30.03.2022 Author: Viktor Mikhin

Iraq: the Main Battle is Yet to Come


Since Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr won Iraq’s widely boycotted elections last October, there has been a steady stream of news reports, forecasts and analyses claiming that this could be the beginning of the end of Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs. While such estimates are certainly optimistic, they are perhaps somewhat naive and misguided. Iran remains the most powerful actor in Iraq today, and it is highly unlikely that Tehran – with Iraq as the central pillar of its regional strategy – will simply allow Baghdad to set its own course. The Iranian mullahs still view their neighbor as the most important foreign policy arena and maintain broad and deep ties with all parties and factions. In other words, as one Iraqi commentator wrote, whoever is in power in Baghdad, Tehran will still celebrate victory.

The most significant recent development on the political scene was the reconvening of parliament, which, despite some bloodshed and hospitalization of several politicians, managed to re-elect Speaker Mohamed Al-Halbousi. The parliamentary session was marred by violence as the acting speaker and oldest member of parliament, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, was attacked by angry parliamentarians who wanted to disrupt the inaugural session in order to slow down negotiations. Mashhadani was then hospitalized with minor injuries but was eventually discharged.

Parliament now has 30 days to elect its next president, who must be Kurdish. Once the president is elected, he is to appoint a Shiite prime minister within 15 days, who is bound then to form his cabinet to be re-approved by parliament. However, the process is likely to be a long one, as the last election in 2018 took about five months before a government was chosen and any acceptance came to Iraqi society.

As the issue was settled for at least one of the three constitutional leadership positions – the other two being the presidency and the premiership – it became clear that many parties were far from thrilled with the result and preferred to express their discontent in other ways. Mashhadani himself, along with fellow lawmaker Basim Hachan, has petitioned the Federal Supreme Court of Iraq to investigate Halbousi’s re-election. Although the details of the complaint are unclear, it has been suggested that Mashhadani was unhappy with the way he was treated and was not treated with due respect. The Supreme Court issued an interim injunction suspending the speaker from his role, effectively freezing parliament as it cannot convene without its chairman. The next day, the Halbousi party headquarters in Baghdad was attacked, with attackers throwing hand grenades into the building, injuring two guards.

While some reports have sought to downplay the anti-Iranian credentials of Halbousi as well as Sadr himself, the reality is more complex and multifaceted. Since his elevation as governor of the troubled Anbar governorate (province) in 2017, Halbousi has worked closely with Iranian-backed groups to consolidate his control over the Sunni region and suppress remnants of the DAESH group (banned in the Russian Federation), known to have been created with US aid and support. Despite strong evidence that the People’s Mobilization Force (PMF), an umbrella group of pro-Iranian Shiite groups now operating as a formal part of the Iraqi armed forces, committed atrocities against Sunni civilians in its governorate, Halbousi has not called them to account. This apparent collaboration with Tehran’s proxies and allies continues, analysts believe, to this day.

While much has been made of Sadr’s destructive potential and his alleged nationalist credentials, he has substantial ties to the Iranian regime and has most recently suppressed anti-Iranian protesters. After the US invasion in 2003, Sadr was one of several recipients not only of Iranian finances, but also of military training for his supporters, weapons and political support for Tehran. He and his top aides have only benefited from Tehran’s support for the formation of the Sadr Mahdi Army and other military formations such as the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq group. Despite reports that Sadr allegedly then had a falling out with Iranian mullahs and was at odds with them, it was in Iran that he took refuge in 2007 after his conflict with alleged nemesis and former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. It is interesting that he then, at Tehran’s insistence (or rather order), helped Maliki get another term in office after the 2010 elections. The Sadrists were rewarded for their efforts with a number of ministerial portfolios as well as one of the two deputy speakers of parliament. After the DAESH group took over a third of Iraq’s territory on Washington’s orders in 2014, Sadr reunited with other Shia militant groups and groups that would later become PMF following a fatwa by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Before the end of the war against DAESH in 2017, the Shiite cleric began criticizing “foreign intervention”, which implied only the US.

Sadr organized the storming of Baghdad’s Green Zone and parliament in 2016 to get a bigger share of the “political pie” by blaming the “elites”, of which he is a part, for the failure of the Iraqi people’s hopes. Despite all these tricks and political techniques, he claims to be standing up for the legal rights of Iraqis who seek to change a system mired in total corruption and cronyism. At the same time, the facts show that he became one of the leading militia commanders to brutally massacre Iraqi civilians in 2019, thereby showing that he was directly defending the system he had long derided and which he felt had failed in its historic task. Perhaps as a reward for his service, Sadr was invited as a guest of honor to Iran’s events to mark the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the Islamic Republic. He was photographed sitting right next to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and former Quds Force Commander – Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Qasem Soleimani. It should be recalled that Soleimani, the architect of much of Iran’s strategy in Iraq, was killed a few months later in a drone strike ordered personally by former President Donald Trump. Tehran still considers the assassination of its top commander an act of terrorism, and Iranian mullahs have vowed revenge on Trump and a number of his administration officials involved in this act of terror.

But recently a series of Supreme Court decisions has seriously complicated the ambitious work and politics of both Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and semi-autonomous Kurdistan, paving the way for future political conflicts and compromises. Sadr, whose Sairoun bloc won the largest share of the vote in the last national elections, hoped to form a majority “national unity” government controlled by candidates chosen by him and his allies. Nevertheless, the Federal Supreme Court issued an important ruling on the constitutional requirements for the election of presidential candidates, forcing Sadr to start considering a compromise with the parties he had vowed to sideline. Meanwhile, the same court issued another ruling stating that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) must cede all control over oil production to the federal government in Baghdad. The ruling also stipulated that Baghdad would then redistribute a share of the KRG’s oil profits back to the Kurdish administration, sparking fury from Kurdish factions that have fought for full independence for much of the past and present century.

As the political stalemate continues to heat up after the October vote, election winner Muqtada al-Sadr has faced a significant setback from his stated plan to form a majority government after the Federal Supreme Court ruled in February against his efforts to force the presidency of his choice. Following a petition by other Shiite Islamist parties affiliated with Iran, which performed poorly in the last election, Iraq’s highest judicial body has issued a verdict on how Article 70 of the Iraqi constitution should be interpreted, insisting that a two-thirds majority vote in parliament is required to elect a president. This means that 220 out of a total of 329 legislators have to agree on a single candidate for the role of president. Instead of resolving historical and political disputes and taking into account the politicized nature of the judiciary, the court may have created the conditions for a new round of conflict and continued instability in Iraqi political affairs, further entrenching the current status quo, which is not satisfactory to the many political parties and factions in parliament.

That is why, as analysts point out, it is best to view the current political disputes as a kind of sibling rivalry, but with deadly consequences, at least for members of each faction as well as Iraqi civilians in general, until these closely aligned parties set aside their differences. Each faction chooses its own method of destroying society and politics, with some preferring the courts, while others, such as Kata’ib Hezbollah, opt for armed struggle, launching rockets at the US embassy in Baghdad. But in fact, the Iranian mullahs view Iraq as their most important foreign policy arena and maintain excellent and wide-ranging ties with all factions. In other words, whoever wins the Iraqi elections, Iran will remain a winner. This was the state of affairs that the 2019 Iraqi protest movement tried to undo, but failed at the time. But in all likelihood, analysts predict that dissatisfaction with their situation is expected to provide a breeding ground for public anger in Iraq again in the very near future.

Viktor Mikhin, corresponding member of RANS, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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