Betting on the Iraqi army

Kadhimi’s moves constitute another notch on the scale of wrestling power in Iraq from Iran’s grip.
Tuesday 07/07/2020
Vehicles of the Iraqi army at the entrance to the capital Baghdad’s suburb of Sadr City. (AFP)
Vehicles of the Iraqi army at the entrance to the capital Baghdad’s suburb of Sadr City. (AFP)

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s firing of National Security Agency head Faleh al-Fayyad, who is known for his close ties with Iran, is a very important development on the Iraqi scene.

At the same time, Kadhimi ordered the formal separation of the position of head of the National Security Agency and national security adviser. Fayyad had a monopoly on both positions, which had prompted Iran to consider him for prime minster of Iraq. Kadhimi’s moves, however, constitute another notch on the scale of wrestling power in Iraq from Iran’s grip, especially in the management of the security apparatus, which not so long ago was completely under Tehran’s control.

There is evidence that the dismissal of Fayyad is a positive development. The new head of the National Security Council is Lieutenant General Abdul Ghani al-Asadi, a career officer in the Iraqi Army. Asadi participated in the Iraq-Iran war between 1980 and 1988, but on the Iraqi side this time, and not like many other post-regime change officials who were loyal to Iran instead of their home country.

It is clear, however, that Kadhimi is not completely free of the usual pro-Iran restraints. The evidence of this is his appointment of Former Interior Minister Qassim al-Araji as national security adviser. The problem with someone like al-Araji is that he belonged to the Badr Brigade, one of the militias affiliated with Iran whose leading members had returned to Baghdad from Tehran on the back of an American tank in 2003.

Fayyad was an important figure in the Iraqi system. In addition to serving as both head of the National Security Agency and a national security adviser since 2014, he has also chaired the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) since 2018. This authority is nothing less than a bunch of sectarian militias known to be loyal to Iran.

It is no secret that the PMF has been an Iranian project from the beginning. Its aim has always been to establish an Iraqi regime similar to that of the “Islamic Republic” in Iran, where the real authority is in the hands of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which in turn gets its orders directly from Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Iran’s ambition was, and still is, for the PMF to become a branch of the IRGC in Iraq so that Iraq becomes a true Iranian colony. But this is exactly what an overwhelming majority of Iraqis are rejecting, including Arab Shias who rose up late last year and virtually toppled the government of Adel Abdul-Mahdi.

Even though they paid a heavy price, they nevertheless proved that the overwhelming majority of Iraqis reject Iran’s guardianship in all its forms. The best proof of this rejection was the burning down of the Iranian consulate in Najaf and forcibly countering Iranian attempts to impose a pro-Tehran prime minister to replace Abdul-Mahdi.

Kadhimi’s battle to wrestle back the Iraqi state from the clutches of Iran’s proxies is still in its infancy. He is advancing sometimes and retreating at other times, as happened when he had members of the pro-Iran Kata’ib Hezbollah militia arrested and then released. These individuals had in their possession missile launchers they intended to use against various American targets in Baghdad.

Fayyad’s dismissal was certainly a big bite out of Iran’s influence inside Iraq. But it is evident that Tehran still holds plenty of playing cards in the country. This is why we see persistent Iraqi efforts to restore to Iraq the institutions of the Iraqi state.

No sane person will deny that Iran and its expansionist project are shrinking daily. This is not only due to the loss of the infamous Qassem Soleimani, commander of the IRGC’s Quds Force who was assassinated soon after his arrival at Baghdad airport with Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy commander of the PMF, but there is also another factor that plays a role in making the 2020 Iran different from the one that had full control over Iraqi decisions, especially in the security sector.

There is no longer an Iranian High Commissioner in Iraq. The last time Esmail Qaani, Soleimani’s successor, visited Baghdad, he had to secure a visa to enter the country. In other words, Qaani does not have Soleimani’s capacity to impose his will on Iraq and manage its affairs. He does not have his network of personal relationships with the leaders of the sectarian militias that make up the PMF and does not speak Arabic. But most important of all, Iran has begun showing its truly weakened state after US sanctions seriously damaged its economy.

We can soon be surprised to learn that the fires and explosions that recently targeted certain strategic sites in Iran were important messages telling Iran that it won’t be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon and that the days of the administration of former US President Barack Obama are over, whether Donald Trump remains president or not.

It is not a necessary condition that Iran must first regress for Iraqis to recover their country. Surely, other great challenges stand in the way of Kadhimi’s government. At the forefront of these challenges is the miserable economic situation that the country has reached in the shadow of corruption and its dependence on oil and nothing other than oil. In addition, there is a need for the Iraqi government to revive the one thing with which it can face up to the PMF, which aspire to replace the Iraqi armed forces, namely the Iraqi army that the Americans committed the crime of dissolving in the wake of their 2003 occupation of Iraq.

The PMF are currently plagued by deep internal divisions, especially in light of their Iranian master’s disability, marked by Tehran’s inability to fund certain Iraqi militias who survive on Iranian handouts, and by its inability to force the Iraqi government to provide more funds for sectarian militias. Could this important development signify the beginning of the rehabilitation of the century-old Iraqi military institution, and what that means in terms of the impossibility of any coexistence between the sectarian militias and this venerable institution?

There is no place for any sectarian militia in a country that respects itself and wants to be a state. We have an example of that in the events rocking Lebanon right now, where a longstanding civilised and modern country is collapsing because of Hezbollah and its weapons. Can Iraq do better than Lebanon? All indications are that it can succeed in getting rid, albeit with difficulty, of Iran’s illegal weapons, but the biggest problem will remain rampant corruption and Kadhimi’s government’s ability to come up with a viable economic plan to restore Iraq’s dignity.

This would be possible if the military establishment ultimately settles the situation in the interest of Iraq first and foremost … and not in the interest of Iran’s interests in Iraq. So, who then in Iraq will have the upper hand in the end to rescue the country from the disastrous effects of illegal weapons? And is betting on the Iraqi army to do just that still possible?