Secret talks between the UN and Hezbollah, threats by the US establishment against Iraqi leaders and Hezbollah, exchanges of messages between Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and the US representative, and a constant tug of war… All this and more has been registered – according to sources close to Soleimani – during the last four months in Iraq between Iran and the US, Hezbollah and the US, and US and Iraqi leaders, as part of the struggle to secure the next four years of leadership in Mesopotamia with its inevitable challenges. These challenges are related to who will govern the country, how Iraq will behave in relation to the US, and whether the US unilateral embargo on Iran will be respected.
Iraq is a substantial source of income for Iran and is essential to its foreign exchange, especially when Iran is under US sanctions. However, when President Donald Trump revoked the nuclear deal and imposed sanctions on Iran, the decision was not as hard on Iran as the previous sanctions imposed by the UN for decades, due to the refusal of many countries to follow the US against Iran. The US regime believed – and perhaps still does – that Iran would back down in the face of these newly imposed sanctions. This naïve view was transmitted to Iraqi leaders. A few of them were convinced that US global hegemony would grow significantly and that Iran was defeated.
In response to this, Iranian General Qassem Soleimani teamed up with Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah’s representative in Iraq, Sheikh Mohammad Kawtharani. This is not the first time the two men have been directly involved in the formation of an Iraqi government. The Iraqis often find it difficult to communicate with Iranian envoys but are more at ease with Hezbollah, even if Iran’s leverage is more substantial. It is a question of culture and style of communication. In Iraq, as in Lebanon, factional differences have obstructed compromise and prevented the formation of a national governments. External regional and international powers play essential roles in both countries and thus limit their sovereignty.
The US establishment has managed to influence prominent people within the Iraqi leadership, among these Sayyed Ammar al-Hakim and Haidar Abadi, the ex-prime minister. Abadi was surrounded by people who listened to the US and believed US hegemony would soon bring the fall of Iran, as it had been believed that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s government would fall in three months, six months or at most a year. Yet al-Assad remains in power: the regime change warmongers failed disastrously in reaching their objective even after seven years of war inflicted on Syria.
These same people pushed Abadi to announce that he would abide by US unilateral sanctions against Iran, thinking this would boost his chances for a second term. Abadi was ill-advised, yet he accepted this advice. That was his biggest mistake and the first nail in his political coffin. The US envoy to Iraq did everything in his power to promote Abadi but failed. According to top decision-makers in Baghdad, the US envoy actually warned Iraq against talking with Hezbollah’s representative, considered a “terrorist individual”. Faleh al-Fayyad, the head of National Security and commander of al-Hashd al-Sha’bi met with Ambassador Brett McGurk and informed him that “the US list of terrorists applies outside Iraq and certainly not against an Iraqi citizen (Sheikh Kawtharani holds dual citizenship)”. According to the sources, the US envoy responded that he is not acting against anyone, that he is not trying to stab Iran or Iraq in the back and that he would like to send a message to Qassem Soleimani that the US is not trying to twist Iran’s arm in Iraq.
A UN representative in Iraq met with the Hezbollah envoy to ease the already tense situation. Kawtharani told him: “our candidate is Abu Mahdi al-Muhandes. If the US wants to impose a candidate, let us see who will manage to reach power”.A meeting between a UN representative and a Hezbollah representative amounts to recognition of Hezbollah’s role in Iraq and is an indication of US’s desperation. The US was afraid of seeing an Iraqi leader in power with strong animosity to the US.
However, Iran and the US are not the only players: Turkey wanted Usama al-Nujeifi as Speaker instead of Mohammad al-Halbusi. That required a trip by Khamis Khanjar to Turkey to meet president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and inform him about Nujeifi’s alliance with the US and Saudi Arabia. This is when the Turkish President accepted Halbusi and dropped Nujeifi.
There is no doubt that Iraq is in the eye of the storm: the interests of Iran, Turkey and the US all bear on the election and selection of Iraqi leaders. US objectives were clear: Abadi was their perfect candidate. The ex-prime minister did everything in his power to serve the US policy in Iraq and Syria. He is the one who prevented Hashd al-Shaabi from liberating Deir-ezzour/al-Qaem, in response to US demands. This was necessary for the US to buy enough time for the Kurds to reach Deir-ezzour and the east of the Euphrates. Therefore, Abadi stopped the Hashd support to Syria, allowing the US to occupy north-east Syria.
Abadi stood harshly against Soleimani on more than four occasions and ordered inspection of his luggage when he landed in Baghdad, an Iraqi insult meant to “pull Soleimani’s ears”. Abadi kept Soleimani waiting outside his office on many occasions and sought to remove Abu Mahdi al-Muhandes from his position. Also, when the ex-prime minister visited the Hashd al-Shaabi HQ, he questioned display of the portraits of the Grand Ayatollah Sistani, Imad Mughnniyeh and others, pretending to not know who they were. That was how he imposed his authority, an authority he never really enjoyed. “This arrogance and aggressive attitude led to the loss of his second mandate and will likely keep any Da’wa party member out of power unless serious reform is undertaken in the future”, said the source.
