01 October 2020
English Arabic

Iraq On The Path Of National Recovery From Iranian Hegemony – Part III: The First 30 Days

Wednesday, 10 June 2020 15:37

"Iraq Belongs To The Iraqis"

"Sovereignty is where we draw the line. It is impossible to remain polite at the expense of Iraq's sovereignty or to make concessions at the expense of the honor of Iraq and the Iraqis... Let me repeat this again and again: Iraq's sovereignty will not be up for debate, and the Iraqis will make their [own] decisions. Iraq belongs to the Iraqis... We will not allow any Iraqi to be insulted by anyone, at home or abroad, with the accusation of being subservient to foreigners. Iraqis are not subservient." This resolute message,  signaling a new direction for Iraq, was delivered on Iraqi TV by then-prime minister-designate Mustafa Al-Kadhimi on April 9, 2020 (see MEMRI TV Clip No. 8040, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi Promises to Protect Iraq's Sovereignty; All Weapons are a Matter for the State, not for Individuals or Groups).

A month later, on May 6, the Iraqi parliament approved Al-Kadhimi's cabinet, with a large majority. The new cabinet promised change, the main thrust of which would be greater Iraqi freedom of decision and the curbing of Iran's decade of intervention in Iraqi politics. Iraq is facing difficult economic problems, exacerbated by the drop in oil prices and the global coronavirus pandemic. The new prime minister is carefully steering Iraq in this new direction, and the first signs of the promised change are already discernible.  

Iraqi lawmakers have approved 15 of the 22 ministers proposed by Prime Minister Al-Kadhimi, including his choice of pro-U.S. figures for interior and defense ministers. Also significant is the number of U.S.-trained senior military officers who have been brought back into military service after being sacked by prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi and the pro-Iran militias (see MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 1151,  Iraq On The Path Of National Recovery From Iranian Hegemony, May 12, 2020). On June 7, it was announced that Al-Kadhimi had appointed as his office chief of staff Judge Ra'id Johi, who holds a Master's in International Law from the U.S. and had served as Chief Investigative Judge of the Iraqi High Tribunal in the trial of Saddam Hussein.[1] Also on June 7, Al-Kadhimi appointed as Army Chief of Staff the U.S.-trained Gen. Abdul Amir Yarellah.[2]  

The Iraqi Government's Attitude Towards The Protesters' Demands

For several months since October 2019, tens of thousands of Iraqis gathered to protest against the regime's corruption and against Iran's meddling in Iraq's internal affairs. In his abovementioned April 9 speech, Al-Kadhimi said: "The blood that the Iraqis shed and the sacrifices that they made in the war against ISIS are dear, and the blood that was shed and the sacrifices that were made by the Iraqi  demonstrators who demanded their rights are also dear. We shall protect these rights."[3] Accordingly, it was announced that Prime Minister Al-Kadhimi had ordered a full investigation of the killing of protesters, demanding that "all those who shed Iraqi blood are to be held to account."[4]

According to a May 10 statement by the media center of the Supreme Judicial Council, "the Supreme Judicial Council has directed investigating judges to release those arrested in connection with the demonstrations, provided that they are not involved in crimes or acts of sabotage."[5] It may be assumed, then, that the individual examination of each detainee's file will take some time. On May 19, Al-Kadhimi formed a high-level fact-finding committee to look into all arrests of protesters since October.[6] To date, no detained protestors are known to have been released. On June 4, Al-Kadhimi met with families of those killed or wounded during the protests and told them that "the demonstrators did not die in vain." He also urged the public to be patient since a "thorough and professional investigation is underway to ensure justice."[7]

In his first cabinet meeting, on May 9, Al-Kadhimi announced that he had asked parliament to pass the new elections law and the law of political parties; both were aimed at meeting key protestor demands.[8] The new laws will pave the way for the removal of the current Iran-backed elite from the Iraqi parliament and government, and will allow voters to elect independent candidates instead.

Changes In The Pro-Iran Militias

Over the past decade, Iran had built apparatuses of influence in Iraq that helped it strengthen its position there. One of these was the armed militias, members of the umbrella organization Al-Hashd Al-Sha'bi (aka the Popular Mobilization Units, PMU), which were meant to fight ISIS, and were supported by Ayatollah Al-Sistani, the highest Shi'ite religious authority in Iraq. However, Iran had exploited these militias in order to deepen its meddling in Iraq, and they became Iran's violent arm, imposing Iran's will on Iraqi politics.

