Iraq caught in global, regional crossfire
BEIRUT - Iraq, ravaged by war, tyranny and insurgency since the 1980s, seems set to become the seminal confrontation point in the swelling power struggle between Riyadh and Tehran, with Sunni states lining up behind the Saudis to block Iran’s efforts to dominate the Shia-majority country.
Now Moscow seems to be driving to extend its influence in Iraq as well, ostensibly to form an anti- Islamic State (ISIS) coalition but on a more strategic level embracing Iran and Syria to rebuild a regional alliance it lost decades ago in a part of the world that’s now up for grabs.
“Iraq, a historical crossroads between major empires to the east and west, is once again caught in the middle of a battle among regional powers looking to protect their own interests,” the US-based global security consultancy Stratfor observed.
There have been signs that Iraq was seeking to shed the blood-soaked political baggage it acquired during the rule of Saddam Hussein and the subsequent US occupation. Saudi Arabia, which broke off relations with Baghdad in August 1990 after Saddam invaded Kuwait, had planned to reopen its Baghdad embassy in September after Eid al-Fitr.
But that has not yet come to pass, possibly because of Moscow’s move in late September, amid its military intervention in Syria, to cement this emerging alliance by setting up an intelligence coordination centre with Syria and Iran in Baghdad.
Saudi Arabia’s recent transformation from risk-averse caution in its foreign policy to shoot-from-the-hip military interventionism, as seen in the Saudi-led coalition of Gulf states battling in Yemen against what they maintain is Iranian encroachment, underlines how Riyadh is stepping in to block Iranian ambitions to its north and as well as its south.
The Gulf states fear that if Iran gets a stranglehold on Iraq, the land corridor from Iran to the Gulf states that Saddam kept shut for decades will finally be open and with it the possibility of invasion by the Arabs’ historical enemy, the Persians.
Ever since the United States toppled Saddam in April 2003, and especially since US forces withdrew in December 2011, Iran has been seeking to impose its will on Iraq through its Shia majority.
But Iran’s success in infiltrating Iraqi institutions and whipping up sectarian chaos seems to be meeting growing Iraqi opposition, 60% of Iraq’s people may be Shia but they are Arab and not Persian and, as they demonstrated during the 1980-88 war with the Islamic Republic, do not want to become a vassal state constricted by the straightjacket of clerical rule.
The recent outbreak of discontent among Iraqis, Shias and Sunnis alike, has directly challenged Iranian dominion in the country by forcing the government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who replaced the power-hungry, pro-Iranian Nuri al-Maliki in August 2014, to implement wide-ranging political reforms that put distance between Baghdad and Tehran. It also seeks to eliminate the corrupt political system that Tehran has long exploited.
Maliki, whom the Saudis considered an Iranian proxy, was ousted after the Islamic State (ISIS) seized most of western Iraq. The Americans dithered, allowing Iran to come to the rescue using the Iraqi Shia militias it had created to fight the US occupation. But the high-handed actions of these irregular forces have incensed Iraq’s Sunni minority and alienated many Shias.
A key player in the anti-Iranian alliance is Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the religious leader of Iraq’s Shias and a long-time opponent of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s system of theocratic rule in Iran. Although Sistani was born in Iran, he is widely revered in Iraq and holds unquestioned authority there.
Tehran has wanted to get rid of him for years but knows that assassination or trying to discredit him could backfire dangerously on their plans to absorb Iraq and its vast oil reserves.
The reclusive Sistani seeks to reassert the place of Najaf, Iraq’s spiritual capital where he lives and which he rarely leaves, as the religious centre of Shia Islam, a status that was challenged by the 1979 Islamic Revolution after which Iran’s holy city of Qom became more prominent. But with the 2003 toppling of Saddam, Najaf sought to reclaim its historical status.
Sistani, who follows Shia Islam’s “quietist” strain and has rarely interfered in political affairs, has openly supported the protest movement and become stridently anti- Iranian in his public pronouncements. This has resonated deeply with Shias who despise Iran’s clerical rule.
Indeed, Abadi was able to undertake a bold and unprecedented reform package largely because Sistani threw the weight of the Shia religious authority behind him.
The support of Sistani and the religious establishment could well be the clincher in the end. “The real story behind these uprisings is that the Shia political and religious establishment wants to pre-empt a power grab by the up-and-coming Iran-backed elements in the country,” said Iraq expert Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.