Iraq cannot risk alienating the US for the sake of Iran
After the US drone strike that killed infamous Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Major-General Qassem Soleimani, Tehran’s allies in Baghdad have been making noises about forcing the United States to depart from Iraq once and for all.
In an extraordinary session of parliament January 5, Iraqi lawmakers carrying placards of Soleimani as well as Iraqi Shia jihadist leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was also killed by the United States, backed a government motion calling for the expulsion of US forces.
This decision could have catastrophic decisions for Iraq, not least because the country may position itself against the world’s foremost superpower, something that did not work out so well the first time.
The parliamentary vote was attended only by Shia lawmakers and boycotted by everyone else, showing that neither Kurdish nor Sunni political forces supported the decision and therefore there was no national consensus.
Parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi was the only Sunni present and urged parliamentarians to postpone the vote; otherwise it would be seen as a “vote of the Shias” and did not represent the other major ethno-sectarian demographics.
Despite being one of Iran’s main establishment men in Iraq, Halbousi spoke the truth. Without a national consensus, any unilateral decision making by one ethnic or sectarian group over another to serve the interests of a third-party power would lead Iraq into a spiral of division and violence even worse than it already suffers.
Iraqi politicians appear to be wilfully ignoring the sheer weight and power of the United States. Ironically, it is this same political class that was empowered by the Americans that is seeking to oust the United States from Iraq to please Iran.
Once they had won the war on behalf of this newly minted political elite and had overthrown the former regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, they proceeded to set up checks and balances to ensure Iraqis played ball with the United States. Among these were financial mechanisms by which Iraq would be allowed to do business with the rest of the world.
Because of the calamitous sanctions regime that absolutely wrecked the Iraqi economy from 1990-2003, Iraq did not have an economic system to speak of. Despite being one of the richest countries in the world in terms of oil reserves, Iraqis found themselves among the poorest and most destitute people in the Middle East.
The new Iraqi regime signed agreements with the US government that would allow Washington to open bank accounts for the Iraqi state in the US Federal Reserve. This account became known as the Development Fund for Iraq (DFI) and enjoyed certain protections from the US administration that prevented creditors from cashing in on Iraqi debt, which is around $70 billion.
Iraqi oil sales largely fund the DFI and monies contained in the DFI pay the salaries of civil servants, infrastructure programmes and defence procurement.
Should Iraq burn bridges with the United States, US President Donald Trump has threatened to strike back with a sanctions regime that would make the ones on Iran look like a walk in the park.
Trump will undoubtedly be aware that his administration controls Iraq’s purse strings and part of the sanctions regime the United States will likely slap Baghdad with should it continue to be belligerent towards the American presence there would be to cut all public sector salaries.
Considering the Iraqi public sector is about half the labour force, the effects on the Iraqi population will be catastrophic. This is, of course, not to forget bringing back painful memories of medicine and food shortages leading to the death of 500,000 Iraqi children by 1996 with likely many hundreds of thousands more by the time of the US-led invasion in 2003.
It is therefore not in Iraq’s national interests to cut ties with the United States and to put itself against Washington for the sake of placating or pleasing Iran. This is not about being pro-United States and anti-Iran; it is about being pro-Iraq and putting the interests of the Iraqi people first.