New Quds Force chief continues Soleimani’s legacy of interference in Iraqi affairs

In his first public visit to Iraq, Ghaani is said to have opposed choice of Zurfi as PM.
Thursday 02/04/2020
On Soleimani’s foot steps. A 2017 file photo shows General Esmail Ghaani speaking in Tehran, Iran.(AP)
On Soleimani’s foot steps. A 2017 file photo shows General Esmail Ghaani speaking in Tehran, Iran.(AP)

LONDON--Esmail Ghaani, head of Iran’s Quds Force, the foreign intervention arm of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), arrived in Baghdad March 30, in his first public visit to Iraq since succeeding slain Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani.

His visit was perceived as a continuation of the legacy of Soleimani, who tried to shape Iraqi politics according to Iranian interests through the development of a base of local proxies loyal to Tehran.  But because of Ghaani’s poor command of Arabic and lack of personal connections to key Iraqi figures, there were doubts about his ability to exert influence the way his predecessor did, reported The Associated Press.

Soleimani, along with Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was killed January 3 in a Washington-directed air strike outside Baghdad airport. The attack led to deteriorating US-Iraq relations and prompted Iraqi lawmakers to call for the withdrawal of US troops in a non-binding resolution.

After arriving, Ghaani left the airport under tight security in a three-vehicle convoy.

Known for his ability to exert pressure on the staunchest Iraqi rivals to make them see eye-to-eye, Soleimani had made frequent trips to the Iraqi capital to force unity during times of political paralysis.

Ghaani’s visit coincides with a burgeoning crisis in Iraq as Prime Minister-designate Adnan al-Zurfi faces resistance from some powerful political elites. Meanwhile, there is deepening fragmentation across the political spectrum. Selected on March 16, Zurfi has 30 days to present a cabinet lineup.

One of the Iraqi officials who spoke to the Associated Press said Ghaani suggested in the meetings that Iran and the Revolutionary Guards do not want Zurfi to be the next prime minister.

Amid the ongoing leadership void, an economic crisis is also brewing.

The Oil Ministry said Iraq had earned $2.9 billion in oil revenues in the month of March, down by nearly half compared to February.

Experts have warned that, if the slump in oil revenues is prolonged, Iraq will be unable to pay public sector salaries, a step that will likely lead to more unrest.

Many officials considered Ghaani’s visit to be a test of his ability to establish consensus among rival parties like his predecessor had.

“This is his first test to see if he can succeed in uniting the Shia position, as Soleimani was doing,” said a senior Shia political official, speaking on condition of anonymity to comment freely about the visit, which has not been publicly announced.

“Iran is still powerful and (Ghaani) will have to rely on threats to try and find some way to bring back the massive fragmentation that is Iraqi elite politics today,” said Renad Mansour, senior research fellow at Chatham House in London. “Carrot and stick rather than managing networks.”

Iraq’s political scene has become more difficult to manoeuvre since Soleimani’s death, with more political infighting between Shia and Kurdish parties.

“There are too many people who feel entitled to a piece of the pie,” said Mansour. “The competition seems heightened.”

The Fatah bloc in parliament, which came in second after Sairoon in the May 2018 election, vehemently opposes Zurfi on the grounds that his selection was made unilaterally by the president and without political agreement. Headed by Hadi al-Amiri, Fatah is composed of parties with affiliated militias under the Popular Mobilisation Forces, some of which are Iran-backed. The Sairoon bloc, led by influential Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, initially supported Zurfi’s candidacy.

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(With reporting by the Associated Press from Baghdad.)