Iran and the battle for Falluja

Sunday 05/06/2016

Iraq is passing through an extraordinary set of circum­stances. To put it simply: Iraq is facing an Iranian attempt to show that it is Tehran that has the first and last word in the country, not the Americans or even the Iraqi government and its military. It wants to show that there is no going back. Post-2003 Iraq, with Iran in the ascendancy, is here to stay.

Iran was the other side in the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. More than 13 years after the war ended, Iraq’s Shias — marginalised during the Saddam Hussein era — are doing nothing to prioritise the Iraqi national identity, preferring instead to rely on sectarian accounting. The involvement of Iran-backed Shia militias in the battle for Falluja only confirms this.

We have seen the battle against Islamic State (ISIS) in Falluja, which includes the presence of Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ al-Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani on the outskirts of the city as well as the return of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to the scene. All of this confirms that the idea of reform in Iraq is a thing of the past.

What about another pillar of Iraq’s Shia community, Muqtada al-Sadr? He is not part of this new scene. It is clear that in the past he played the role that was required of him but this ended when Iran traded a more hands-off approach for its current direct involvement on the ground. Tehran took this position after it became clear that the US forces in Iraq were unable or unwilling to play a leading role, leaving the door open for Iran to take that position for itself.

Following the invasion, there had initially been Iranian fears that Iraq’s new army would find itself under US control and there would be close cooperation between the Iraqi Defence Ministry and the Pentagon. That ultimately did not emerge. Most recently, and with the new offensive against ISIS in Falluja, Tehran has made sure to indicate to all observers that Iraq’s government forces have no real effective power on the ground and that it is the Shia militias or Popular Mobilisation Forces that are leading the fight.

Alongside the fight against ISIS, there have been reports of sectarian conflict, including reported crimes against humanity, which have completely destroyed attempts to unite Iraqis — Sunnis and Shias alike — against ISIS and instead created dangerous sectarian tensions. The Shia-dominated Iraqi government can pretend that all Iraqis are united in the fight against terrorism as much as it likes but that is simply not true.

ISIS’s presence in Iraq is the best thing that could have happened for Iran, allowing it to strengthen its presence and drag Iraq’s Shias into a sectarian conflict. Tehran is using ISIS to portray the Sunni-dominated provinces where the group has taken over as hives of terrorism. Under the pretext of destroying ISIS, the Shia militias are carrying out sectarian operations that serve Iran’s interests and threaten Iraq’s unity and identity. Even the capital, Baghdad, has changed. Once a city where there was no difference between its Sunni, Shia and Christian inhabitants, now it is a completely different city.

The battle for Falluja might be a battle against ISIS but it is also a battle that serves Iran. Otherwise, why else would Tehran devote so much time and attention to it? The Iranians are seeking to hit two birds with one stone with the Falluja offensive. Victory would embarrass the Americans, who have been slow to make progress against ISIS, while it would also strengthen the Iran-backed militias in Iraq and beyond.

Of course it is important to fight ISIS and retake Falluja and all the other Iraqi towns and cities that this vile terrorist group has taken control of but we must be careful that we do not turn victory against ISIS into defeat for Iraq.