In his April 9 speech, Al-Kadhimi declared: "All the weapons – heavy, medium, and light – are a matter for the state and nobody else. Weapons are not a matter for individuals or groups. The various military and security institutions – the army, the police, the PMU, and the [Kurdish] Peshmerga – will fulfill their duty to prevent the weapons anarchy. We will take decisive measures to make sure that the weapons are confined [to the state]."[9] Reiterating this in his inauguration speech in parliament on May 6, he said: "The government's authority must be restored everywhere, in accordance with the constitution, by enforcing the exclusive right of the state to bear arms and making sure that Iraqi territory is not used to settle accounts or attack others."[10]

On May 11, Al-Kadhimi ordered security forces in Basra to shut down the headquarters of the Iran-backed Tha'ir Allah militia, members of which had, the previous day, killed one protester and wounded four others. According to a statement by the Prime Minister's Office, several militia members were arrested and their weapons and ammunition were seized.[11] Two weeks later, the government allowed the headquarters to reopen, and Tha'ir Allah leaders publicly thanked Al-Kadhimi for the gesture and explicitly accepted the government's authority.[12]

But Al-Kadhimi was not done yet. On May 16, he visited PMU general headquarters.[13] There he delivered a brief but firm speech, published in full by his office, informing the PMU leaders that they are now subordinate to the Iraqi government, and that their sole source of religious authority is Ayatollah Al-Sistani – that is, not Iranian ayatollahs. From this point forward, he stressed several times, the activity of the militias would be limited to the war against ISIS.

Accordingly, in an interview published May 27, the prime minister's military spokesman announced: "The PMU is part of the Iraqi military system and works with the rest of the military and security formations to carry out operations to pursue the remnants of terrorism. The commanders are in charge of all the security forces, whether the PMU or other security forces."[14] Two days earlier, a PMU commander had announced that PMU units belonging to four battalions were operating against ISIS in eastern Iraq.[15]

On May 29, two weeks after his visit to the militias' headquarters, the prime minister reiterated his commitment: "We shall limit the weapons to the state control; no party or power is above the state authority."[16] On June 3, the PMU website[17] announced that PMU chairman Falih Al-Fayyadh had issued a circular of instructions to all PMU factions, according to which they must terminate their political and non-political affiliation with all parties and organizations, close all their headquarters in Iraq's cities, and replace their political names with numbers like units of the Iraqi armed forces. These instructions were first issued by the previous Iraqi government in July 2019, but Al-Fayyadh had apparently not acted on them at that time.[18]

The U.S. Military Presence In Iraq

In recent years, pro-Iran militias, prodded by Iran, have attacked U.S. bases with the aim of expelling U.S. military forces from Iraq. Two days after the January 3, 2020 killing in Baghdad, by the U.S., of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani – who had for years called the political shots in Iraq – the Iraqi parliament, via a majority comprising primarily Shi'ite legislators, resolved to expel all foreign forces from of Iraq. Despite several rocket attacks on Iraqi bases where U.S. forces are deployed – the most recent of which was on May 19 – the U.S. maintains its military presence in Iraq, despite Iran's obvious wish that it withdraw. In a friendly phone conversation with Al-Kadhimi on May 21, Iranian Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri reminded him that "the presence of foreign forces helps [foster] tension in the region. Happily, the Iraqi parliament intelligently passed a resolution to expel foreign forces [from the region]."[19]

In contrast, following his first cabinet meeting, Al-Kadhimi told reporters that his government had established a crisis desk, comprising foreign affairs experts, to commence detailed preparations for the talks with the U.S. set for this month on the future of U.S.-Iraq relations and the presence of the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq. The talks are aimed at "[preserving] Iraq's higher interests and fulfilling the aspirations of the Iraqi people."[20] Surprisingly, a pro-Iran group in the Iraqi parliament has declared its support for maintaining good relations with the U.S.[21] On May 17, PMU chairman Al-Fayyadh said in an interview that "there is importance in maintaining relations with the Americans."[22] Even the militant Kata'ib Hizbullah militia has voiced no objections to the upcoming U.S.-Iraq talks, though it did ask for a PMU commander to join the Iraqi negotiating team and expressed some additional minor requests.[23]

