As U.S.-Iran Tensions Grow, Iraqis Suffer

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Iraq is again in turmoil: It remains without a government two months after national elections, and there have been widespread protests over electricity shortages and lack of public services.

The maverick cleric Moqtada al-Sadr recently announced that he hopes the demonstrations continue until the people’s demands are met. Sadr, whose political coalition finished first in the May 12 elections, also said a new government should not be formed until the popular unrest ends.

At the same time, Hadi Ameri, the Iranian-backed militia leader whose coalition came in second after Sadr’s, called for ending the protests — which are largely aimed against Iran for its decision to cut off electricity supplies to southern Iraq. Ameri also called for speeding up the formation of the new government.

These two radically different views of the crisis speak volumes about Iran’s involvement in Iraq. Sadr has struggled to resist enormous pressure from Iranian officials and their Iraqi loyalists to form a government that will rule in Tehran’s interest. Ameri, a loyalist to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, wants Iran to maintain its sway in Baghdad, which it treats as its second capital.

Many U.S. officials are insistent that the country is on the road to recovery after holding what they think was a legitimate election. Having just returned from a week in the country, it’s clear this view is very misguided.

When Iraqis voted in May, many believed they were electing leaders who could stand up to Tehran. However, widespread evidence of election fraud, lack of a new government and the electricity crisis have disillusioned them.  

All these struggles stem from a battle for the country’s future: On one side are Iraqi political elites trying to establish a state free from outside interference; on the other are Iran’s proxies trying create a united Shiite coalition subservient to Tehran.

Unfortunately, it is likely Iran’s loyalists will prevail. So the question is: To what extent, if any, can the other side minimize Tehran’s influence?

The Iran-Iraq relationship is complicated. Contrary to the Western media narrative — which often reports that most Iraqi political parties are mere extensions of Iranian influence — there are some Iraqi blocs, even among the Shiites, that oppose Tehran’s heavy hand.

One example is the al-Hikmah Shiite coalition, which won 19 parliamentary seats in May. It is headed by Sayyid Ammar al-Hakim. His family, living in Iran while Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-led government clamped down on Shiites, founded the most influential exile political group, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. But last year, Hakim parted ways with Sciri and created his own coalition to be free of pressure from Iran.

The Hikmah movement’s spokesman, Naufal Abu Raghad, told me that the post-election chaos is the result of Iraq’s winning parties’ efforts to resist Iranian demands. But he warned that Sadr, whose slate won 54 of the 329 seats in the Council of representatives, remains under extreme pressure from Iran and Iranian loyalists to form a coalition that will serve Tehran’s interests. As a result, Hikmah has refused to join a Sadr-led coalition of Shiite parties.

“Sadr says one thing one day and something else another day,” said Raghad as we sat in the movement’s headquarters in Baghdad, which is lavishly decorated with Islamic-style woodwork and glass. “We are keen that a new government must not be directly influenced by regional powers. Iran does not have the right to form a government just to serve its interests.”

Hikmah is not the only influential group fighting for an independent Iraq. The powerful clerical establishment in the holy city of Najaf — which has long rejected Iran’s religious and political influence — is also showing its strength. Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq’s top cleric, declared that the pro-Iranian Shiite militias formed to fight Islamic State should now be placed under the control of the Iraqi government rather than Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Nonetheless, Iran’s arm-twisting of Iraq’s electoral winners has been severe. Immediately after the election, Qassem Suleimani, the notorious commander of the Revolutionary Guard, pressured Sadr to form an alliance with the Fatah coalition, which is dominated by militias under Suleimani’s command. Sadr agreed.

Yet on July 12, he suddenly reversed his position, announcing that he wanted the current prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, to serve a third term. There is an explanation for this change of heart: Abadi is also Washington’s preference, and several Iraqis who have spoken with officials at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad told me the U.S. has made its choice clear to Sadr, either directly or indirectly.

Iran, of course, hasn’t given up. It’s pushing Sadr to again change his mind and endorse Hadi Ameri, the head of the Badr Brigades — Iranian loyalists who are the military wing of Sciri — to be Iraq’s next prime minister. Ameri fought alongside Iranian troops in the Iran-Iraq War from 1980 to 1988. He reportedly held a meeting in June at the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad with a son of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — whose government tilted toward Tehran — and Suleimani.

Iran has also pressured Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdish region of Iraq, to join a Shiite-led coalition to form the next government. On July 7, Barzani met with a delegation from an Iran-backed coalition in Erbil, capital of the Kurdish region.

Tehran also has its eye on key ministries. Currently, its loyalists control the Interior Ministry — which is key to keeping Iranian-backed militias from being forced into control of the Baghdad government — and enjoy the support of many in the Defense Ministry.

One of Iraq’s three vice presidents, Osama Al-Nujaifi, told me that it is vital for the new Iraqi government to get out of the middle of the U.S.-Iran conflict. “We need a strong Iraqi government, but one that is not confronting the United States or Iran,” he said. “Some parties want to pull Iraq to the Iranian side, and others to the other side.”

This will not be easy. In the view of Iran’s loyalists, the geopolitical rivalry between the U.S. and Iran plays a vital role in the post-election mayhem. “The United States should widen its view of Iran,” Ahmed Al Asadi, a former spokesman for the Iranian-backed militias, told me. Asadi, who spent years living in Iran, did acknowledge that many Iraqis are tired of Iranian influence. “Because Iran’s influence is so clear,” he said, “some of the obvious activities from Iran are rejected by the people.”

For Iran, influence over, if not outright control of, Iraq’s new government has become more urgent since U.S. president Donald Trump decided to withdraw from the nuclear deal with Iran and European powers. Trump upped the ante this week with a tweet threatening that Iran faces “consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before.”

The U.S. will soon reimpose sanctions, which will only further inflame Iran’s economic crisis. European oil firms are already backing out of business agreements with Iran out of fear that Washington will impose penalties.

Iran is playing a dirty and destructive game in Iraq’s post-election mayhem. The U.S. is returning to a policy of full pressure against Tehran. Iraqi politicians are caught in the crossfire. And, sadly, the Iraqi people have little recourse but to watch the struggle unfold.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Geneive Abdo is a resident scholar at the Arabia Foundation and the author of four books, most recently "The New Sectarianism: The Arab Uprisings and the Rebirth of the Shi’a–Sunni Divide."

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