Iran’s Esmail Qaani in Baghdad to unify loyal militias before elections, target US presence

Among the goals is to pressure Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi to end his rapprochement with Washington and reverse his policy of openness toward Iraq’s Arab neighbours.
Thursday 08/04/2021
A file picture of the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, Esmail Qaani. (AFP)
A file picture of the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, Esmail Qaani. (AFP)

BAGHDAD – Iran is redoubling its efforts to ensure its continued control over Iraq.

This explains the unannounced visit to Baghdad by the commander of the Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Esmail Qaani, at the same time that the strategic dialogue started between Baghdad and Washington.

Qaani held meetings with militia leaders in Iraq about unifying their ranks before the elections and coordinating their plans to target the US presence as they try to push Washington to withdraw its forces from Iraq.

Another objective is to pressure Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhimi to  end his rapprochement with Washington and reverse his policy of openness toward Iraq’s Arab neighbours.

Informed Iraqi sources said that the visit of Qassem Soleimani’s heir, which was announced only when it had ended on Tuesday, shows that Tehran no longer trusts its allied militias in Iraq because of the mounting popular resentment at their activities.

Iran’s influence in Iraq has declined since the killing of Soleimani. Qaani cannot not make up for the demise of Soleimani  as he does not wield the level of influence that  Soleimani had over the militias.

An Iraqi parliamentary source told The Arab Weekly that “Qaani is no Soleimani, and he does not have the power or influence that his predecessor had.”

He also does not have “the personal background” that qualifies him to impose his decisions, even if the militias only obey his orders, at least formally.

The source added that the leader of the Quds Force had tasked loyal militias, even those that do not have a political presence in state institutions, with exerting continued pressure on the US and Iraqi governments by provoking incidents aimed at softening American stances during the  Vienna negotiations with world powers on the nuclear agreement.

Analysts say that Iran may not be about to change its policies in Iraq, but it has become convinced that it does not hold that many cards in its showdown with Americans in the Iraqi arena.

They point out that the upcoming elections will not be like the previous votes,  because  internal tensions among Shia factions have intensified as a result of  the protests that engulfed predominantly Shia cities.

Iraqi blogger Saleh Hamdani told The Arab Weekly that Iranians want the dialogue with Washington to be limited to expediting the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq, while everyone, including Iran’s friends in Iraq, knows that the US presence is still helpful to Iraqi forces in their fight against ISIS and in their general security duties in the country.

Observers rule out the ability of the pro-Iranian political parties and militias to influence the outcome of the strategic dialogue between Baghdad and Washington, which began Wednesday.

The Kurds for instance tend to advocate maintaining American troops as an insurance policy against the encroachment of  the Popular Mobilisation Forces.

The Iraqi government delegation taking part in the strategic dialogue with the US includes a team representing the Kurdistan government headed by Fawzi Hariri, the chief of staff of the Kurdistan province.

The po-Iran militias are pressing Kadhimi through organised political and media campaigns to stop any progress in talks with the Americans and seek to offer the militias’ protection instead.

They also oppose his recent rapprochement with the Arab Gulf countries after his visits to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

Kadhimi stressed, prior to the strategic dialogue,  that the government seeks to protect the state and shield it from threats, by strengthening and rebuilding constitutional institutions, especially the Iraqi army and the rest of the security apparatus.

He added, “Iraq’s outstanding regional and international relations buttress state protection efforts.”

Iraq witnesses, on a daily basis, attacks against US soldiers, diplomats and contractors, smear campaigns against Kadhimi as well as military parades by pro-Iran factions that accuse the prime minister of loyalty to Washington.

The pro-Iranian militias and their affiliated politicians clamour for the expulsion of the 2,500 American soldiers stationed in Iraq.

They base their demands on a parliamentary resolution that was voted on in 2020 and has not yet been implemented. That resolution calls for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Iraq.

The state militias have undertaken a campaign against the prime minister, calling on him to open the Shalamjah border crossing between Iraq and Iran which was closed due to its use in the smuggling of drugs and weapons.

Hamdani stressed the importance of Iran’s border crossings with Iraq, as they offer a breathing space for the Iranian economy, which is severely constrained by US sanctions.

He expressed his belief that this issue was on the agenda of Qaani during talks with Iraqi officials.

The US-Iraq strategic dialogue constitutes a new test for Kadhimi’s balancing act.

Before this new session with the US, Kadhimi received the Egyptian and Jordanian foreign ministers and visited the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, the main traditional allies of Washington in the Middle East.

Political analyst Ihssan Shammari said those moves contained  “a message to Iran according to which Iraq has the right to pursue another course in its foreign relations, where it can rely on its Arab environment, and not maintain a one-sided relationship as Iran and its allies would like it to do.”

Western and Iraqi officials believe that Kadhimi wants the talks with the US to lead to agreement on a timetable for American military withdrawal. That way he can ensure, for now, Western support against ISIS and Iran’s influence.

Meanwhile and even before the start of the talks, Jaafar Husseini, a spokesman for Kata’ib Hezbollah, one of the most hardline  pro-Iranian militias, expressed his rejection of the US-Iraqi dialogue.

“The negotiations have no value, because the Iraqi people have decided to end the US occupation,” Husseini said, adding, “The Iraqi resistance continues to pressure America.”

American and Iraqi military personnel believe that with the decline of the jihadist threat in Iraq to mere secret cells in the mountains and the desert, the pro-Iranian factions have become the main threat facing Iraq.

They point to repeated attacks with missiles and explosive devices against logistical support convoys belonging to the international coalition. These factions at times even claim responsibility for attacks outside Iraqi territory .

Last week, during his visit to Riyadh, Kadhimi tried to reassure the Saudis their territory will not be attacked from Iraqi soil, pledging, “We will not allow any attack on the kingdom”.

In January, bomb-laden drones struck the main royal palace in Riyadh. US media quoting American officials said the drones were launched from neighbouring Iraq.

In Baghdad, an unknown group, which is believed to be a front for well-known factions loyal to Iran, claimed responsibility for the attack, but Kadhimi said in Riyadh “there were no attacks” on Saudi territory from Iraq.”