The Iraq Report: Iran locks in its influence as US plans troop withdrawal
Iran has seen US reticence to continue operating in Iraq as not only a sign of weakness in its adversary, but as an opportunity to further cement its power and hold over Iraqi affairs.
Iraqi lawmakers allied to Iran have passed laws allowing for the massive expansion of the Tehran-controlled Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), further weakening the central authorities and the regular Iraqi armed forces.
Meanwhile, the coronavirus pandemic has continued to batter Iraq's floundering economy as a new strain rips through the population, putting pressure on an already dilapidated health care system.
Eager to restore some economic autonomy, and buoyed by the recent blockage in Egypt's Suez Canal, Iraq has inaugurated the next phase in the Faw port megaproject to transform the country into a transport and commercial hub.
Iran locks in its influence as US recedes
The third instalment of the US-Iraq strategic dialogue concluded last week with a promise to wind down the American military presence, providing a boost for Iranian ambitions in Iraq. The strategic dialogue first started in June last year under the administration of former president Donald Trump which held two rounds of talks.
However, this was the first time that high level talks had taken place under President Joe Biden, who dispatched top US diplomat Antony Blinken to discuss the developing relationship between the two countries with his Iraqi counterpart Fuad Hussein.
|The third instalment of the US-Iraq strategic dialogue concluded last week with a promise to wind down the American military presence, providing a boost for Iranian ambitions in Iraq
Iraq had requested the latest round, partly in response to pressure from Shia political factions and militias loyal to Iran that have lobbied for the remaining US troops to leave Iraq.
The summit – held virtually on account of the coronavirus pandemic – was not without controversy. As talks were set to begin, pro-Iran Shia militias were visited by General Esmail Qaani, commander of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force.
Likely encouraged by their benefactor's presence in Baghdad, the Shia militias threatened an escalation of violence if the White House declined to withdraw its forces and, in a boon to the pro-Iran faction, bilateral discussions concluded with an agreement that all remaining US combat troops would be withdrawn.
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A State Department statement following the talks said that with increasing capacity of Iraqi security forces, the mission of US and coalition forces "has now transitioned to one focused on training and advisory tasks, thereby allowing for the redeployment of any remaining combat forces from Iraq."
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said last Wednesday's statement does not represent an agreement to begin a further withdrawal of US forces, suggesting that this would occur at a later, unspecified date.
Iraqi military spokesman Yahya Rasool later said that Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has ordered the formation of a committee that would hold technical talks with the American side to approve "mechanisms and timings" related to the redeployment.
The Biden administration's move will be viewed as yet another sign of growing American weakness in the region as Iran continues to grow in influence and power at Washington's expense in a zero-sum game.
As the US and Iraq were negotiating an end to the presence of American combat troops in the country, Iraqi lawmakers with intimate ties to Iran had successfully pressured the Kadhimi government into allowing the Tehran-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces to undergo a massive expansion of 30,000 extra recruits.
A high-ranking official close to the government told The New Arab's Arabic language service that the decision was due to pressure from the Fatah Alliance and the State of Law Coalition - both with strong ties to Iran – who agreed to vote for the Kadhimi government's budget in exchange for the PMF's expansion.
|The Biden administration's move will be viewed as yet another sign of growing American weakness in the region as Iran continues to grow in influence and power at Washington's expense
Ahmad Hakki, a member of Iraq's Civil Movement, told The New Arab that the increase in the numbers of militia fighters highlights the PMF's continued political leverage. "This move confirms the political, security, and even financial decisions in Iraq are not in the hands of the government, but rather in the hands of [external] forces," he said.
The PMF was created in 2014 by a fatwa, or religious edict, from Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's leading Shia religious authority. It is largely dominated by IRGC-linked Shia militias who have a chequered history of perpetrating sectarian war crimes against Sunni Arabs, including the mass murder and disappearance of 643 Sunni men and children in Anbar governorate in 2016.
In 2017, it was formally recognised as a branch of the Iraqi armed forces, alongside the army, navy, and air force.
