Iran’s battle in Iraq
The United States has two predicaments: one in Afghanistan and another in Iraq. The Trump administration has had no choice but to negotiate with the Taliban to limit its losses in Afghanistan. As for Iraq, Washington is increasingly discovering that Iran has penetrated Iraq far deeper and wider than previously thought and that the Iraqi social fabric that is resisting Iranian colonialism is losing to Iran-sponsored sectarian militias — the same militias whose leaders entered Baghdad in 2003 on the back of an American tank.
Who is going to win in Iraq? Iraq faces three options: to be an Iraqi Iraq, an Iranian Iraq or an American Iraq. The United States, which has a vested regional interest in Iraq, had thought that the mere overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003 would lead to a democratic pluralistic regime in Iraq that would serve as a model for other countries in the region.
The explosion August 12 at Al-Sagr military base south of Baghdad revealed that the situation in Iraq is evolving in favour of Iran. The Iraqi government is providing an official cover for the militias of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF). Regardless of whether the blast at Al-Sagr was caused by overheating of poorly stored missiles and ammunition or by an Israeli or US strike, it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish between the official institutions of the Iraqi state and the PMF.
Little by little, the regime in Iraq is becoming like the Islamic Republic founded by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. At the base of this Iranian regime, one finds the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, whose counterpart in Iraq would be the PMF. These are simply militias affiliated with pro-Iranian Iraqi parties.
Most of the militias participated in the 8-year Iraq-Iran war on the Iranian side. They are Iraqis who had fought against their country and that is exactly what seems to be required of every Iraqi citizen these days — to place his or her sectarian affiliation above everything else to serve the Iranian expansion project in all its dimensions.
Sixteen years after invading Iraq, the United States is reaping what it sowed. It is reaping the presence of Kata’ib Jund al-Imam and of the Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhad in Al-Sagr, a camp that is supposed to belong to the Iraqi Interior Ministry.
A few months ago, there were signs of an Iraqi rejection of Iranian hegemony. There are still, deep in Iraqi society, including Shia circles, signs of total rejection of Iranian colonialism but what is clearly transpiring now is that time is working for Iran, whose regime is fighting a life-or-death battle in Iraq.
At least two things have been confirmed by Iranian actions in Iraq: the depth of the Iranian penetration into institutions of the Iraqi state and the lack of immunity against Iranian ambitions by Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi.
We are witnessing some sort of American perplexity about what to do in Iraq. The US sanctions against Iran are bearing fruit but what cannot be ignored is that Iraq has become the needed extra lung for Iran, allowing Tehran to resist being suffocated by the sanctions.
The latest evidence for that development is the decision to ban all non-Iraqi flights in Iraqi airspace announced by the Iraqi government through the so-called Joint Operations Command, which met two days after the explosion at Al-Sagr under the chairmanship of Abdul-Mahdi.
The decision is directed at the US administration, which the Iraqi government fears is behind the strike at Al-Sagr. What is certain, however, is that the position of the Iraqi prime minister reflects a desire to consider the interests and wishes of Iran and its Iraqi tools, especially the PMF. Will there be an American reaction to this or shall we consider the Trump administration not much different from Barack Obama’s in that they both would ignore Iraq’s importance to Iran?
Iran has adopted an offensive policy in Iraq and the US administration does not have a well-defined Iraqi policy. If it had one, it wouldn’t have let the Kurds down when they defied the Iraqi government with a referendum on the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan in September 2017. That was just two years ago. To this day, the Kurds suffer the consequences of the misalignment between their agenda and that of the United States, which ultimately served Iranian interests.
A year and a half ago, legislative elections took place in Iraq. Muqtada al-Sadr emerged victorious from those elections but there is no concrete translation of that victory. There is only an Iranian victory after Tehran prevented Haider al-Abadi from forming a new government and imposed its own alternative, Abdul-Mahdi, on the Iraqi people.
The Trump administration has an opportunity to show it is different from Obama’s. The place to show it is in Iraq, where Iran is in a big battle.
What cannot be ignored is that the Iranian expansion project had a new start from Iraq after 2003. Certainly, Iran’s proxies in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen cannot be ignored but what must be kept in mind above all is that Iraq is vital for Iran, especially now that it has been proven that it is Tehran’s spare lung.
The Trump administration possesses an integrated vision of the Iranian role in the region and the threat it poses. What is it going to do about it?
There is a need for a clear American policy in Iraq, away from all the excuses. There is hope in the fact that the Iraqi government still carries the desire to fix whatever can be fixed in terms of its Arab relations, especially with the Gulf countries.