Glance at a map of the Middle East, and the geopolitical–cum–religious complications facing Iraq are immediately apparent. The country is like a wedge, forced between the two bitterly opposed leaders of the Muslim world – Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran. Following decades of instability and civil war, it is only in the past few months that Iraq has been secure enough to start the process of carving out an appropriate place for itself within the political structure of the region.
The overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003 led to Iraq becoming a battlefield of competing jihadist militias. For a while US-led coalition forces attempted to quell the chaos. When this failed, the US formally withdrew its fighting force in an effort to outflank the strong anti-Western sentiment that provided the battle cry for many of the armed forces.
Civilian rule was reinstated in Iraq in 2005 by way of a new constitution. After a shaky start, the nascent democracy slowly strengthened until it was again thrown off balance by the emergence in 2014 of Islamic State, whose forces rapidly conquered large tracts of the country, and imposed its version of harsh Sharia law over its self-declared caliphate. It took nearly four years of concerted effort by Kurdish and government forces, backed by the US and a Western coalition, before all IS territory was finally back in Iraqi hands.
Elections in October 2018 resulted in veteran Kurdish politician, Barham Salih, assuming the largely ceremonial role of president, while experienced Shia politician, Adel Abdul Mahdi, became the nation’s prime minister. The defeat of the IS caliphate restored a certain degree of stability within Iraq, but a major challenge facing the new government is the continued presence, lodged within the body politic, of some 30 armed fighting forces known collectively as the popular mobilization forces (PMF), amounting to some 125,000 personnel.
Volunteer PMF fighters fought hard in the campaign against IS, but as it drew to a close many of the PMF’s leaders sought to make political capital out of their positions of power within the state. These efforts to convert militias into parallel state structures have been compared to the evolution inside Iran of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), or within Lebanon of Hezbollah. Moreover a number of PMF factions have close ties to Iran, are reaching into various sectors of the Iraqi administration, and using their military power to brush aside competition and opposition.
In March 2018, prime minister Mahdi’s predecessor, Haider al-Abadi, tried to chip away at the militias’ independence by formally making them part of the country’s security forces – an initiative that largely failed, Mahdi has not only reinstituted al-Abadi’s order, but has gone further by requiring the militias to leave their local military headquarters and shut down their so-called economic offices. He has set a deadline of July 31 for the militias to comply.
Troubling as this issue is, it is Iraq’s relations with its geographical neighbours that find the state balancing on a political tightrope.
While Iraq contains a sizeable Sunni minority, it is essentially a Shi’ite state with an area in the north dedicated to a form of Kurdish autonomy. As such, despite sizeable US financial support, it has a strong relationship with Iran. Iran’s influence within Iraq is sustained by the over-mighty paramilitary groups it supports.
In March 2019 Iran’s president, Hassan Rohani, made his first official visit to Iraq. A few days later Iraqi prime minister Mahdi reciprocated, with a two-day visit to Iran, where he met not only Rohani, but Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Discussions centred on the expansion of commercial ties, especially gas and electricity, and a plan to connect their railroads.
Ever since Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait back in 1990, Iran has been no friend of Saudi Arabia, which joined the UN coalition to reverse Hussain’s victory. Recently, though, Saudi has been attempting to counter Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East, and is intent on repairing fences with its neighbour. Early in April 2019 Saudi Arabia reopened its consulate in Baghdad for the first time in nearly 30 years. The opening was accompanied by a one billion dollar aid package for Iraq.
On April 17 the two oil-producing giants moved towards closer diplomatic and economic ties when King Salman welcomed Mahdi on his first official visit to the kingdom. Mahdi went to Riyadh with a large delegation, including officials and businessmen, with trade billed as a prime focus of the discussions. The visit produced no less than 13 agreements covering trade, energy and political cooperation.
With his two powerful neighbours totally opposed to each other, Mahdi has to keep relations with them in some kind of balance. This perhaps explains Iraq’s less than wholly welcoming reaction to the latest overtures by Iran.
In the wake of Iran’s shooting down of a US drone over the Gulf of Oman, an Iranian military delegation visited Iraq on June 23-24 and met with senior officers to propose closer military cooperation between the two countries. In a meeting with Major General Tariq Abbas, Iraq’s deputy commander of the army, Iran’s land forces commander Kioumars Heydari suggested joint exercises.
The suggestion was endorsed by Alireza Sabahifard, commander of Iran’s Air Defense Forces. “Iran and Iraq have many reasons … to unite and consolidate Islamic power in the region,” he said “We are ready to create expert committees for all areas in order to establish and improve bilateral cooperation.”
Iraq’s leadership would have been fully aware that the idea of Iraq and Iran collaborating on military matters was scarcely likely to appeal to Washington, yet interchanges with Iran continued. Iran’s Heydari is quoted as saying that agreements had already been concluded “in the transfer of expertise in the field of armored vehicles, artillery and airborne and other exercises, and we are waiting for a positive response from the Iraqi army.”
He may have to wait considerably longer. The US and its anti-IS coalition is still providing training to Iraqi forces, and the US has designated several major Shi’ite paramilitary groups as terrorist organizations. If or when they become officially part of the Iraqi security forces, the situation will become even more complicated. On the other hand, a burgeoning Iraqi relationship with Saudi Arabia is likely to be welcomed in Washington.
Mahdi and his government have a very narrow path to tread.