US-Iranian competition over Iraq at dead end
Iraq’s political arena brought Washington and Tehran into agreement over a political system in which Shia political parties have held the largest sway for 17 years.Their constituents, from the south to Baghdad, are not only demanding change but also the removal of leaders rubber-stamped by the United States and later by Iran.
Cogs in the machine of change will require consensus of an “Iraq first” strategy that encourages the departure of both sides and recalibrated relations.
Tensions that came to a boil after US President Donald Trump ordered Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani’s assassination have abated between Tehran and Washington but the two find themselves up against a brick wall, as Iraqi protesters strip away consensus — demanding an end to interference from both sides in matters that concern Iraqi sovereignty.
Nationwide pushback privileges no actor and neither the United States nor Iran have heeded protesters’ requests for an equitable system and an end to profiteering elites and the hitmen they hire.
The use of hunting rifles loaded with birdshot that pierce the skin drew condemnation from the UN mission for Iraq, which called the persistent pattern of excessive violence “a grave security concern that must be tackled urgently and decisively.”
Determined use of violence by militias and paramilitaries loyal to Iran more accurately reflects the lack of decisive action by a government that changed hands from Adel Abdul-Mahdi to Mohammed Allawi on February 1.
Since then, Iran has continued to house the meetings between Iraq’s self-prescribed “resistance factions” that lobbied parliament to advance legislation that calls on all foreign troops to depart from the security-fragile country.
The law that parliament passed days after Soleimani’s death has not been enacted under Allawi but Iran-allied parliamentary blocs Sairoun and Fatah, which together represent a political component that includes half of parliament’s 329 seats, lie in wait for Allawi to initiate a withdrawal plan. This is likely to be reserved for closed-door negotiations.
As parties jockey for power ahead of the announcement of a new cabinet, Iraq appears to be back at square zero and its allies still at a dead end.
The United States’ remedial options are running low as vocal opposition to its prolonged stay in Iraq grows. Iran, on the other hand, is mobilising its allies, as the official spokesman for the Kata’ib Hezbollah militia confirmed. Jaafar al-Husseini said in an interview with Mayadeen TV that militias allied to Iran were coalescing, contrary to the United States’ allegations that groups in the Popular Mobilisation Forces, aligned to the late Soleimani, would splinter and discontent among their ranks would rise.
“We are coordinating with our allies,” Husseini said and “surveying our strategic options… to respond to the assassination of Soleimani and [Abu Mahdi] al-Muhandis.”
Whether militia posturing translates into a face-saving gimmick or military preparedness, no equivalent constituency that views the United States favourably can carry out Washington’s bidding despite reporting that frames Sunnis as that.
Washington has continued to talk with government figures by way of US Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker. Leaders of the Iraqi Kurdistan region sat down with Schenker in February and, during a visit to the United Arab Emirates, the US official saw Iraqi parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi, “who happened to be there,” Schenker said.
Iraq, however, finds itself squeezed between the competing demands of its surrogates, which want Baghdad to hold the other to account.
“The government of Iraq must hold… Iran-aligned proxies accountable,” Schenker said, while the same proxies, which provide lungs to Iran’s foreign policy in Iraq, have called for the exit of US forces since the mobbing of its US Embassy that culminated in the prompt assassination of Soleimani — leading executioner of Iran’s policy designs in Iraq, in January.
Navel-gazing by these players does little to overcome the political dead end they have arrived at, while the bloodiest chapter of Iraqi history since the conquest of the Islamic State writes itself.
As Tehran and Washington continue to scupper each other’s ambitions, crimes against innocent youth persist, as do militia threats against the United States’ and Baghdad’s protection of Iranian interests against popular demands. Dead end after dead end, for now, has persisted.