Winners and losers in Iraq

Let’s face it. Iran has beaten the Americans all over the place in Iraq.
Sunday 07/10/2018
Iraqi Shia demonstrators wave Iranian and pro-Iranian party flags during a protest in Basra, on September 15. (AFP)
Destabilising factor. Iraqi Shia demonstrators wave Iranian and pro-Iranian party flags during a protest in Basra, on September 15. (AFP)

What has just happened in Iraq must be viewed from the angle of US-Iranian relations.

The developments in Iraq are not all negative. Adel Abdul-Mahdi was entrusted with forming a new cabinet; Barham Salih, a respectable patriot, was elected president; and Mohammed al-Halbousi (loyal to Iran) was elected speaker of the parliament.

The choice of Salih alone is paramount to a candle being lit in the thickest Iraqi darkness. He is of Kurdish origin but places his Iraqi identity above everything else.

The problem is that Salih alone is not going to extricate Iraq from the quagmire. The problem is with the extremely limited powers of the presidency of the republic as set by Iraq’s new constitution. Most of the powers are concentrated in the hands of the prime minister, who must be Shia.

All signs indicate that Iran has improved its positions in Iraq, after regressing since the end of Nuri al-Maliki’s term as prime minister in 2014.

For one thing, Iran got rid of Haider al-Abadi, whose post-elections views and positions were interpreted as wanting to place Iraqi interests above those of Iran. Abadi paid the price of his lost bet on US support and Iraqi nationalism.

Iraq now has a president with high qualifications but limited prerogatives. He is a pragmatic person more than anything else. Salih will not undertake anything risky, especially that he is well-appraised on all issues, and is deeply aware of Iran’s geopolitical and regional importance, including its delicate relationship with the Kurds.

It is impossible to say whether Salih is a friend of Iran or its foe. What is noticeable, however, is that he has cordial relations with international powers, including the United States and European countries.

Salih can play a role in restoring calm, stability and tranquillity to Iraq considering the great problems that the country suffers. These problems will be exacerbated once the new US sanctions on Iran go into effect in November. Iraq will be required to align itself fully with Iran then, and that is what Abadi refused to do and that is exactly why Iran punished him.

So Salih will have a role at the national level, albeit within the limitations of his constitutional prerogatives as president but what about Abdul-Mahdi?

Here is a person through whom the Americans, the Iranians and the Shia constituencies shall meet. What we know about Abdul-Mahdi is that he is not from the pro-Iranian Dawa Party in Iraq. The man’s political history is full of changes and swerves. He began his political career as a Ba’athist then was a member of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq founded by Ayatollah Mohamed Baqir al-Hakim.

Abdul-Mahdi undoubtedly has a rich political experience as a leftist and as an Islamist but can this experience help him change anything in Iraq? All depends on the amount of freedom that will be afforded to him by Iran.

Abdul-Mahdi’s success as prime minister will also depend to a large extent on his ability to deal with the demands of the general population, the angry mobs that revolted in the streets this past summer.

Iranian General Qassem Soleimani smartly executed a clever scheme. He brought in Abdul-Mahdi as prime minister by playing both the Muqtada al-Sadr Sairoon bloc and Hadi al-Amiri’s Al-Fateh bloc. We know Amiri heads a sectarian militia that is part of al-Hashed al-Shaabi (the Popular Mobilisation Forces). Sooner or later, the new prime minister will have to come to a decision regarding the fate and role of the al-Hashed forces.

In the final analysis, however, the Iraqi armed forces cannot forever stand on the sidelines and watch Iraq be ruled by sectarian militias, except of course if the plan is to duplicate Iran’s failing model in Iraq.

In this model, al-Hashed al-Shaabi militias will control all details of the executive powers in the country, just like their counterparts in Iran, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Could it be that Abdul-Mahdi was parachuted in a prime minister to execute that plan?

Now, the simplest and most baffling question: Where are the Americans in all of this?

The Americans must have been at a loss in Iraq or too absent such that Iran succeeded in breaking the Sunni bloc and placed Halbousi as speaker of the Iraqi parliament. This is a major achievement by Iran in Iraq. For the first time, there is a Sunni parliamentarian bloc loyal to Iran.

Let’s face it. Iran has beaten the Americans all over the place in Iraq. It has scored too many goals there. So, we must turn to Iran’s internal affairs and ask: What’s going to happen inside Iran?

Everybody wonders whether the United States is serious about going all the way in making Iran choose between becoming a normal state in the region or paying the heavy price of its adventures outside its borders. We are, of course, talking about Iran’s meddling in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Bahrain.

It doesn’t seem that the United States’ quitting of its 1955 Friendship Treaty with Iran, announced by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, signals that the agreement between both parties on Abdul-Mahdi as prime minister covers any other issues beyond the Iraqi borders.