Uncertainty and instability in Iraq has increased - GulfToday

Uncertainty and instability in Iraq has increased

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Uncertainty and instability in Iraq has increased

An anti-government protester jumps over burning tyres blocking a highway in Baghdad, Iraq. Associated Press

The US assassination of Iranian Quds Force Commander Qassem Suleimani has exacerbated uncertainty and instability in Iraq and increased rather than diminished Iran’s influence in that country.  Furthermore, US troops based there are more rather than less at risk of attack from a variety of antagonists.

Nationalist Iraqi Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr and pro-Iran Shia militia leaders have called for a “million-man march” against the presence of US troops in Iraq. His call has strengthened the Iraqi parliament’s demand for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from the country. Sadr wrote on Twitter, “The skies, land and sovereignty of Iraq are being violated every day by occupying forces.” His words echoed those of Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi who argued that US forces do not abide by the limited mandate they had been given by the government in 2014.  Instead, they use their presence in Iraq to harm neighbouring Iran.  Iraqi leaders have long insisted their country should not be a springboard for the US to undermine or strike Iraq’s neighbours.

Sadr was joined in his call for mass protests by factional heads of the Iran-supported Popular Mobilisation Forces.  It is highly significant that they met Sadr, who seeks to reduce Iran’s influence in Iraq, and that the gathering took place in the Iranian holy city of Qom which is seen as a venue safe from US drones and rockets. Iran’s role and influence will expand if Iraqi militia commanders —  some of whom are also members of parliament — are compelled to gather on Iranian soil for safety’s sake. The situation of Shia sectarianists will revert to the days of Saddam Hussein who forced them to take refuge in Iran.

Sadr is the key figure in this effort.  His faction is the largest in Iraq’s parliament. He lived in Iraq during the former Baathist regime unlike the leaders of pro-Iranian militias, many of whom lived in Iran but returned from exile on the backs of US tanks. Following the 2003 US invasion and occupation of Iraq, Sadr founded the Mahdi Army which mounted attacks on US forces, killing and maiming many until (guess who?) Soleimani negotiated a ceasefire in 2008.

Since the January 3rd US assassination of Soleimani and PMF deputy head Abu Mahdi al-Mohandis, Sadr has stepped up his support for the pullout of US troops from Iraq.

Without revealing the timing for his “million-man march,” Sadr has given explicit instructions to those who would take part.  “We will demonstrate to denounce the occupation and its violations of Iraq’s sovereignty and to live in a safe Iraq with our peaceful neighbours and friends.” He ordered participants to mount only non-violent protests, refrain from showing any religious affiliation, raise only the Iraqi flag and avoid chanting slogans that would offend any but “the occupier” and stressing that the “revolution” is Iraqi and not involved with either east or west.

Sadr’s call could, however, create a rift in the Shia community and weaken the demand for US withdrawal. The revered senior Iraqi Shia cleric, Grand Ayatolla Ali Sistani, has reiterated a warning against “those who seek to exploit the (ongoing) protests that call for reforms to achieve certain goals that will hurt the primary interests of the Iraqi people and are not in in line with their true values.”

Some Iraqis responded to Sadr’s initiative with a social media campaign dubbed “Muqtada Does Not Represent Me.” They accused him to trying to hijack the anti-government protests adopting an Iranian agenda.

Meanwhile, the US Central Command which operates in this region announced that 11 US troops were injured in the January 8th Iranian ballistic missile strikes on Ain al-Asad base in western Iraq in retaliation for the killing of Soleimani. Several of the wounded were examined for concussion. The US had earlier stated that there had been considerable material damage but no US casualties. Eight were flown to Germany and three to Kuwait for assessment. The US has deployed 1,500 of its 5,200-6,000 troops in Iraq at al-Asad.

Several of the Iranian missiles landed on open fields near a second base housing US and other foreign forces near the Kurdish regional capital of Irbil.  

Although these strikes did not cause damage or injury, targeting has put pressure on the Kurdish regional government to reassess its ties with the US. Kurdish regional President Nechirvan Barzani has called for de-escalation. He stated that the Iraqi parliament’s decision “was not a good one” and pointed out that the decision had been taken by the Shias while the Kurds and Sunnis had not been consulted and not participated in the vote.  His words risked a rift between Iraq’s Shia politicians, on one hand, and their Kurdish and Sunni counterparts, on the other.

This is unlikely to undermine the communal unity Iraqi protesters have displayed since October when they launched their anti-regime protest movement.

This, like that in Lebanon, has as its goal the ouster of the present government, removal of corrupt politicians, overthrow of the ethno-sectarian power-sharing model imposed by the US occupation, and an end to external meddling. While striving to reach this objective Iraqis face the same challenges as the Lebanese.  To change their system of governance, Iraqis and Lebanese have to overcome the resistance of local leaders and external actors who seek to maintain the status quo. The street has to exert enough pressure on these forces to make them cede power to the people who have to create means to achieve transition. So far, neither Iraqis nor Lebanese have managed this feat because they have relied on existing political elites to cooperate and step back. Instead, they offer minor concessions designed to ensure they stay on.

Clearly, relying on elites to stand down is an unproductive approach.

Leading figures involved in the two uprisings must set procedures for the transition and choose capable individuals to manage it. They must somehow replace the mismanaging and corrupt elites with a provisional government comprising clean figures capable of solving their countries’ problems. It is not clear whether the protest movements can rise to this challenge. Attempts to accomplish this task could produce division and recrimination rather than unity and progress. In both countries, largescale violence could result if they do not accomplish their goal using largely peaceful means.

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