Saudi ambassador exposes Iran’s growing power in Iraq

Sunday 04/09/2016
Sabhan has shown he is made of sterner stuff than US diplomats

Iraqi politicians are calling for Saudi Arabia to replace Thamer al-Sabhan, Riyadh’s ambassador to Baghdad, for speaking out about the growing Iranian influence in country.
If he has to leave, perhaps the Saudis can arrange for him to take up a new post as an adviser to US Secretary of State John Kerry, as US policy has been resolutely ignoring the growing reality the ambassador pointed out.
On August 28th, Iraq’s Foreign Ministry officially asked Saudi Ara­bia to recall and replace Sabhan.
Sabhan was Saudi Arabia’s first ambassador in Baghdad since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. His appointment, strongly urged on Iraq by the United States, was meant to display both the independence of the new Iraqi government and its willingness to work with stable, well-established Arab governments throughout the region.
However, Sabhan, an outspoken and courageous figure, proved he was ready to point out a growing, ominous reality that the Obama administration continues to shut its eyes and ears to: Iran’s continu­ing growth in power and influence over the ramshackle regime of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al- Abadi, exercised through the Shia militias and their political struc­tures in Iraq.
As in the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations before them, US President Barack Obama and his top policymakers are des­perate to craft an Iraq policy that looks decisive and tough while being anything but.
In particular, they hope to be able to announce the fall of Mosul to the US-backed Iraqi Army and Kurdish forces before the Novem­ber 8th US presidential election, thereby redeeming their long and embarrassing record of fiascos and failure against the Islamic State (ISIS).
Obama, his second secretary of State, Kerry, and his first one, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, are convinced that the fall of Mosul will redeem their years of catastrophic bungling across the region in the eyes of the American public.
They are also convinced it will give them a crucial credibility in foreign policy against the on­slaught of criticism they are receiv­ing from Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
However, to achieve that aim, Obama and Kerry have made a Faustian bargain with the Shia militias in Iraq. The regular Iraqi Army continues to underperform despite all the efforts of the US Central Command’s spin machine to make it look good.
US leaders also know they dare not redeploy US ground forces to Iraq before the November presi­dential election.
However, if Hillary Clinton is safely elected, there are strong signs she will not hesitate to send thousands of US ground troops back in right after taking the oath of office.
Therefore, the US government has allowed the Shia groups to con­solidate power in Iraq as a barrier to renewed gains by ISIS.
However, Sabhan has shown he is made of sterner stuff than the US diplomats and generals. He has outspokenly identified the growth of Iranian power in Iraq through the Shia militias. For doing this, he has been repeatedly criticised by Iraqi officials.
On August 27th, Sabhan told Iraqi television that the Popular Mobilisation Units operated based on sectarianism and tribalism. The force boasts up to 100,000 mem­bers from 40 Shia militias.
This was too much for the Iraqi government and their US backers, so Sabhan had to go.
However, the US policy of play­ing the ostrich in Iraq by burying its head in the sand while exposing its metaphorical rear end to the world has its limits. It may contain the US mainstream media but it fails to convince observers across the region.
Sabhan’s honesty and forthright­ness will serve the credibility and international standing of his coun­try far better. He has displayed the qualities of wisdom, clarity and courage clearly lacking in Wash­ington.