ANALYSIS: Iran deepens entrenchment in Iraq

Iraq seems powerless to stop Iran's interference and the US is doing nothing to stop it. Has the battle been lost?

Yochanan Visser,

Military truck carrying a missile and a picture of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatoll
Military truck carrying a missile and a picture of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatoll
Reuters

Iraq is finally on its way to getting a new government more than half a year after elections were held. Those elections resulted in a political earthquake when Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s list the Sairoon bloc beat its opponents.

At the beginning of October Adel Abdul Mahdi, a 76-year-old economist and veteran Shiite politician, who lived in exile in France for an extended period, was appointed prime minister by the newly elected President Barham Saleh who is a Kurd.

Mahdi had been a member of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, an exiled opposition party and militia that was formed by Iran in Tehran in 1982 and consisted of Iraqi exiles. He is, however, not considered an Islamist.

In 2005, Mahdi became vice-president of Iraq, a position he held until 2011 when he resigned after surviving an assassination attempt in 2007.

His appointment was the result of a compromise between 6 Shiite factions, some backed by Iran, who after his appointment jockeyed for control of key ministries such as the Defense Ministry and the Interior Ministry, while Mahdi wanted a cabinet of technocrats.

The pro-Iranian factions in Iraq wanted to appoint Falih al-Fayadh, who headed the Iranian- controlled Hash al-Shaabi umbrella organization of Shiite militias, as Interior Minister. This was unacceptable to al-Sadr who decided not to take the position of President or Prime Minister after the elections.

"I will not accept a minister of defense or interior who is affiliated [with a political party]," Sadr said in a statement on his Twitter account, last Tuesday.

Al-Sadr is reportedly using his political power to stop Iran from meddling in the forming of the new government and is now reportedly facing death threats from the Iranians.

Misal Alusi, the leader of Iraq's Umma Party, last week said al-Sadr could be assassinated by Iran or Qatar over his opposition to the nomination of a pro-Iranian politician to the post of Interior Minister and Defense Minister.

Iran is currently using “teams of hit squads” in Iraq to eliminate critics who are against the country’s meddling in the process to form a new Iraqi government, according to British security officials.

The hit squads have already assassinated a number of Iraqi opponents and were deployed on orders of Qassem Soleimani, the shrewd commander of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps.

Soleimani has been labeled a ‘living martyr’ by his admirers in both Iraq and Iran and also interfered in the process that led to the forming of the new Iraqi government.

“Iran is intensifying its campaign of intimidation against the Iraqi government by using assassination squads to silence critics of Tehran, a senior British security official told The Daily Telegraph” according to the London-based Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat.

"This is a blatant attempt to thwart efforts by the new Iraqi government to end Iran's meddling in Iraq," the unnamed British official added before revealing that Soleimani’s Quds Force continues to smuggle weapons to Hashd al-Shaabi militias such as Kataib Hezbollah.

Brian Hook, The American Special Representative for Iran, addressed the Iranian belligerent activities in Iraq during a briefing to foreign reporters in Washington last week.

Hook emphasized it was necessary to halt Iranian expansion in Iraq and said there were “credible reports” indicating “Iran is transferring ballistic missiles to Shia militia groups in Iraq.”

These militias (Hashd al-Shaabi) are in control of large areas in northern Iraq, including parts of Iraqi Kurdistan and Mount Sinjar from where Saddam Hussein launched Scud missiles at Israel during the First Gulf War.

Experts fear the Iranian proxies in Iraq might do the same in a future conflict.

“The control of such strategic territory increases the lethality and range” of any missiles that might be fired from that area,” Paul Davis, a former Pentagon analyst and now a Senior Fellow at Soran University said during an interview with Kurdistan 24.

Liberal Iraqi lawmakers have urged the US government and American envoys in the region to stand up against Soleimani, but Douglas Silliman, the US ambassador in Baghdad instead pressured the new Iraqi government to take decisive measures against the Shiite militias.

Chances that this will indeed happen are very slim.

President Saleh said during the Mediterranean Dialogues Conference in Rome on November 22 that Iraq is “adamant to protect its independence and sovereignty,” but also heaped praise on Hashd al-Shaabi which fought as an integral force of the Iraqi army against Islamic State.

The Iraqi President seemed to be aware of the daunting task of getting rid of the “old order” in Iraq which has seen wars for almost 40 years now and asked for international help to stabilize and improve the overall situation in the country, which is suffering from a myriad of problems.

The Iranians and their Iraqi proxies, however, have no intention of changing the “old order” in Iraq and want the US army out of the country.

Ali Aboud, a Kataib Hezbollah leader, said last week that the Shiite militias will not “allow even one US soldier on Iraqi territories and holy sites," while he claimed that the Americans were working to resurrect Islamic State in Iraq.

Iran is also planning to use Iraqi soil to connect Tehran with Damascus via a new railway that opponents say will entrench Iranian influence in both Iraq and Syria, allowing the Islamic Republic to realize the logistics infrastructure needed for a prolonged presence in both countries.

The new Iraqi government is very careful not to criticize Iran for its meddling in Iraqi affairs and last week backtracked on its earlier decision to abide by the new US sanction-regime against the Islamic Republic and established a free trade zone along the 1400 kilometer long border with Iran.

In Rome, President Saleh said for Iraq to stabilize it needs a “regional order that can embrace and nurtures its stability” and emphasized that good relations with Iran are “very important.”

It was a new indication that the United States is losing the battle over Iraq with Iran.


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