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Michael Jansen: Upsetting the US applecart
September 24, 2018
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Protests in Basra and the south of Iraq have scuppered the plan by Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and caretaker Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi to form an inclusive, nationalist government. Abadi is out and Sadr has allied his electoral bloc with that formed by Hadi al-Amiri, a stalwart of the pro-Iranian sectarian Shia camp. Sadr made this move because Abadi, a Shia fundamentalist who had tried to put on a nationalist hat, is highly unpopular and has dropped out of the race for the premiership after an intervention by influential Shia Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.

The new alignment in Iraq’s parliament emerged on September 15th when it elected a new speaker.  The former governor of Anbar province Muhammed al-Halbousi, the candidate favoured by Iran, was chosen rather than former Defence Minister Khaled al-Obeidi.  Halbousi’s deputies were Sadr’s Karim al-Kaabi and the Kurdish Democratic Party’s Bashir al-Haddad.

Under the ethno-sectarian power sharing framework imposed by the US following its 2003 occupation of Iraq, the speaker has to be a Sunni and his deputies to be a Shia and a Kurd.

According to this arrangement, the prime minister must be a Shia and the president a Kurd and ministries must be shared out on a communal basis.

Although the appointments conform to this model, the personnel demonstrate that, at least for the time being, there has been a shift away from offshoots of the Shia fundamentalist Dawa movement installed by the US. Dawa was formed in the late 1950s to oppose the secular model of governance which was the legacy of British rule.

Sadr is an independent, radical cleric who opposed the US invasion and occupation while Amiri heads the Iranian-founded Badr Organisation, a major constituent of the Popular Mobilisation Forces that helped liberate Iraqi cities, including Mosul, from Daesh.

Sadr’s bloc came first, with 54 seats, in Iraq’s parliamentary election in May; Amiri’s second, with 48 seats in the 328-member body. The groups that combined with them to vote in a speaker and his deputies were the secular National Axis with 21 seats, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) with 18 seats and the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) with 26 seats.

Now that the speaker is in place, the politicians have 90 days to form a government.

Before tackling this task, they have to choose a president.  So far, both Iraq’s presidents have been nominated by the PUK, with the agreement of the KDP.  However, this time the KDP seeks to claim the largely ceremonial role. The late Jalal Talabani, the first post-US war president, expanded presidential authorities by mediating disputes among various factions.

KDP leader Massoud Barzani is a problem.  He has squabbled with Baghdad for years and last September attempted to declare independence for the autonomous Kurdish region. The government promptly countered this effort, re-established its rule over the Kurdish area, seized adjacent territory occupied by the Kurds, and cancelled measures which gave the region autonomy-verging-on-independence.

While the PUK nominee for the presidency Barham Salih, a former deputy premier, has good relations with and is trusted by Baghdad, the KDP does not.  The government is deeply suspicious of Barzani due to his bid for independence. Competition between the Kurds could delay talks on government formation, particularly if Kurdish opposition groups which have small numbers of seats intervene on one side or the other.

Sadr’s decision to join forces with Amiri and the exclusion of Abadi have weakened Washington’s influence in Iraq and strengthened that of Tehran. Iran has shown that it retains a whip hand in Iraq not only by engineering the alliance of Sadr and Amiri but also turning off electricity it supplies to Basra and the south.  The sudden shortfall in the power supply was one of the main causes of the protests which have forced Washington’s man, Abadi, to step down from the presidency.

Iran’s exercise of its muscle was inevitable after Donald Trump foolishly withdrew the US from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) which bound Iran to dismantle its nuclear programme in exchange for an easing of punitive sanctions.  Trump’s enforcement of US sanctions has compelled Europe and Asia to cut trade and investment with Iran, harming that country’s economy and the livelihood of millions of Iranians. Therefore, it was inevitable that Iran would retaliate next door in Iraq, wrongly regarded by distant and detached Washington as an area of US influence in this region.

Due to the US failure to rebuild and restore Iraq’s infrastructure during the seven-year occupation, Iraq now depends on Iranian natural gas to provide 40 per cent of its electricity. Although protesters in Basra chanted, “Iran out!” and attacked the Iranian consulate there, Iran retains its grip on the politicians who rode into Baghdad in 2003 on the backs of US tanks.  Washington can blame no one but itself for this situation.

Meanwhile Trump’s drive to curb Iranian influence by boosting sanctions has punished Iraq as well as Iran. Iraq relies on spare parts and replacements for 70,000 taxis and 200,000 cars of Iranian manufacture. Sanctions threaten to reduce the number of Iranian pilgrims who visit the Shia holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. Last year they numbered 2.5 million. 

Although the reduction of Iranian oil exports due to sanctions could permit Iraq to increase its market share — as the country’s production is expected to rise by an estimated 300,000 barrels by the end of the year – there is no guarantee Iraqi civilians will benefit.  For this to happen the new government must curb rampant corruption and invest in infrastructure.  Unless Iraqis receive electricity, water, and jobs, the protests that have dominated the politico-economic scene this past summer are likely to spread and intensify.

___________________________________________

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East
affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict
 

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