Assault on Green Zone challenges US-Iran deal in Iraq
On April 30th, months into Iraq’s political crisis and two days after the visit of US Vice-President Joe Biden to Iraq, loyalists of conservative Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr broke down the high concrete walls surrounding central Baghdad’s Green Zone in a challenge to the tacit agreement between the United States and Iran.
An early warning sign of how inimical al-Sadr is to the US-Iran renewed deal in Iraq came on March 14th when he called Steve Walker, the US consul general in Basra, a “terrorist” for visiting wounded warriors from the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF). The unprecedented visit was a significant US recognition of the Iranian-backed irregular forces and came one day after Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari defended the PMF in a speech before the Arab League, prompting the Saudi delegation to walk out in protest.
However, the policy shift served a dual purpose from a US perspective: Integrating the PMF guerrilla warfare expertise in the battle of Mosul against the Islamic State (ISIS) militants while tapping into Iran’s emerging sphere of influence. With the waning image of the Iraqi military and the public cynicism towards the ruling elite, the PMF is becoming a political and military force in Iraq.
Meanwhile, al-Sadr and his supporters have besieged the fortified Green Zone, including key government ministries, despite calls by the Iraqi government not to protest without a permit. Their main demand is for the parliament to approve the technocratic cabinet announced by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
Al-Sadr later made an alliance with former prime minister Nuri al- Maliki to unseat Parliament Speaker Salim al-Jabouri. Tehran had to request the help of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah to convince al-Sadr to step back and allow the political process to proceed.
Tehran’s influence on the National Alliance, the ruling Shia coalition, has proved to be limited on several occasions. Iranian Ambassador to Iraq Hassan Danai Far noted that the attempt to unseat Jabouri “complicated the political crisis and did not take into consideration Iraq’s constitution”.
However, when al-Sadr loyalists stormed the Green Zone and chanted “Iran, out, out”, for Tehran a red line was crossed. Not only did it warn its citizens against travelling to Iraq, Iran’s supreme leader’s adviser for international affairs, Ali Akbar Velayati, described al-Sadr’s actions as “illegal”. The conservative cleric announced a two-month hiatus and reportedly travelled to Iran, a sign of how much influence Tehran can exert when needed.
Al-Sadr’s move showed the fragility of the situation in Iraq and how quickly the United States can lose control over the country it once ruled, despite a month-long US diplomatic offensive from the official launch of the battle of Mosul on March 24th until Biden’s April 28th visit. The timing of this visit in the midst of a cabinet formation was unfortunate, to say the least, and showed, once again, the limits of US power.
Three US soldiers have died in Iraq since the efforts to counter ISIS started in June 2014 with an estimated cost of more than $6.5 billion so far. Approximately 5,000 US service personnel are serving in Iraq, a number higher than the 3,870 cap set by the White House in 2015.
Yet, the dysfunctional relations between Iraqi factions are leading US policy in Iraq to stagnation where no significant progress is made against ISIS while its influence in the country dwindles.
Meanwhile, the United States and Iran agreed once again to renew their share of influence in Iraq’s patronage system and to maintain their focus on ISIS. Ending al-Sadr’s forceful march into Baghdad on May 2nd was reminiscent of a similar development nearly a decade ago when an al-Sadr-led armed rebellion was crushed while opposing an earlier US-Iran deal, Maliki’s rise to power in 2006.
In post Iran’s nuclear deal world, Tehran will not allow al-Sadr to threaten its honeymoon with Washington while it lasts.