The Relations Between Iraq And The Gulf States

Al-Kadhimi's government declared on May 6 that "Iraq will not allow any country to violate its sovereignty and will not permit its territories to be used to launch attacks on any of its neighbors or be used as an arena to settle regional or international scores."[24] On May 10, following Al-Kadhimi's meeting with Iranian Ambassador to Iraq Iraj Masjedi, which had immediately followed a meeting between Al-Kadhimi and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Matthew H. Tueller, the prime minister's office issued a statement to the effect that Al-Kadhimi's policy is to "prevent Iraq from being turned into a hub for terrorism or a springboard for aggression against any country, or into an arena for settling accounts."[25] In a May 7 speech to parliament, Al-Kadhimi noted that Iraq is seeking "brotherly and cooperative relations" with the Arab countries.[26]

Two weeks later, in accordance with this policy, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister in the new cabinet, Ali Allawi, visited Saudi Arabia, which heads the anti-Iran coalition of Gulf states. The Iraqi ambassador to Saudi Arabia announced: "After the formation of the new Iraqi government, Iraq looks forward to establishing a strong relationship with Saudi Arabia."[27] In a May 24 interview conducted during  his visit, Allawi said that "the Iraqi government rejects any foreign country's domination over it," acknowledging that "there is a country that has interests in Iraq, but these interests must be under the [primacy] of the state's supremacy."[28]

Why Iran Does Not Openly Object To Iraq's New Moves

According to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the Islamic Revolution in Iran is now, after completing its first 40 years, in its "Second Phase" – comprising "the expansion of the powerful political presence of the Islamic Republic of Iran in West Asia, and its wide-ranging reflection across the world of domineering powers."[29] The new developments in Iraq have negatively impacted this policy, as Iraq has been the keystone of the policy of Iran's westward expansion towards Syria and Lebanon. This policy was expressed last year by Iran in its announcement of a project for a road connecting Iran to Syria via Saudi Arabia; however, on May 22, a highly placed source in Baghdad said that Iran had suspended the project.[30]

The Iranian people are heavily burdened by their country's economic problems; in addition to the tightening U.S. sanctions, the country has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, the plunge of oil prices, and in the past month, a severe invasion of locusts in its south and east, threatening to destroy crops worth over $7 billion.[31]  But the most severe blow to the "Second Phase" was the January killing of IRGC Qods Force commander Soleimani, the unrelenting implementor of Iran's aggressive policy, together with PMU deputy commander Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis.

Yet another blow to Iran and its Iraqi militias came in April, when Iraqi Shi'ite leader Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani ordered his military units within the PMU to abandon the militias and join with the Iraqi military. Moreover, in a May 16 television interview, PMU chairman Al-Fayyadh acknowledged that Al-Sistani had reservations about the PMU and that it "should show more discipline."[32] On May 9, in an unexpected show of weakness, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei marked the birthday of the second Shi'ite Imam Hassan (624-670 CE), tweeting his praise of him and noting that Hassan had made concessions by giving power to his enemy Mu'awiya ibn Abi Sufyan, tweeting: "Imam Hassan acted in a way that the genuine Islam, which couldn't be continued in the form of a government [due to its weakness], moved on as a great revolutionary movement. Due to his actions, Islam remained as a religion that [stands] against oppression, and is uncompromising, undistorted, and genuine."[33]

There was a significant difference between official and semi-official Iranian reactions to Al-Kadhimi's taking power. Negative and even threatening articles were published by commentators. On May 17, the Iranian regime mouthpiece Kayhan published an op-ed about the Iraqi government's decision to hold talks with the U.S. on the continued presence of U.S. forces in Iraq. It stated: "It is not Iran or Syria that will lose because of the presence of American military bases in Iraq; it is the [Iraqi] government, which will lose its natural allies in the region. It is [Iraq] that may have to cope with problems and crisis."[34] On June 7, another Kayhan article denounced "a known political current" in Iraq that it said "has sold its honor, independence, and interests to the known enemies of the Iranian nation," and went on to warn that a new Iraq-U.S. agreement "will anger Iran and force it to constantly inspect its known American enemy in Iraq."[35]

