Iraq unlikely to recover unless foreign meddling ends


Iraq unlikely to recover unless foreign meddling ends

What began as spontaneous protests in Iraq’s oil-rich southern governorate of Basra in July over poor public services and high unemployment has become the fulcrum of the country's political struggle, which has deepened since Iraqis went to the polls in May. Earlier this month, the protests turned violent as police opened fire on largely peaceful demonstrations, killing dozens. In response, protesters torched government buildings and branches of political parties; mostly Shiite. The events underlined a major turning point: The broad Shiite alliance that had manipulated Iraqi politics following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the US invasion of 2003 is crumbling.

In the wake of controversies surrounding the election results, parliament has failed to elect a new prime minister, speaker and president. In its most recent session on the Basra events on Saturday, incumbent Prime Minister Haider Abadi admitted failures in handling the crisis in the south and proposed a rescue plan. But the session turned into an indictment of his performance and his allies, primarily nationalist cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, who leads the largest bloc in the new legislature, called on him to resign. Iraq’s political paralysis had taken over once more.

The struggle to form a new government has tested the influence of two major foreign players: Iran and the US. Political horse trading has been going on to produce a coalition that would pledge loyalty to either Washington or Tehran. With the two countries sparring over Iran's nuclear activities, its ballistic program and regional meddling, Iraq has become center stage and a furtive showdown is taking place. 

 Al-Sadr originally wanted an inclusive government that rejected the quota system, which he blames for Iraq’s political and economic woes. Initially, his Sa’irun alliance had joined forces with Abadi’s Victory list, which came in third, and Al-Hikma to prevent an Iranian-backed rival alliance, led by Hadi Al-Amiri and Nouri Al-Maliki, from forming a ruling bloc in parliament. But Iran dispatched the head of its Quds Force, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, to scuttle Al-Sadr’s efforts and suggest alternatives. Tehran fears that the Shiite alliance in Iraq will irreversibly unravel, thus weakening its influence over Baghdad.

That influence, which reached its climax during Al-Maliki's notorious rule as prime minister between 2006 and 2014, had polarized Iraqi Shiites and exasperated nationalists and secularists. Last week, protesters torched the Iranian consulate in Basra and denounced Tehran’s meddling in Iraqi affairs. Resentment toward Iran among a growing number of Iraqis has reached unprecedented levels.

Basra has come to symbolize the failing nature of the Iraqi state: An oil-rich province that suffers from dilapidated public services, high unemployment and endemic corruption by officials

Osama Al Sharif

Soleimani’s proposal, which would see the five leading Shiite groups suggest three names for prime minister and then all political players, including Kurds and Sunnis, choose one, appears to be gaining approval following the Basra debacle. But Iraq’s Shiite marja Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani reshuffled the cards when his spokesman announced on Monday that he wanted “a new face” to lead the government.

Abadi has refused to resign, even though his hopes of winning a second term are fading fast. In a surprise move, Al-Sadr has shifted toward Al-Amiri’s Iranian-backed Fatah bloc, but that would require Al-Amiri to break his own alliance with Al-Maliki. The US is yet to decide how to respond to the latest chapter in Iraq’s power struggle.

It is certain that Iran will not give up its leading role in Iraq. It is geopolitically positioned to outplay the US there and this underlines the ongoing plight of ordinary Iraqis, who see their country plagued by sectarianism, massive corruption, a failing political system, violent extremism and external interference. Basra has come to symbolize the failing nature of the Iraqi state: An oil-rich province that suffers from dilapidated public services, high unemployment and endemic corruption by officials. 

It is difficult to predict where the country is going. Unless foreign intervention in the country’s affairs ends, Iraqis will never be able to come together and embrace a national salvation plan that would put the country on the long road to recovery. Five years of fighting Daesh has left most of the country in ruins, with millions of Iraqis still displaced and unable to return to their homes. Al-Maliki’s corrupt rule had almost emptied the state’s coffers and Iran’s sectarian agenda has disfranchised the Sunnis and Kurds. 

For a while it appeared that Al-Sadr’s nationalist program was the way to go. Millions of Iraqis voted for his centrist list, but his agenda was never going to be supported by Iran or the US. He has now changed his position and rearranged his alliances. What comes next in Iraq’s convoluted political scene is anyone’s guess. 

  • Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.
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