Iraq’s economy that will follow, whether sanctions are accepted or rejected? Iraqis have suffered for more than 11 years of US sanctions during Saddam Hussein’s era and may not be willing to go through this again. But it is their choice, not that of a single person, Abadi–who in fact did not win a majority during the parliamentary election in any Iraqi province.
In Iraq, there is no political consensus over strategic decisions: the unilateral decision on Iran sanctions taken by interim Prime Minister Haidar Abadi needs parliamentary approval so that the representative of the Iraqi people can assume responsibility for taking the country into an unknown future. The Iraqi Foreign Ministry has rejected Abadi’s unilateral decision, and so did most Iraqi political groups with Ministers in the government. The Iraqi Vice President Nouri al-Maliki, Abadi’s Da’wa party, and many others, rejected the Prime Minister’s action against Iran and in favour of the US. Many said overtly that “Iraq will certainly not be part of the US plan to hit Iran.”
The Shia groups are not in harmony – many reject Abadi for a second term. Nor are the Sunni groups agreed on a new Speaker (Anbar Governor Mohammad al-Halbusi versus the vice President Usama al-Nujeifi). The Kurds are waiting to see who will form the largest coalition before joining in and imposing their conditions because they will be the ones who tip the political balance for or against Abadi.
The bras de fer between Iran and the US is playing out over the entire Middle East and particularly in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. Today, the Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and the US Special Presidential envoy Brett MacGurk are both visiting all Iraqi officials and heads of groups to attempt to influence the Iraqi decisions. It is crucial for both Iran and the US to see a Premier on their side and both seem indifferent to the consequences for the Iraqis of the choice of one side or the other.
It is not so much a question of having a leader with vision but a leader ready to assume almost impossible responsibilities. A choice of wars is knocking at the door of Mesopotamia: another war in Iraq (against the US forces) or an economic war (against Iran.)