The coming struggle for Iraq

Brian M Downing 

The Entente of Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United States is determined to weaken Iranian-Shia influence. The effort has theaters in Syria, Yemen, Qatar, and Iraq. At times it will entail diplomacy and sanctions, other times military operations will be the rule. Both will be used in coming months as Iran and the Entente, chiefly the United States, vie in Iraq.

Iraq is not the staunch ally that Tehran hoped for and the neoconservatives claim it to be. Baghdad navigates a neutral course between Washington and Tehran, avoiding dependence on either one, seeking benefit from both. The impending struggle between the US and Iran will make that course more difficult. It may cause still more chaos in Iraq.

Iranian influence

During the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), Tehran established political groups and militias inside Iraq. Its influence rose when the US defeated Saddam Hussein in 2003, demobilized the Sunni army, and opened government to the Shia majority. Tehran’s rising influence had less to do with Iranian stealth than with American miscalculation.

Iranian-backed militias have played important roles against ISIL. They helped stanch the 2014 offensive and supported the battles for Tikrit, Fallujah, and Mosul. Unfortunately, they are not integrated into army and state and display more loyalty to their leader, Moqtada al Sadr, than to elected officials in Baghdad.

IRGC cadres are ensconced in localities. They fund programs and advise administrators. Iranian goods abound in shops and marketplaces. Iraqi businesses often have their products manufactured in Iran where costs are lower and security higher.

Fraternity among Shia is often overstated. Though there is an affinity based on shared faith and common oppression by Sunnis, tension if not hatred exists between Arabs and “Persians” – a telling usage that conveys centuries-long enmity. Shia parties have varying attitudes toward Iran and toward each other. Their infighting has led to political paralysis, and sometimes sharp engagements between rival militias.

So fierce has Shia infighting been at times that IRGC generals have stepped in and hammered out agreements among factions. Without such intervention, political life would be even more tempestuous than it is.

Iranian overreach

Few people wish to see their countries in the shadow of another. There are opportunities to weaken ties with Iran and strengthen those with the US, though efforts may further destabilize Iraq.

Many Iraqis oppose the influence of Iran and want to assert national interests. This view is prevalent even among Shia and vehement among the Sunni minority. Most Iraqis, regardless of sectarian loyalties, supported the war with Iran, even though it was long, costly, and futile.

The ubiquity of Iranian products is a further cause of resentment. Foreign products drive out locally-made ones and bring unemployment. A more nationalist economy would have considerable support.

Iranian-backed militias were instrumental in halting ISIL in 2014 and continue to play supportive roles. They are tied to a political party, one that supports the Abadi government, but they are seen as a vanguard of Iranian-style theocracy. This is opposed by most Iraqis and indeed by the most revered Shia cleric, Ayatollah Sistani (who, paradoxically, comes from Iran).

At the very least the militias represent disorder. Their support of Abadi has taken the disconcerting form of barging into the national assembly and intimidating the opposition. In towns and villages the militias form their own governments and mete out justice as they see fit.

American policies

Opportunities to weaken Iranian influence are clear. However, the Shia government of Iraq will be mindful of Washington’s actions in Iraq and Syria. The US is closely aligned with Saudi Arabia and Israel and determined to weaken Iranian-Shia power. The Entente is backing Sunni Arabs and Kurds in Syria to establish autonomous realms. It may soon use those same forces to detach large parts of Iraq from Baghdad’s control. What steps will the Entente take next to weaken Shia power?

Baghdad may not be able to maintain a neutral course between Iran and the US. Factionalism is bound to resurface and possibly reach dangerous levels. Shia militias may demonstrate their power in Baghdad and clash with the regular army. The army itself is rife with fissures based on conflicting Baghdad patronage cliques. The special forces which have done the bulk of the fighting might respect American trainers more than they do their own government – or their putative comrades in battalions that stay behind the lines.

The Kurds may break with Baghdad altogether, as they have threatened. The Sunni Arabs could attempt to follow suit. The Shia of southern Iraq, home to the bulk of the country’s oil resources and export terminals, have voiced their disdain for Baghdad politics and hinted at breaking away themselves.

Further fragmentation may be on the horizon, possibly as an unforeseen consequence of US policies. However, the frailties of the Iraqi government and the country’s susceptibility to turmoil and disintegration might be straightforward assumptions in Entente capitals, and further fragmentation would be a strategic gain for them.

Copyright 2017 Brian M Downing

Brian M Downing is a national security analyst who has written for outlets across the political spectrum. He studied at Georgetown University and the University of Chicago, and did post-graduate work at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs.