The Iraq Report: Caught between America's hammer and Iran's anvil

The Iraq Report: Caught between America's hammer and Iran's anvil
The fate of Iraq is swinging between the US and Iran as pockets of proxy violence via militias persist.
7 min read
31 August, 2018
Mosul is still suffering long after the routing of the Islamic State group [Getty]
The Iraq Report is a weekly feature at The New Arab.
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Without doubt, Iran casts the largest shadow of influence over Iraqi politics and affairs, and Tehran is linked to a plethora of armed militias and politicians. It therefore should come as no surprise that the Iraqi government is at considerable unease following the re-imposition of US sanctions against the Iranian regime, as Baghdad now finds itself torn between its commitments to Washington, and its loyalty to Tehran.

Iraq's international relations woes to one side, its highest legal authority has finally ratified the election results three months after the vote was held in May. As no party or alliance won an outright majority, the Supreme Court's decision has not stopped both the winners and the losers of the last election from attempting to form parliamentary majorities.

This has led to old enemies seeking to kindle new friendships, in a political game set to last many months more.

Iraq seeks US exemptions for Iran sanctions

When the United States announced it would be tearing up the Iran nuclear deal and re-imposing sanctions against the Iranians to force them back to the negotiating table, politicians in Iraq must have been nervous.

US President Donald Trump declared earlier this year that the sanctions lifted by the Obama administration in 2015 in return for Tehran paring back its nuclear ambitions would be slapped back onto the Iranian regime. On 7 August, US sanctions came back into effect, with Trump warning trading partners not to test American resolve when it came to enforcing those sanctions.

Iraq is among those trading partners and beneficiaries of US military, political and humanitarian aid, placing it in an unenviable position. On the one hand, Baghdad has to find a way to abide by US sanctions, and cannot risk being cut off from America's economic might. After all, it was American military power that installed the current system after toppling Saddam Hussein's Baathist dictatorship in 2003, and Washington has invested billions into Iraq, with much of that money being siphoned away in corruption matched by few countries around the world.

From the archives: Protests over unemployment
in Baghdad [July 2018]

On the other hand, Iraqi leaders need to find a way to keep Iran happy, as the Iranians and their proxies control various levers of power in Iraq.

As an example, the Iran-linked Badr Organisation - a Shia Islamist faction that has adopted Iran's political ideology - controls the interior ministry, while running powerful militia groups alongside its control over the federal police and other official armed units.

All of this is of course not forgetting Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) which directly commands units within the paramilitary Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), an umbrella group of mostly Shia Islamist militants. Upsetting Iran could have dire consequences for Iraq's stability.

When sanctions came back into effect earlier this month, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said that, although his country opposed the punitive measures against Iran, it would nevertheless abide by America's diktat.

Immediately following his declaration, Abadi came under attack by pro-Iran politicians and militant leaders in Iraq, who accused him of being Washington's puppet and a traitor. The prime minister had to cancel a planned trip to Tehran after the Iranian government accused him of being "disloyal".

Abadi ultimately walked back from his decision less than a week after making it, tempering his decision by stating that Iraq would abide by the ban on trading with Iran using US dollars, but would not necessarily stop trading with the Islamic Republic in total. Iraq is now in the process of requesting US permission to exempt them from committing to the sanctions.

Abadi's weakness is twofold. He is firstly beholden to Iran who provided his Dawa Party with shelter, money and even military hardware and training while Saddam was in power and they were in exile in Iran, Syria and the United Kingdom. He further relied heavily on Iranian arms, training and even military advice during the crisis with the Islamic State group. Such favours are not easy to simply push to one side, and Tehran has its ways of making sure politicians remember who they owe for their successes.

Secondly, Abadi's position is undermined by the fact that he is only head of a caretaker government. This is further amplified by the fact that his electoral list came third behind Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's bloc and the pro-Iran Conquest Alliance, staffed primarily by PMF commanders and figures with links to the IRGC.

