Iraq’s third largest city, Basra, erupted in demonstrations and firebombings in early September 2018, against government corruption and Iranian interference in Iraq. Three Katyusha rockets were fired at Basra’s airport by unknown attackers. Political intrigue may play a role in the turmoil.
Since the Iraqi legislative elections on May 12, 2018, the Iraqi body politic has been engulfed in a domestic, restless battle between two main opposing political camps: the anti-Iranian camp led by the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr and his ally, acting-prime minister Haydar el-Abadi, versus the pro-Iranian faction headed by Hadi el-Ameri. The pro-Iran camp also includes Nouri al-Maliki, one of Iraq’s three vice presidents and head of the Islamic Dawa Party, as well as the head of the Hashd al-Shaabi Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), a pro-Iranian militia directed by Tehran.
The issue is very simple: which of the two camps will form the next government? According to the Iraqi Constitution, the political faction with the majority in the 329-member Council of Representatives chooses all the important positions in the country. Since neither of the elected factions won a clear majority, even though Muqtada al-Sadr’s Saairun reformist alliance won the most seats (54) compared to its rival (48), the race between the two camps is to form a coalition of various factions to secure a majority and form the next government.
The Al-Sadr ticket stressed from the beginning of the electoral campaign the need to recover the country’s “Iraqi” identity and independence from Iranian interests and pressures. The Saairun Alliance sought to form an extra-partisan government based on a choice of technocrats immune to the ethnic and religious cleavage of the Iraqi society.
The significance and impact of such a policy was a warning light for Iran and its proxies in Iraq. It was a slap in the face to Iran and its proxies in Iraq who tried by every means to block an al-Sadr realignment. In February 2018, Ali Akbar Velayati, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s top adviser, visited Iraq and warned, “We will not allow liberals and communists to govern in Iraq.”
Even Gen. Qasem Soleimani, head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Qods force, lobbied politicians in Baghdad to block the al-Sadr victory. Iran made great efforts to deny leadership to al-Sadr’s party (which seems to have enjoyed an active American lobby) by trying to establish a bigger parliamentary coalition which could claim the right to form the next government.
On September 3, 2018, al-Sadr announced the formation of a united list of more than 184 members (some media claim 177 members from 16 factions), thus affirming the right to form the government. The new alliance includes the blocs of Vice President Ayad Allawi and Shiite Muslim cleric Ammar al-Hakim, as well as several Sunni Muslim lawmakers and representatives of Turkmen, Yazidi, Mandaean, and Christian minorities.
On the same day, Al-Sadr’s rivals claimed to have formed the larger faction with 145 members. The difference between the two is due to the fact that the Kurdish factions (41 members) have not formally joined either of the two camps. The Kurds have put conditions to their support – first, the recovery of the control of their borders lost to the central Iraqi government after the failed declaration of independence initiated by then-president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG ), Massoud Barzani, in September 2017. The Kurds also seek a more equitable partition of oil revenues and the recognition of a special status of the Kurdish fighters (the “Peshmerga”) together with the payment of salaries to all Kurdish governmental officials.
The competition between the two blocks seems to have touched a very sensitive Iraqi nerve. Serious Iraqi discontent has been voiced and burst forth over Iran’s brutal meddling in Iraqi politics; its arrogant behavior; the appointment as Iran’s ambassador to Iraq of Iraj Masjedi, a Revolutionary Guards officer for 35 years who used to be Qasem Soleimani’s Adviser in the Qods Force; and behaving towards the Iraqis as if they were obedient vassals while ignoring national sensitivities.
To add insult to injury, press reports have stated that Iran has transferred to Iraqi territory ballistic missiles for the Popular Mobilization Units under Iranian command. Press accounts stress that Basra is undergoing a humanitarian water disaster because of Iranian water projects that diverted and dammed tributaries of the Tigris River into Iraq
The Iraqi response was almost immediate: Faleh el-Fayyad, head of the National Security Agency, President of the Popular Mobilization Forces, and founder of the Shiite “Ataa Movement” was fired on August 31, 2018, from his post by Iraqi Prime Minister Haydar al Abadi who declared, “We will not endanger the interests of our people in order to satisfy Iran or anybody else.” The Government charged that el-Fayyad’s active involvement in politics while being a civil servant is forbidden by the Iraqi Constitution. Less than 24 hours after his dismissal, Faleh el-Fayyad was declared by the pro-Iranian factions in parliament, headed by Hadi el-Ameri, to be their candidate to be the prime minister.
Politics, Iraqi Oil, and Water Shortages Don’t Mix Well
As events unravel in Iraq, it seems the probability of an inter-Shiite clash is more likely than ever. In an act of defiance, Iraqi army units disrupted a press conference on September 3, 2018, held by Hadi el-Ameri, the head of the pro-Iranian bloc in parliament – a never-seen-before event.
Iran will probably fight its way into Iraqi politics using its proxies: it is in the national interest of Iran to keep Iraq under control, a weak and shaky government which will allow Iran to consolidate its influence in the war against the United States. Iraq is also the keystone for Iran’s goal of a Shiite “crescent,” an Iranian land bridge to the Mediterranean through Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.
On the other hand, if Iraq wants to remain an independent country, then the present battle for the premiership is a first step on the way. Failing against Iran would carry dire consequences for Iraq.
Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.