Iran’s role in the Iraqi election
Iran was determined, months before the elections, to promote Haidar Abadi. In fact, Qassem Soleimani tried to impose Abadi days before the elections when he met with the prime minister and Hadi al-Ameri in order to create an alliance. Al-Ameri, who managed to gather 48 seats in the parliament (Abadi was left with 12 only), refused Soleimani’s wishes. It was not smart of Soleimani to put all his eggs in Abadi’s basket before the election: once the results were clear, however, it was a different matter and an alliance would be possible depending on political negotiation and concessions.
Abadi adopted a hostile position toward Iran, convinced that the “Iranian regime would fall”. Soleimani then dropped his support for Abadi and went to Adel Abdel Mahdi as his first choice and Faleh al-Fayyad as a second choice (still a possibility in case Adel doesn’t manage to form a government). Abadi was supported by the US and Saudi Arabia, invalidating his candidacy from the Iranian point of view
Turkey, an important player throughout the Middle East with two consulates in Basra and Mosul and troops in the north of Iraq, wanted Usama al-Nujeifi as a speaker–and Iran didn’t want to oppose President Erdogan. The Iran-Turkey alliance is important but, at the same time, Turkey needed to know that its candidate was also supported by the US and Saudi Arabia. This is why Khamis Khanjar – a pro Qatar and pro Turkey businessman – was such an important player. Saleh al-Mutlaq didn’t go along with the Iranian alliance this time (unlike with the previous government) and Khanjar became the man to replace Mutlaq as leader of the Sunni in Iraq. It was also convenient for Iran to see Mutlaq join the opposing camp since he was representing himself and no longer sitting at the head of 20 MPs as in the previous government. Therefore, Iran finds itself free from any commitment to Mutlaq who would request a vice prime ministership position in order to leave the US-Saudi camp.
When President Erdogan was convinced that Usama al-Nujeifi was no longer in his camp, he agreed on Halbusi who visited him after the election to thank him for his support. He managed to get Erdogan’s approval to release more water to Iraq through the Tigris river to ease its shortages, particularly in Basra.
Iran was content with the election of Halbusi and moved on to the election of the new president. Soleimani faced a real dilemma here: his choice was Barham Saleh, who promised to stand by Iran as Mam Jalal (Talibani) had done. Still, it would not have been wise to upset Masood Barzani and leave him in the US’s arms. The vindictive Kurdish leader is still upset by the loss of Kirkuk and the failure of the referendum. Soleimani didn’t want to appear to be the one putting a final bullet in Barzani’s head andthe one who was rejecting his candidate, Fuad Hussein.
The day of the election, Fuad Hussein and Barham Saleh stood facing the other in the parliament. Soleimani remained on the sidelines and members of the parliament voted without pressure. Following the first round, Barham Saleh managed to get 112 votes out of the necessary 220. This is when phone calls reached many MPs asking them to turn against Saleh and support Fuad Hussein. Soleimani sent a message to Barham Saleh asking him to close his mobile phone to avoid any outside pressure to pull out and parliamentary members belonging to al Bina’ were asked to support Saleh, who won a second term.
The last position, and the most important one, was the prime ministership. Adel Abdel Mahdi was rejected by Nuri al-Maliki right up to the hour of his election. It required a lot of pressure and effort from Soleimani and Kawtharani to convince al-Maliki that the al-Da’wa party had lost this position (which it held since 2006) and that it was time to move on with a person accepted by the Marjaiya and by most political parties. With al-Maliki’s agreement, the road was clear for Adel.
The Grand Ayatollah Sistani sent a message to Moqtada al-Sadr, through his son Sayyed Mohammad Reza, asking the sadrist leader to allow Adel to form his government. “I hear you and I shall obey” replied Moqtada.
At the end of the day, Moqtada dropped Abadi and closed his ears to Sayyed Ammar al-Hakim who promoted a US ally, the head of the Iraqi Intelligence Service, as prime minister. Moqtada is angry with Iran but not to the point of serving Iran’s enemies. He took a step backwards and dropped Abadi.
Top US officials in Iraq denied having exerted any pressure or making any direct or indirect threats to ensure the success of their favourite candidate Haidar Abadi. No list which was promoted by the US found its way to the prime ministership. The Americans claim they had supported Halbousi, Saleh and Abdel Mahdi. At the end of the day, if indeed both the US and Iran have reached the same conclusion, perhaps prosperity and progress await Mesopotamia.