Iraqi Shiite Muslim pilgrims arrive in the holy city of Karbala ahead of the Arbaeen religious festival. Agence France-Presse
Ever since the US installed a pro-Iran Shia fundamentalist-dominated regime in Iraq in 2003, Baghdad has struggled to balance ties with Washington and regional rival Tehran while striving for independence from both.
These days Iraq is more than ever caught between neighbouring Tehran and distant Washington as Iraqis gear up to resume mass protests against the sectarian regime. Last weekend, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, an Iran hawk, made phone calls to Iraq’s president, prime minister, and parliamentary speaker to pressure them to put an end to rising pro- Iranian Shia militia attacks on US and UK military convoys and non-lethal strikes on the capital’s fortified Green Zone housing foreign embassies as these generally target areas near the sprawling US compound. Pompeo threatened to evacuate the US embassy, block economic aid and oil exports, and consider military options against the militias involved.
The government fears other diplomatic missions would pull out, depriving it of legitimacy, if the US evacuates hundreds of diplomats, staff, contractors and security agents from its embassy. Blocking foreign aid and interfering with oil exports could cause the Iraqi government to collapse and would be catastrophic for the majority of Iraqis. Oil exports account for 60 per cent of Iraq’s GDP and 90 per cent of government revenue while external aid provides essential assistance for the battle against Covid-19 as numbers of cases climb.
Baghdad also knows that the Trump administration could mount an “October surprise,” military operations against militias blamed for these attacks.
Now that Donald Trump is quarantined due to COVID, militarists in his administration may take advantage of the situation to launch strikes on Iraq, transforming it into a battleground in the regional struggle for influence between the US and Iran.
Militia attacks are seen as a response by pro-Iranian elements to the US “maximum pressure” campaign designed to force Tehran to capitulate to administration demands to halt intervention in regional affairs. Harsh US sanctions reimposed in 2018 after the administration exited the deal to limit Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief have shrunk Iran’s economy and impoverished its population but not forced Iran to cease involvement in Iraqi, Syrian, and Lebanese affairs.
Tehran, which has been keeping a low profile to avoid provoking the US, warned Baghdad that the very presence of US and other foreign troops in the region is a security threat: an “October surprise” would validate this warning.
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhimi, who took office in May, is facing his greatest challenge. US strikes on bases, arms dumps and other facilities used by factions belonging to the Popular Mobilisation Units would lead to a demand from the Iraqi parliament for the instant withdrawal of all US and other Western forces from the country. There would be no more procrastination over this issue.
Kadhimi has never been in a strong position. He was seen as leaning toward the US during his prior appointment as intelligence chief. His nomination for the premiership in April was opposed by Iran’s allies, led by Hadi al-Amiri of the Badr Organisation (formerly Badr Corps), Asa’ib al_Haq, Hizbollah, and Kata’ib al-Imam Ali. Kata’ib Hizbollah accused him of collaborating with the Trump administration’s assassinations of its chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani.
Although Kadhimi made his first foreign visit to Tehran in May, pro-Iranian politicians, particularly ex-militia leaders, were enraged that he travelled to Washington in August and was received by Donald Trump.
Kadhimi was the second Iraqi premier to visit since 2017. Armed factions threatened to attack US interests following the US trip since his talks there did not include the Iraqi parliament’s post-assassination vote demanding the immediate departure of all US forces.
While the US had decided to withdraw by the end of last month 2,000 of the 5,200 US troops in Iraq, this has not happened, strengthening the position of pro-Iranian politicians and militia leaders.
The US and its Western allies are not the only powers compromising Iraq’s slender sovereignty. Kadhimi has appealed in vain for Arab support against Turkey which has established a dozen military positions within Iraq’s Kurdish region and mounted attacks on Turkish Kurdish separatists. In August two high-ranking Iraqi military officers were slain in Turkish operations, ratcheting up tensions between Baghdad and Ankara. Iraq regards Turkey’s actions as “flagrant aggression” and has grown increasingly alarmed as Iran has followed Turkey’s example and mounted attacks on dissident Iranian Kurds also based in northern Iraq’s eastern mountains.
Before taking office, Kadhimi pledged to tackle corruption and mismanagement but has been stymied in his efforts due to the vested interests of powerful militias, politicians, and businessmen. Kadhimi has called for fresh elections in mid-2021 but the electoral law has not yet been passed and arrangements for early polling have not been made.
He also vowed to reduce numbers of civil servants and cut wages in the bloated bureaucracy in order to save money but had to retreat due to public outrage. Instead of downsizing he had to hire hundreds at the Defence Ministry to contain protests against the regime which erupted on October 1st, 2019.
Since Iraqis began to demonstrate across the country demanding “a homeland” free of foreign intervention, an end to graft and provision of basic services, 600 demonstrators have been killed and 55 activists have disappeared or been murdered. But, Kadhimi has not taken tough action against culpable security agents and militiamen who are defending the status quo which, of course, favours Iran. This enrages US hawks and explains why they could take ill considered military action ahead of the November US election.
Amnesty International has urged the Iraqi government to “step up its efforts to deliver justice to the hundreds killed in the course of exercising their right to peaceful assembly.” Amnesty argued that promises to tackle massive human rights violations were “nothing but ink on paper.”