Iraq’s political elite have been at loggerheads for months, unable to form a government following an election result that produced a mosaic parliament laden with personality clashes and the usual jostling for power.
The political stalemate became a full-blown crisis when protestors took to the streets calling for the fall of the political system in what resembled an “Arab Spring.” This was followed by the high-profile assassination of Iran’s general Qassem Soleimani and the prominent leader of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Force, Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandas, in January.
In a bid to respond to the humiliation of losing their most prized commander, Iran launched a barrage of missiles aimed at posturing and saving face, but tragically brought down a Ukrainian passenger airliner. Although talk of war swiftly receded as Washington chose not to escalate, Iraq’s situation was then compounded by COVID-19 and an oil price war which sent an already failing economy into freefall.
However, Kadhimi’s government was not formed to tackle these challenges. Nor was it formed as a result of deep reflection of the political elite in light of public anger that has spread even to the areas of Najaf and Basra, which were once pro-Iran strongholds and are now the scenes of anti-Iran protests.
Kadhimi’s government was brought about as a result of survival instinct among pro-Iran political parties and signals a truce between Tehran and Washington.
Instead, Kadhimi’s government was brought about as a result of survival instinct among pro-Iran political parties and signals a truce between Tehran and Washington that the current political system must survive if they are to manifest their policies and protect their hard-earned grip on Baghdad and Iraq’s resources effectively.
When protests erupted in Iraq, Washington was notably silent as the main slogans of the protests were “Iran barra barra” or “Iran, out, out.” This was a significant development particularly given how widespread the chants were in Iraq’s southern areas wherein lies a Shia majority typically believed to be more sympathetic to Iran than other parts of the country.
Protestors demanded the fall of the system, the dissolution of Parliament, the disbanding of militias, the breaking up of traditional power circles, and the formation of a new transitional government that would lay the groundwork for free and fair elections. Given that Iran’s allies dominated the Iraqi institutions, their ousting would allow the US to “restart” their Iraq project without the use of force, and under the umbrella of a popular “revolution.”
The extent of the panic amongst Iran’s allies was reflected in their initial response which was to open fire on protestors. The Prime Minister Adel Abdel-Mahdi then offered his resignation. This did nothing to stem the growing number of protestors on the streets. Iran-ally Moqtada al-Sadr sought to “join” the protestors in a similar manner to the way he joined the 2018 protests that led to Parliament itself being stormed. Meanwhile, the cleric continued negotiating with other parties over how to escape the immense pressure being exerted on the government.
Suddenly, a rapid escalation of events took place. An American contractor was killed by a pro-Iran militia. The US responded with air strikes on pro-Iranian positions. Supporters of the pro-Iran militias responded by storming the US embassy in Baghdad’s Green Zone.
The significance of this was three-fold. First, the storming was very public and broadcast all over the world in what became a very public humiliation of US authority in Iraq. Second, the embassy was stormed within the Green Zone, which is a heavily fortified area inaccessible without the government’s permission. In other words, the government implicitly allowed the embassy to be stormed. Third, the focus was no longer on the protests. It was on Iran and the US.
With Trump very close to elections, mired in an impeachment fiasco, and under heavy pressure from the Democrats, the public embarrassment of his US administration broadcast to the world could not go without a response. It came in the form of the assassination of Iran’s most prized general, Qassem Soleimani, and one of the highest-ranking leaders in Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Force, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
The loss of Qassem Soleimani for the Iranians was two-fold: they had lost their most effective commander and key arbitrator between the volatile Shia parties in Iraq. Soleimani was integral in mediating between the fraught relations between the likes of Moqtada al-Sadr, Maliki, and Hadi al-Amiri, and his absence was deeply felt when differences between Maliki and Sadr re-emerged to spill over on former Prime Minister-designate Mohamed Allawi’s attempts to form a government.
Allawi was seen as Iran’s compromise choice and the Shia parties were expected to rally around him. Hasan Nasrallah of Lebanon’s Hezbollah was asked by Tehran to mediate between the parties. However, the absence of leadership and lack of discipline complicated the process. And with COVID-19 granting a reprieve for the political elite by emptying the streets of protestors and subsequently breeding complacency, Maliki expressed his displeasure over proceedings within the Shia bloc by dissenting and refusing to back Allawi.
A frustrated Tehran decided to send a high ranking official, Ali Shamkhani, to Iraq in late March to impress upon the Shia parties the gravity of the situation and that patience was running thin. Tehran was also blind-sided by President Barham Salih who, sensing the unprecedented weakness of Iran’s influence in Iraq, gambled on a candidate of his own and put forward former Najaf governor Adnan al-Zurfi.
