A few years ago, the current Iraqi president Jalal Talabani eagerly hugged Saddam Hussein, the then president of Iraq who occupied and was forced out of Kuwait, and who caused the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Kurds. The rest is history.
On 2 March 2008, Jalal Talabani, who likes to be referred to as “Mam Jalal,” meaning Uncle Jalal (perhaps so as not to share the same title as Saddam Hussein) hugged the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad [during his first visit to Iraq] just as eagerly. Only time will reveal the effects of Mam Jalal’s hugs and kisses and whether they will backfire or not.
Nobody expected Ahmadinejad to take the feelings of Arabs into consideration since he insisted on visiting Baghdad and “skipped” cheerfully along the red carpet left over, without doubt, from Saddam Hussein’s era. There were also no expectations that “Mam Jalal” would to play down his enthusiasm since emotion has always overwhelmed him. As for the Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki, he looked like he was meeting his master. With his intentional antics, Ahmadinejad continued smiling in an attempt to hide blatant craftiness by making statements and using phrases that he knows will not cause alarm. However, he achieved his goal; the visit itself.
Ahmadinejad’s visit to Baghdad was a blow to all Arabs as it took place over the bodies of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed during the Iran-Iraq war and over the remnants of Iraqi families which, partially as a result of the recent Iranian role, have been divided and dispersed. Instead of working towards national reconciliation, Talabani and al Maliki chose to hold a red carpet ceremony for the president of a country that has been slaughtering Iraq since the eastern gateway was opened.
However, there are two noticeable issues regarding this visit:
Firstly, throughout Ahmadinejad’s stay, the Green Zone as well as the headquarters of both Mam Jalal and [leader of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council] Abdulaziz al Hakim did not come under any kind of missile attack.
Secondly, Ahmadinejad called off a visit to the two holy cities of Najaf and Karbala under the pretext of a “busy schedule.”
We do not know whether Ahmadinejad requested the release of 11 detained members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard from Maliki. However, what is certain is that the detainees did not leave with the Iranian president since the Americans counted every single person who accompanied Ahmadinejad, closely monitored everyone and made sure that everyone left [Iraq], including his personal guards.
We do not know whether the Iraqi government, which hospitably received Ahmadinejad and applauded when he announced that his country would offer Iraq a loan of US $1 billion for projects that would be handled by Iranian companies, is aware that Iran organizes and arms militias in Iraq and is working to establish a nine-province Shia enclave in southern Iraq under Iranian authority.
Anthony Cordesman, from the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, who was in southern Iraq recently stated that “The level of Iranian activity in the south is very high,” and that the level in Basra “is seen as a major threat.” He added that Tehran supports all Shia factions in Basra, which is home to the largest crude oil reserves [in Iraq].
In his briefing to US Congress on February 14, 2008, Cordesman said: “It was made repeatedly clear, not simply by our intelligence experts but by those of allied countries, that Iranian influence is still continuing to build up the militias, to provide training, to provide weapons,” and pointed out that information that indicated a decrease in Iranian activity was “episodic”. Cordesman, who formerly worked for the US Department of Defense, asserted that the aim of Iranian armament was not to confront the Americans and that “Tehran is supporting the Sadr militia and the Badr Organization.” Moreover, he expected that Iranian intervention in southern Iraq would spark an internal Shia conflict for control over the south. Cordesman said, “The struggle there is probably going to be more serious in the future than the struggle of the Sunnis. The Badr Organization has had [a] much better sort of coherence in training. The question is: Does it have the same populist or popular base that the Sadr militia does?”
Iran has yet to decide the strategy it will adopt towards Iraq as it is testing out various options before deciding on one. Iran is still considering three objectives:
– To have an influence on Iraq in its entirety
– To contribute to establishing a friendly power
– To create a strategic buffer
Cordesman said, “I think the answer at this point is possibly all of the above because I don’t think Iran has that kind of clear single strategic option… It is being very clever in the way that it is trying to exploit all of the Shia factions at the same time and basically find out what it can get.”
In Baghdad, Ahmadinejad, still smiling, said that he was very happy to visit Iraq “without the dictator.” Meanwhile, Amnesty International and the Human Rights Watch stated that the number of executions in Iran, including by means of stoning, have increased significantly during Ahmadinejad’s time in power.
If the fact that a person like Ahmadinejad can reach the presidential office in Iran as a result of the Islamic Revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini, then the treatment received by Khomeini’s grandsons should be a lesson to the Iraqi leaders who were so keen to give Ahmadinejad such a warm reception. Khomeini’s grandson, Ali Eshraghi, withdrew his candidacy for parliamentary elections after a smear campaign [was launched against him]; he was formerly dismissed after Ahmadinejad’s inspectors asked Eshraghi’s neighbours if he shaved his beard or if he smoked and about the type of car he drives.
Another of Khomeini’s grandsons, Sayyid Hassan Khomeini, who is in charge of his grandfather’s mausoleum, criticized the regime. He was also subjected to a smear campaign and some of the accusations that were levelled against him included that he drives a BMW, has a steam bath in his house and that he lives in a wealthy northern suburb of Tehran! What hope is there for a regime that is envious of its people for owning a luxurious car? The Iraqi leaders, especially Mam Jalal and al Maliki, should have accompanied Ahmadinejad on a tour around Sadr City. Perhaps fear prevented them from doing so even though Sadr City is considered a hub for Iranian-backed militia particularly the Special Groups network that has an Iranian majority. On February 27, 2008, the American forces arrested one of its most prominent Iranian leaders after the Iraqi Shia indicated that these groups were storing weapons. Shia Iraqi businessmen are subjected to kidnapping, torture, blackmail and murder at the hands of these groups that are within and surround Sadr city. As soon as any member of these groups would leave the city, he would be detained.
Both the Iraqi and Iranian sides have overstated that the American forces did not offer security to Ahmadinejad and this may be true, however the Green Zone, where all meetings are held, falls under the umbrella of American security. The Kurdish Peshmerga that protected Ahmadinejad as he slept in Jalal Talabani’s home is well-trained and equipped with American and perhaps Israeli weapons. If the US wanted to prevent this visit, it could have done so. When the American President George W. Bush was asked whether this visit was a blow to American efforts in isolating Iran, he answered that such talks are necessary because the countries are neighbours.
In Iraq and Iran, the meetings were depicted as if they were held between the leaders of two sovereign states; as if the US had no presence in Iraq. Perhaps to poke fun at this, the American Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Michael Mullen made a surprise visit to Iraq on March 1, 2008, one day before Ahmadinejad’s arrival. This visit was not so that he could receive the awaited guest but perhaps to remind those who needed reminding that Mullen can come and go [to Iraq] as he pleases. The American general did not need permission to visit Baghdad and Ahmadinejad also did not await the approval of all Iraqis to visit the Iraqi capital just as he demands from his organisation in Lebanon to give the green light to its loyalists if only to allow for the election of a president in Lebanon.
Despite the magnitude of the impact of this visit on the Iraqi people who are far from the militias and sectarian fanatics and their impact on the Arabs, it [the visit] serves the Americans. Since they are not obliged to engage a dialogue with Iran publicly, the Iraqi government can play the role of “messenger” between the two countries.
The Iraqi government appeared powerful during Ahmadinejad’s visit and this is good for the Americans because if Iraq becomes strong, it can form a balance of power with Iran. It is also good for Iran because the more pro-Iranian Shia control over the government, the less of a threat Baghdad poses to Tehran. What is important, however, is that the Iraqi government, headed by Nuri al Maliki, strikes the required balance between American interests, supporting the Sahwa Forces and Iranian interests by not allowing the Sunnis to take control.