He is therefore highly vulnerable to any political turbulence emanating from pro-Tehran quarters, and needs to manoeuvre carefully for fear of risking any future political alliance influenced by Iran where he might remain prime minister.

Supreme Court ratifies May election results

Such a delicate balancing act between acquiescing to Washington's demands and keeping Tehran happy will continue for Abadi, as any hopes he may have had of increasing his vote share following the recount of the May elections were dashed by Iraq's highest legal authority.

The Iraqi Supreme Court ratified May's election results earlier this month, triggering a 90-day deadline for the parties to form a government. While there were pervasive allegations of mass voter fraud immediately following the elections, the Supreme Court's decision shows the results were largely unchanged.

Discontent with Iraq's political class led to a historic low turnout of only 44.5 percent, with many Iraqis disillusioned with the political process and their perception that Iraqi democracy was a revolving door of the same faces taking it in turns to embezzle. Protests broke out across southern and central Iraq and lasted for more than a month, with demonstrators demanding better economic opportunities, access to potable water and regular electricity, and an end to corruption.

Security forces cracked down on protesters, leading to dozens killed and wounded, before the end of the scorching Iraqi summer and promises of government investment helped calm tempers. 

Populist politicians such as Sadr sought to ride the wave of discontent to shore up negotiating positions following the 12 May elections. The cleric declared that he would halt all government-forming talks until the demands of the Iraqi people were met. However, his gambit did not see great success, as it became apparent that many of those protesting were also people who boycotted the elections in the first place.

Although the demonstrations are now largely over, this does not mean that the concerns that led to the outbreak of discontent have been dealt with. Politicians are now trying to endear themselves to the people by making promises of further spending and bettering their negotiating position with neighbouring Iran, whose cutting of power supplies to Iraq was one of the triggers of the protests.

The ratification of the election results also means that the race to form a parliamentary majority is back in full swing, with former prime minister and current Vice-President Nouri al-Maliki attempting to make allies of the Kurds, promising them expanded autonomy in the Kurdistan Region if they side with him against Abadi.

Maliki is seeking to exploit the Kurds' humiliation at the hands of Abadi after Baghdad asserted Iraqi federal control over all disputed areas, forcibly evicting Kurdish militia forces from highly contested cities such as oil-rich Kirkuk.

However, Kurdish parties are unlikely to forget Maliki's historic enmity toward them, and will no doubt consider his offer as one of a man as desperate as they are following their defeat to Abadi. This may lead to them finding common ground by focusing on undermining a common enemy.

Eruption of violence as army 'tortures, extorts' Mosul displaced

Despite IS' defeat, Iraq's problems with violence are tragically far from over, as the armed group continues to launch devastating attacks against civilian and military targets, while the Iraqi military is again embroiled in allegations of sectarianism and corruption.

In some of the first indictments of their kind, Iraqi authorities announced they had arrested two officers on charges of torturing and extorting a displaced woman from Mosul. According to the indictment, the officers forced the woman into a metal container for three days in extremely hot temperatures and threatened to only release her if she or her family paid them a ransom.

"An investigation has begun into the case of a woman who complained that she was detained for three days and was not allowed to leave the Mosul front like other displaced people," an investigative committee said.

The New Arab's Arabic language sister site reported local sources as saying that this was not an isolated incident, with thousands of similar crimes occurring over the past year.

The incident is reminiscent of the darkest days of the sectarian violence a decade ago, where abductions and torture by Shia militias - often in police or military uniform - would often lead to ransom demands. Once those demands were met, those abducted could still be killed.

Such impunity led to the fall of Mosul to IS in 2014 in the first place, and with IS attacks on the rise - including a deadly suicide bombing in Qaim on Wednesday that killed at least 11 - the Iraqi government would be prudent to stamp out such behaviour before tensions are inflamed once again.

The Iraq Report is a fortnightly feature at The New Arab:The Iraq Report: Mosul a dystopian wasteland one year after IS