Unwittingly, however, Zurfi’s candidacy had the opposite effect. Rather than capitalizing on divisions, Zurfi’s appointment united the Shia parties who, for the first time, felt that their hegemony over political proceedings was now seriously under threat. More surprising for President Salih was Washington’s lack of enthusiasm in ensuring that Zurfi succeeded.
Trump is generally averse to war and, contrary to popular belief, is more inclined to reaching a lasting agreement with Tehran.
President Salih had failed to consider two fronts. The first, that Trump is generally averse to war and, contrary to popular belief, is more inclined to reaching a lasting agreement with Tehran. The second, that Iran could still apply pressure on the US. Indeed, Iran’s allies in Iraq had already succeeded in coaxing PM Adel Abdel-Mahdi to issue a request for the withdrawal of US forces.
Despite the debate over whether this request was officially made, retracted, withdrawn, or amended is irrelevant. What matters is that the plan had the intended effect and Washington found itself in an awkward position whereby it sought to maintain its military presence while protecting its image from accusations of violating Iraq’s sovereignty.
Facing a potential PR disaster, the US began to play a more active role in Baghdad’s bid to rescue itself from disaster which most likely required liaising in some capacity with Tehran. Whereas Washington had initially pressured Baghdad to reduce ties with Tehran by rejecting Iraq’s requests for waivers over US sanctions and further restricting the waivers already granted, Washington changed course. It began considering a more conciliatory approach that culminated in the granting of a renewal of permission for Iraq to import electricity from Iran.
Moreover, the US began redeploying its troops in what appeared to be preparations for withdrawal but was more likely a bid to prevent the possibility of any provocations by pro-Iran militias taking advantage of the leadership vacuum brought about by the death of Qassem Soleimani.
At the same time, the Iranian envoy, Ali Shamkhani, met with Mostafa Kadhimi who at that point had not been in contention for PM. Following a series of meetings and high praise from Shamkhani, Kadhimi was soon presented to the Shia political bloc as a potential candidate despite opposition from some pro-Iran factions in Iraq accusing Kadhimi of playing a role in Qassem Soleimani’s assassination.
In contrast to predecessors, Kadhimi found his suggestions fast-tracked by the Shia bloc and little opposition from Washington.
In contrast to his predecessors, Kadhimi found his suggestions fast-tracked by the Shia bloc and found little opposition from Washington (with whom he had enjoyed ties as Iraq’s National Intelligence Chief) or their Kurdish allies. Yet, any implication that Kadhimi might be a candidate to reform the system was swiftly dispelled. He paid frequent visits to the home of the leader of the Fatah bloc and most prominent leader of the Popular Mobilization force, Hadi al-Amiri, to present his suggestions instead of having Amiri demonstrate respect for the PM’s office by meeting him at the official residence.
However, the most significant sign of a possible truce, and the consensus among the powerbrokers in Iraq on the need for a government to preserve the current system, is the absence of an agreed candidate for the oil and foreign ministries. Oil remains Iraq’s most important resource while the lack of a foreign minister (typically given to the Kurds) suggests that Iraq’s international representation will be shared between the competing parties.
As for the protestors, it is clear that Kadhimi has been received as the “system” candidate and protests broke out soon after his appointment despite his promise of early elections. The danger for the protestors is that Kadhimi’s appointment demonstrates that the political elite no longer fear the protestors as they once did. Not least because the perils of COVID-19 on the ability to mobilize the population has benefitted a political system that until very recently was being threatened with its own demise.
Kadhimi’s appointment demonstrates that the political elite no longer fear the protestors as they once did.
Kadhimi himself appeared relaxed enough to visit the headquarters of the controversial Popular Mobilization Force or “Hashd al-Shaabi,” commonly touted as a deeply sectarian institution with divided loyalties towards Iran and its militias, and even to put on their uniform. This was a clear message that he would not be antagonistic to their presence and a goodwill gesture amidst calls for the Popular Mobilization Force to disband and merge with the Iraqi armed forces.
Finally, with ISIS appearing to re-emerge once again, protestors may well find that their desperate calls for peace, rights, freedom, and a state without corruption will take a back seat as “terrorism” and “security” provide a new framework of cooperation between Tehran and Washington to combat ISIS at the expense of the agency of Iraq as a sovereign state.
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