The Biden administration has yet to formally respond to this massive expansion of an Iranian proxy, yet it has indicated it is not going to do anything. US Ambassador to Iraq, Matthew Tueller, met with Iraqi National Security Adviser Qasim al-Araji on Sunday and said that the United States wants to see both Iraq and Iran on good terms.
"We look forward to good terms between Iran and Iraq that serve everyone's interests," Araji's office quoted Tueller as saying, per Iraqi Kurdish news outlet Rudaw.
The lack of a strong American reaction to the fact that Iran's most powerful proxy with official recognition was now expanding by 30,000 men suggests that, like the Obama administration, the Biden administration does not want to upset Tehran as it invites it back to the nuclear deal.
This could have catastrophic effects for normal Iraqis as militia rule will continue to expand and they will continue to act with impunity, including by killing protesters and civil rights activists as has been the case since demonstrations erupted in 2019.
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Covid-19 batters Iraq's economic recovery
Iraq's economic fortunes have also continued to slide, as a new variant of the coronavirus has ripped through the population, with the government laying blame primarily on its own citizens for the continued epidemic in the country.
Iraq recorded 8,331 new virus cases within a 24-hour period on Wednesday, the highest figure since the ministry began keeping records at the onset of the pandemic last year. That was double the number of new infections from last month, and well ahead of a previous peak of some 6,000 in March.
Death rates are still fairly low relative to new infections. At least 14,606 people have died from a total of 903,439 cases.
The severe spike in case numbers prompted the health ministry to issue a grave warning in a statement on Thursday, saying the rise was due to laxity among Iraqis who flout preventative measures.
The statement said public commitment toward heeding virus prevention measures was "almost non-existent in most regions of Iraq," where citizens rarely wear face masks and continue to hold large gatherings.
Those who continue to flout prevention measures and instructions "are responsible for the increase in the number of infections," the statement said. It called on tribal sheikhs, activists, and influential figures to speak out and inform the public on the severity of the pandemic.
|The lack of a strong American reaction to the fact that Iran's most powerful proxy was now expanding by 30,000 men suggests that the Biden administration does not want to upset Tehran
The viral outbreak has not only stifled Iraq's economy but has also crippled global markets, particularly the trade in energy. Oil exports still account for the vast majority of Iraq's budget and, with tumbling prices, Baghdad's purse strings have tightened significantly.
This has also impacted upon its ability to pay for its imports of electricity and natural gas from neighbouring Iran, with Tehran now demanding immediate repayment or cutting Baghdad's supply.
Iraqi officials say the money is sitting idle in an account at the Trade Bank of Iraq because of US restrictions and fears of sanctions, despite the fact the Biden administration last month permitted a 120-day sanctions waiver for Iraq to continue importing energy from Iran, the maximum time frame allowed. Waiver renewals under Trump were often for shorter periods and laden with conditions.
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However, Iraqi officials say they require US leniency to repay Tehran directly for the crucial energy imports, forgoing a complex payment system designed to evade US sanctions over trading with Iran.
To alleviate some of these economic woes, Iraq has agreed a five-year economic cooperation plan with Iran which, although sparse on details, appears to be a major concession to Tehran which controls the taps to Baghdad's energy supplies.
The Kadhimi government has also sought to make Iraq a more attractive investment prospect by inaugurating on Sunday the next phase of the Faw Grand Port megaproject that seeks to divert some global trade away from Egypt's Suez Canal that was blockaded by a wayward vessel last month.
In conjunction with a planned railway network that would deliver cargoes to Europe and beyond, the port is intended to make Iraq an alternative gateway for global trade.
However, this is a difficult commercial prospect given that Iraq's only access to the sea lies on the Arabian Gulf and any future railway connecting to more distant ports and markets would have to navigate the complex and deadly security landscape.
It is therefore doubtful that the Faw Grand Port will revitalise Iraq's economy in the way Kadhimi imagines unless and until the violent lawlessness that has beleaguered Iraq since 2003 is dealt with.