BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Outside powers, especially Iran and its U.S. foe, have huge stakes in Sunday’s Iraqi election and the messy, maybe violent, political wrangling it may herald.
With U.S. troops to leave by end-2011, Iran seems well-set to expand the influence it has built up in Iraq since the 2003 invasion — from which it emerged arguably the main winner.
But Tehran will have to navigate a powerful counter-current of Iraqi nationalism that complicates its quest for a friendly, Shi’ite-led and preferably U.S.-hostile government in Baghdad.
Conversely, President Barack Obama hopes the election will lead to a more secular, broad-based government that can keep Iraq stable enough to allow for a smooth U.S. troop withdrawal.
Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Syria are also pursuing their own cross-cutting interests in a neighbour whose ethnic, sectarian and political strife renders it vulnerable to external meddling.
“The state remains so weak, its sovereignty so permeable and its political class so divided that it almost invites foreign interference,” the International Crisis Group (ICG) said.
“Iran’s influence is palpable, extending throughout the country and political elite, even across the sectarian divide.”
In a pre-election report, the ICG argued that Tehran had wielded the “soft power” of diplomacy, trade, gas deals, reconstruction aid and religious donations far more effectively than Arab countries also trying to keep a finger in the pie.
Neighbouring states all favour a territorially whole, stable Iraq. They have cause to fear any implosion liable to suck them into direct intervention that could ignite a regional conflict. But they do not want an Iraq strong enough to threaten them.
Iraqis readily believe assertions that one or other country is backing Iraqi parties, sponsoring militias, sending fighters across the border or even orchestrating bombings.
When a Shi’ite-controlled commission in January barred 500 or so candidates from running in the March 7 parliamentary poll, for alleged links to Saddam Hussein’s outlawed Baath party, U.S. officials and some Iraqis accused Iran of being behind the move.
Two leading Sunni politicians were among the casualties, raising fears that the election might be discredited in the eyes of Iraq’s Sunni minority, which had boycotted the 2005 election, and damaging prospects for sectarian reconciliation.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and other Shi’ite leaders endorsed the ban, talking of unspecified Baathist plots.
A few of the barred candidates appealed successfully, and Sunnis do not plan to boycott the vote, but the episode risked reviving sectarian tensions that Maliki had sought to bury.
“It was an Iranian attempt to embarrass Maliki,” said Beirut-based Iraqi sociologist Faleh Abdul-Jabbar.
Ahmed Chalabi, who chairs the Accountability and Justice Commission, denied in a recent interview with Reuters that Iran had inspired the ban, or that it targeted Sunnis.
“It’s easy to say it was cooked in Tehran, but do they have the recipe? Why isn’t it true that the return of the Baathists is cooked in Washington? It’s easy to say that too.”
Chalabi, once a U.S. favourite and now friendly with Iran, acknowledged that foreign powers were meddling, but said it was up to Iraqis to build strong institutions to prevent this.
Iraqi suspicions of foreign interference were also fuelled when former prime minister Iyad Allawi, a Shi’ite who leads a secular election list that includes influential Sunni politicians, flew to Riyadh nine days ago and met Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah and his intelligence chief.
Some Saudi clerics have backed Iraq’s Sunni insurgency and rich Saudis are suspected of funding militants. King Abdullah refuses to meet Maliki or open a Saudi embassy in Baghdad.
Allawi dismissed the “sick minds” who wanted to divorce Iraq from its Arab neighbours, denying his trip was election-related.
Saudi Arabia, which sees itself as the bastion of Sunni Islam, is alarmed at rising Iranian influence and the postwar dominance of Iraq’s previously disempowered Shi’ite majority.
But Mustafa Alani, a Dubai-based Iraqi analyst familiar with Saudi thinking, said Riyadh had avoided interfering in Iraq.
“It’s just next door, but they didn’t support the Sunnis there, even though they were under huge pressure to do so. The Saudis argued that they couldn’t interfere because it would only bring more trouble without any reward,” he said.
Turkey and Syria are also keeping a low profile.
Turkey’s sensitivity to Kurdish nationalist aspirations and its support for the Turkoman minority in Kurdish-ruled northern Iraq have not stopped it from doing thriving business there.
But with oil and gas supplies at stake, Ankara does not want to alienate the central government in Baghdad. And, while happy to engage with Iran, it is also wary of Tehran’s nuclear work.
Syria shares Turkish and Iranian misgivings about the Kurds, stressing Iraq’s “Arab identity”. It denies U.S. and Iraqi charges that it lets insurgents cross its territory into Iraq.
In charting relations with Iraq, Damascus must balance its longstanding alliance with Iran, its tentative rapprochement with Washington, its ties with diverse Iraqi groups and its own preference for secular, Arab nationalist leadership in Baghdad.
“Syria cannot tolerate a wild and chaotic Iraq,” said Sami Moubayed, editor of Syria’s English-language Forward magazine.
“It is not in Syria’s interest to have armed men lawlessly roaming the streets of Baghdad, preaching a radical brand of political Islam.” He said Damascus had promoted reconciliation in Iraq and encouraged Sunnis to join the political process.
Whatever the election outcome, stability may elude Iraq unless its politicians can strike basic deals over power, territory and resources, said Joost Hiltermann, the ICG’s deputy programme director for the Middle East and North Africa.
The United States, having created a new reality in Iraq, should help Iraqis cut those deals to enable genuine ethnic and sectarian reconciliation, even if it meant delaying its troop withdrawal.
“The irony is that the Bush administration was willing to stay for ever, but was doing everything wrong,” he told Reuters.
“The Obama administration’s analysis is quite good. They know what is wrong and how to fix it, but they really don’t want to stay. Either way, the Iraqis get a raw deal.”