Iraq’s future is at stake

The weekend’s triple drone attack on the home of Mustafa al-Kadhimi, the Iraqi prime minister, is breathtaking. The assassinations of senior politicians are not uncommon in Iraq or the Middle East. Even so, the response to this attempted murder – Kadhimi was not seriously injured although several of his bodyguards were – could make or break a failed state.

First the culprits. While this is not yet conclusive, Iraqi officials claim that Iran’s Iraqi Shiite militias have done so: in particular, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Kata’ib Hezbollah, now the two most powerful proxies in the country. Tehran. Admittedly, the attempt follows a dramatic political crisis after Fatah, the political vehicle of Iranian militias, was defeated in elections last month, losing two-thirds of its seats, and loudly refusing to accept the result.

Moqtada al-Sadr, their longtime rival and heir to Iraq’s most revered Shia clerical dynasty, came first, winning 73 seats from 54 in 2018, when Iranian-backed paramilitaries came second with 48, instead of 16 humiliating seats now, out of 329.

Qais al-Khazali, head of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, was filmed on Saturday publicly threatening Kadhimi, after clashes between security forces and militiamen besieging the green zone housing Baghdad’s ministries and embassies, citing electoral fraud .

Iraqi paramilitaries had a good run after Sunni jihadists from Isis stormed into Iraq in 2014 and wiped out a national army hollowed out by corruption and bigotry despite billions of dollars in US aid and training. They joined the more than 100,000 Popular Mobilization Forces, blessed by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s spiritual leader, as Isis headed south towards Baghdad and Shiite sanctuary cities. of Najaf and Kerbala. They claimed credit for ending the jihadist campaign and then recapturing the disputed territory from the autonomous Iraqi Kurds. But they did not dissolve their power structures, even taking control of the PMF as successive governments struggled to bring them under control.

Kadhimi did his best to bring them under government discipline. He became interim prime minister after mass civic protests in October 2019 toppled his predecessor. The Iranian-backed militias took the initiative to violently suppress this uprising. That, added to the widespread fury at their anarchy, led to the collapse of their vote – but not their well-armed presence on the ground.

Since the October 10 election, they have made it clear that they will not be excluded from the institutions they have treated as booty, since the US-led invasion in 2003 virtually handed Iraq over, a majority Shiite country under the tyranny of the Sunni minority. from Saddam Hussein, to Iran and its local allies. It is infuriating to them that Sadr is now clearly the kingmaker of Iraq; and they see Kadhimi, a former intelligence chief, as an American tool he’s likely to name.

Sadr reinvented himself as an Iraqi nationalist opposed to both Americans and Iranian interference in Iraq. Yet he maintains his own militia and, as an admirer of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite paramilitaries have imitated their seizure of power by colonizing Iraqi institutions with its cadres.

Some Iraq veterans see this as a pragmatic improvement over 15 years ago, when, for example, different militias ruled over each of the 11 floors of the Interior Ministry – with the exception of the seventh, which was divided between two.

The future of Iraq, whose rulers have so far been unable to share power and resources and let their people down, is more than usual on hold. But what are Iran’s intentions there?

After enduring the Gulf and West-backed assault on Saddam’s Iraq during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, Iranian leaders are unlikely to abandon what they see as strategic depth and the advanced lines of defense afforded them by the American invasion. But they also don’t want a Shia-Shiite civil war that could lead them further.

As in Lebanon with Hezbollah and to some extent in Syria and Yemen, their preferred model is control by militias with missiles (and drones). This lean model also allows them to exploit Iraq behind various lucrative shields, such as building shrines.

Since Iran’s supremo foreign legionary, Revolutionary Guard commander Qassem Soleimani, was assassinated in January 2020 at Baghdad airport along with Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, Kata’ib Hezbollah and PMF leader , Tehran has had problems controlling its network of proxies – especially in Iraq. They may now be trying to use this loss of grip to their advantage.

Following the departure of President Donald Trump last year, who withdrew the United States from the historic nuclear restriction agreement that Iran has reached with the United States and five other world powers, some officials are trying to revive this international agreement. Tehran considers its Western interlocutors as applicants. How else are they going to stop Iran’s advance towards nuclear weapons capability unless there is an outright war that neither of them has an appetite for? If this is true, there is little chance of curbing regional aggression by Iranian acolytes – as long as it appears to be working in Tehran’s favor.

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