Iran’s ambitions in Iraq threaten victory over ISIS

Sunday 16/07/2017
Exploiting sectarianism. Iraqi militiamen hold a poster bearing a portrait of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as they take part in a parade marking al-Quds (Jerusalem) Day in Baghdad, last year. (AFP)

London- Amid the jubilation over the defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Mosul by US-backed Iraqi forces, there are fears that Ira­nian designs in Iraq will rekindle sentiments that gave rise to the militants.
Many Iraqi Shia politicians and militia leaders look to Tehran for support and guidance, as Iran backed or hosted many of those in power when they were in exile.
The most recent of Iran’s sus­pected designs is the military cor­ridor from Iraq to Lebanon through Syria, whose regime Tehran has supported since an anti-govern­ment uprising erupted in 2011 and morphed into civil war.
Iran’s influence in Iraq and — as some Iranian officials have boasted — Syria, Lebanon and Yemen was not limited to military outreach. Maintaining influence in those countries grants Iran leverage in diplomatic negotiations, most no­tably with world powers.
Such influence, however, is pre­dominately exerted on political or military powers that are, to one extent or another, ideologically aligned with the Iranian regime. This could lead or add to internal friction in those countries.
Despite the presence of sectarian rhetoric and acts during the Iraqi campaign to dislodge ISIS from Mosul, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has been keen to present the military offensive as a united and national effort against the mili­tants.
To a large extent, Abadi has suc­ceeded in showing that he is differ­ent from his predecessor, former Prime Minister and current Vice-President Nuri al-Maliki, who had come to be viewed as a symbol of sectarianism. Al-Qaeda, ISIS and other such groups hid among and recruited members of Iraq’s Sunni Arab community, who welcomed any saviour promising to protect them from the abuses of the Shia-dominated gov­ernment and militias.
This explains why Abadi was de­termined to prevent the Shia-ma­jority Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) from having any role inside Mosul, tasking the militia fighters instead with the role of capturing neighbouring villages and cut­ting off the route that ISIS fighters could take towards Syria.
The PMF is also besieging the town of Tal Afar, which is under ISIS control. The Shia militia­men have yet to move on Tal Afar amid fears that the town’s Turk­men population will face sectarian backlashes.
Turkey has been vocal in ex­pressing concern about the fate of Turkmen and Sunni Arab civilians in Tal Afar and the Iraqi govern­ment appears to have listened to Ankara’s concerns, to the ire of militia leaders. It remains unclear whether Abadi will be able to pre­vent sectarian attacks once atten­tion shifts from Iraq after the lib­eration of Mosul.
Despite ISIS’s sectarian acts and rhetoric against Shias and other communities, Sunni Arabs have been the first of many to be vic­timised by the militants. Despite professing to be of the Sunni domi­nation of Islam, ISIS’s view of what truly constitutes a Muslim has left many Sunnis outside that defini­tion.

The brutal rule of ISIS in Mosul over the past three years will un­doubtedly lead most of the city’s residents to welcome any liberator. This should allow for a fresh start between Mosul’s residents, the majority of whom are Sunni Arabs, and the Shia-led government.
However, there are fears that sectarian-inspired acts of torture, rape and summary executions against the Sunni Arab community at the hands of rogue government-sanctioned, Iran-backed militias will continue to go unpunished. The perception is that ISIS has been obliterated for doing the same, so why not others?
The high civilian death toll in Mo­sul resulting from the US-backed Iraqi military campaign, as well as the numerous Shia fighters killed to liberate the city, means that sectar­ian sensitivities will remain high.

The visible presence of Iranian military figures and Iraqi militia­men openly declaring allegiance to Tehran further risks exacerbating tensions in predominately Sunni Arab areas.