If the current turmoil in the Iraqi capital Baghdad contains any message, it is that the majority of Iraqis are quite fed up with the status quo. Their grievance isn’t limited to any one aspect of the nation’s life, being the difficulties of day-to-day survival or the fact that government has passed into the hands of a confederacy of kleptocrats who have transformed corruption from a socio-political ailment to a way of life.
The quixotic raid organized by the Sadrists against the “Green Zone”, a small chunk of territory in Baghdad where government offices are located, the other day showed that the question is no longer whether or not the current administration is doing well; it is about whether or not Iraq has a workable government at all.
Judging by his program, Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi is a well-meaning man trying to lead his nation away from the post-war chaos and towards a measure of stability sustained by democratic institutions. Al-Abadi is one of the few senior Iraqi politicians whom I have never met and cannot evaluate his leadership abilities at a personal level. What matters however, is that, regardless of his personal abilities, Al-Abadi lacks the support base needed for re-orienting the Iraqi ship of state.
At the sectarian level, that is to say within the Shiite community to which he belongs, Al-Abadi is held to ransom by a network of parties and groups, some of which are armed, financed and controlled by Iran. Even within the Ad-Da’awah, the party to which he nominally belongs, he is exposed to sinister plotting by former Prime Ministers Nuri al-Maliki and Ibrahim al-Jaafari as both covet his seat.
As for followers of Muqtada Al-Sadr, they have followed their leader’s opportunistic strategy, initially supporting Al-Abadi’s attempts at reforming the system but then trying to de-stabilize his government. Sadr has tried to give his movement a new seasoning by evoking Arab nationalist themes while maintaining not so secret contacts with Tehran.
Among the Kurds, the pro-Iran faction, still led by former President Jalal Talabani, initially backed Al-Abadi in the hope that the weakness of his base would make him more accommodating to their demands. The Barzani Kurds, now closer to Turkey than to Iran, were also initially favorable to Al-Abadi whom they saw as relatively free from Iranian control. However, they, too, now regard Al-Abadi’s future as rather limited.
The Sunni community is equally divided. One segment sympathizes with the radical groups, including ISIS, that try to overthrow the government or at least seize control of as much territory as possible without necessarily sharing their deadly ideologies. Another segment still hopes to work out a power-sharing arrangement guaranteed by the United States. A third segment pursues the forlorn hope of enlisting Arab nations in support of the community’s legitimate demands.
Matters are further complicated by the clash of ambitions between the United States and the Islamic Republic in Iran playing a game of imperial rivalry. In this game, the US is the reluctant imperialist that has all the means necessary to impose its agenda but lacks the will to do so.
Washington’s ideal is to find a new, albeit less unsavory, “strongman” in Baghdad and help him to somehow forge a working mechanism.
The stratagem didn’t start in President Barack Obama’s sunset phase. President George W Bush, too, looked for such a “strongman” and thought that he had found him in Al-Maliki at a time when the Iraqi politician sang an anti-Tehran song.
Obama’s error is to adopt the same strategy without the kind of clout that Bush had in Iraq. When Bush propped up Al-Maliki, the US had 170,000 troops in Iraq. Now Obama tries to remake that movie, this time with Al-Abadi as the star, but with fewer than 5000 boots on the ground.
For its part, Iran plays the ardent imperialist and, despite its own dire economic situation, is prepared to pour in the necessary resources.
Tehran’s aim is the opposite of Washington’s as the mullahs do not wish to see a strong government, let alone a “strongman”, emerging in Baghdad. This is why Tehran has done all it could to prevent Al-Abadi from building up his own image as an effective leader.
The Khomeinist media portray Al-Abadi as a clueless novice who would have been destroyed long ago had it not been for Iranian intervention in his favor. In fact, President Hassan Rouhani has publicly boasted that without Iran, “terrorists” would have been ruling in Baghdad and Damascus today.”Al-Abadi is even denied any credit for driving ISIS out of large chunks of Iraqi territory, including Tikrit, Kirkuk and Amerli.
As far as Tehran is concerned, all credit goes to Major-General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds (Jerusalem) Corps and a master of self-promotion. Each time Iraqi forces kicked ISIS out of a locality, Soleimani published a series of his selfies in various poses claiming that he had just returned from the war front after a great victory.
Tehran’s strategic fear is that Iraq, where Shiites form a majority, could emerge as a model of modern pluralistic government that could seduce many Iranians.
There are fewer political prisoners in Iraq today than in Iran. Iraq enjoys more media freedom than Iran today. In Iraq, all political parties, from monarchist to Marxist, are fee to operate. In Iran all political parties are banned.
Iraq is also where the principal center of Shi’ite theological authority is located, enjoying a measure of freedom unthinkable in the Islamic Republic in Tehran.
Iraq has immense natural resources and could easily build a modern economy; even now it is doing economically much better than Iran. Last year the Iraqi economy grew by just under 4 per cent while Iran registered negative growth. International Monetary Fund forecasts give Iran a 1 per cent growth rate for 2016 compared to 3.7 per cent for Iraq.
Neither the US nor Iran are capable of imposing their agenda on Iraq anytime soon. The US remains relatively popular in Iraq but, thanks to Obama’s pirouetting policies, is no longer trusted.
Even if there is a change of administration in Washington, it would take a long time to repair the damage that Obama has done to US image and prestige.
The Islamic Republic in Iran is clearly unpopular in Iraq, including, or perhaps especially, among Shiites who resent being treated as neo-colonial subjects of a self-styled empire symbolized by a “selfie” snatching general in stone-washed khaki.
Iraq is sure to have many tough days ahead. But what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. This is why I still think it is premature to write new Iraq’s obituary.