Officially, the Iranian regime welcomed the new Iraqi government.[36] Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif both expressed their desire to cooperate with Al-Kadhimi – despite the fact that he was accused by the Iran-backed PMU of being an accessory to the killing of Qods Force commander Soleimani by colluding with the U.S. In a video call with his Iraqi counterpart, Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatami wished him success.[37] In other conversations, including one on May 21 between Al-Kadhimi and Iranian Vice President Jahangiri,[38] Iran's leaders were polite and expressed hope for cooperation between the two governments. On June 7, when the Iraqi Parliament approved the appointment of new ministers and thus finished assembling the cabinet, Iranian Ambassador to Iraq Iraj Masjedi wished the cabinet  success, expressing the hope that good relations would develop between "the two friendly neighboring countries."[39]

Iraqi officials' responses to this apparent Iranian acquiescence were polite but cool. When, on May 18, Iranian President Rouhani invited Iraqi President Barham Salih to visit his country, Salih answered, "At the appropriate time."[40] Moreover, Salih stressed that "the  actualization of Iraqi sovereignty is essential, and it is undeniable that future decision-making in Iraq must be recognized. Foreign powers must not intervene in deciding Iraq's fate."[41] 

Similar coolness on the part of Iraqi notables was also demonstrated at the Baghdad meeting between Iranian Ambassador Masjedi and Iraqi Interior Minister Othman Al-Ghanimi on May 29: The table between them featured both an Iranian and an Iraqi flag, but the Iraqi flag was twice the size of the Iranian one.[42]


Conclusions

Are the events described here indicative of Iraq's path in the years to come? This report does not pretend to predict Iraq's future, which is subject to many factors and circumstances that are beyond the intentions and the control of the new Iraqi government and its supporters, inside and outside Iraq. However, at this stage, it can safely be said that, based on the facts presented and analyzed above, that Prime Minister Al-Kadhimi is entirely serious about actualizing the aspirations for independence of a large sector of the Iraqi public, taking into account the formidable constraints under which his government is operating.

Indeed, Al-Kadhimi owes his nomination to the many Iraqi protesters who have filled the squares in the past few months, and it can be assumed that some of his statements are aimed at satisfying them – such as the promise to change the election laws and to see to it that the detained protesters are released. But he has gone far beyond that. His nomination of pro-U.S. ministers, his announcement of upcoming U.S.-Iraq talks on the U.S.'s status in Iraq, and his visit to PMU headquarters where he demanded that its militias' commanders be subordinate to the Iraqi government and military, that  the militias focus solely on fighting ISIS, and that their sole source of religious authority now be Ayatollah Al-Sistani – as well as his reissue of instructions to the militias to eschew their political names in favor of numbers like the rest of the Iraqi armed forces and close their headquarters in the Iraqi cities – all point in this new direction.

These moves are obviously viewed by Iran as anti-Iran provocation, and the Iraqi government clearly could have refrained from making them. Certainly, Al-Kadhimi's statement that "Iraqis are not subservient" was addressed solely to Iran. The government's choice of this path attests to its will to publicly mark its direction: curbing Iran's influence in Iraq.

Al-Kadhimi likely assesses that he can move in this direction due to a combination of two main factors. One is internal: the cooperation of important allies – Iraqi President Salih, his longtime friend[43];  parliamentary speaker Al-Halbousi, a Sunni; and  Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, together with the support of a large sector of the population represented by the protestors. The other is external: the weakening of Iran, leading it to relinquish important elements of its activity in the region. The Iranian leaders' acquiescence to the new Iraqi policy is not of their choosing; they have no other option. However, the Iranian leadership, known for its long game, is keeping a low profile on the Iraq issue – but this does not mean that Iran has given up on its ambitions in Iraq. It does indicate, though, that its leaders recognize that its plans for Iraq cannot be actualized at this time.

Whether the Iraqi government's new direction can be sustained, and whether it will succeed, cannot be known at this point. But the accomplishments of its first 30 days are already pointing to the goal to which it aspires. Prime Minister Al-Kadhimi undertook this commitment when he declared: "Iraq's sovereignty will not be up for debate, and the Iraqis will make their decisions. Iraq belongs to the Iraqis."

Source: MEMRI

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