Searching for a new Iraq

What we are witnessing in Iraq is the search for an alternative to a bankrupt authority.
Saturday 05/10/2019
Iraqi protesters set fires and close a street during a demonstration in Baghdad, October 3. (AP)
Iraqi protesters set fires and close a street during a demonstration in Baghdad, October 3. (AP)

There is an abnormal situation in Iraq. There is something like a massive popular revolt. Starting with the removal of Lieutenant-General Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi, former deputy head of counterterrorism services, and appointed to the Defence Ministry, to widespread demonstrations and unrest in Baghdad and other cities with people being killed and wounded, something is not right and the status quo cannot continue indefinitely.

It seems the political system that emerged after Saddam Hussein’s fall has not found the right elements for its survival. What we have is a country called Iraq in search of a new regime or, more correctly, a new governance formula 61 years after the fall of the monarchy.

Since the day the monarchy fell and since the massacre of the Hashemite family by rabble officers who knew nothing about the civilised world, Iraq has been searching for a safety raft. What this means is that the regime put in place by the Americans in 2003 was even worse than the Saddam regime, which, at least, had a national army.

It is true that army was controlled by a small group of officers, mostly from Tikrit, but it is also true that Iraq was not under the rule of sectarian militias controlled by Iran.

Iraq has been paying the price for the mistake made by the administration of former US President George W. Bush. Bush had embarked on a crazy adventure, similar to Saddam’s adventure in Kuwait in 1990. Saddam invaded Kuwait without considering what he would do the next day. He knew nothing of Kuwait, including that he would not find a single Kuwaiti citizen willing to collaborate with the occupier.

With respect to Iraq, the Americans were far from imagining that the Iran-affiliated militias they took into Baghdad and Basra on their tanks were incapable of building a democratic system that would serve as a model for other countries in the region. All the militias could do was turn Iraq into a vassal state to Iran.

At present, there is an Iranian desire to prove to the United States that Iraq is nothing but a playing card in the hands of Tehran and that continued US sanctions will prompt Iran to retaliate. So far, Iran has been content with small operations in Iraq.

Now is the time for Iran to demonstrate the extent and depth of its control of Iraq. It is important for it to show that the regime in Iraq is but a replica of the Iranian regime where the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is master.

The removal of Saadi, a professional officer who enjoyed genuine respect in all Iraqi circles, is evidence of Iran’s insistence to have the Iraqi Army become a dependency of the Popular Mobilisation Forces, the Iraqi version of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

The ensuing reaction on Iraqi streets was normal. There is still a patriotic spirit among all Iraqis of all sects, a spirit that rejects and opposes Iranian hegemony.

What we are witnessing in Iraq is the search for an alternative to a bankrupt authority, which is aimlessly looking for some role to play but refuses to accept the simple truth that Iran is not ready to accept Iraq in any other role but that of vassal.

In the end, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi cannot mediate between Iran and Gulf countries and he cannot mediate between Iran and the United States. All he can do is implement what Iran asks him to do, like getting rid of an officer like Saadi who embodies the possibility that the Iraqi Army can play a significant role at the national level, away from sectarian, regional and nationalistic sensitivities.

Abdul-Mahdi can also implement Iran’s request to open the border crossing with Syria and hold Israel responsible for strikes targeting the Popular Mobilisation Forces.

One cause of the situation in Iraq was the decision to disband the Iraqi Army made by US Administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority of Iraq Paul Bremer in 2003. The Americans realised their mistake and crime too late because they were too busy eliminating any hope for a resurrection of Saddam’s regime.

They did not realise that top Iraqi Army officers had no appreciation for the late Iraqi president who had dragged them into the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, then into the invasion of Kuwait and the war that followed it.

The question of removing Saadi is not a matter of removing a professional Iraqi Army officer who had fought the Islamic State in Mosul and whose conduct was not motivated by any sectarian considerations. The point is that Iran wants to say that it is the boss in Iraq.

Saadi’s departure confirmed the weakness of the Iraqi government, a weakness that was revealed in the post-May 2018 elections phase when Tehran vetoed the appointments of certain Iraqi figures. Iran imposed Abdul-Mahdi as prime minister as the only one acceptable to it.

Perhaps the man’s failure to be an independent decision maker who could maintain a minimum of internal balance, especially regarding the protection of the army, is an indication that the regime in place since 2003 is bankrupt and that it is time to search for a new formula for Iraq, a formula that might not see the day except on the ruins of current Iraq.