Sadr against Iraq becoming party to US-Iran conflict

Supporters of Muqtada Al-Sadr rally during a protest in the impoverished Sadr City neighborhood of eastern Baghdad. (AFP/File)
Updated 24 May 2019

Sadr against Iraq becoming party to US-Iran conflict

  • Sadr calls for demonstrations on Friday
  • The tension between the US and Iran is at its peak

BAGHDAD: The anti-Iranian Iraqi Shiite cleric, Muqtada Al-Sadr, has called on all Iraqis to take to the streets in massive demonstrations across the country on Friday to show their rejection to be involved in the US-Iran conflict, and he threatened to consider whoever involves Iraq with war as “an enemy,” a statement said.

The tension between the US and Iran is at its peak, especially after the US withdrew from the nuclear deal, imposing economic sanctions on Iran and threatening military attacks if Iran attacks US interests in the Middle East.

Iraq has been a battleground for the great powers in the region, especially America and Iran, since 2003. Iraqi leaders believe that the country will be the first confrontation zone between the two countries in the event of a war, especially since Iran has great influence in Iraq and controls armed factions that could target US interests at any time.

Sadr, who has millions of followers and controls one of the largest Shiite factions, has publicly distanced himself and his fighters from the Iranians for years. It has criticized them on several occasions for “their blatant interference in Iraqi affairs and their quest to control the country using their armed arms.”

Despite Sadr’s hostile attitude toward Iran, he still considers the US as his first “enemy” in Iraq, and has blamed them for the killing of thousands of his followers in the years since the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. 

He has expressed his attitude toward the Americans in his speeches and directives to his followers.

“I am not backing the war between Iran and the US and I am not (supporting any situation) that involves Iraq in this war and makes it a battlefield,” Sadr said. 

“We need a serious pause to keep Iraq away from this fierce war that will burn everything.”

Iran has formed, trained and equipped dozens of Shiite, Sunni, Christian and Yazidi factions over the past years. 

All American interests are located within the range of these factions’ rockets.

Restraining and controlling these factions is one of the biggest challenges facing Iraqi leaders. 

A rocket fired by unknown gunmen on Sunday targeting the Green Zone, the most fortified area in Baghdad that hosts most of the governmental buildings and embassies, including the US embassy, has embarrassed the Iraqi government and intensified fears that Iraqi factions
could spark a war between Iran and the US.

Sadr called on Iraqis to take part in mass demonstrations on Friday evening in all provinces — except the holy city of Najaf.

“We need to raise the Iraqi people’s voice condemning the war … it would be the end of Iraq if this war broke out,” Sadr said. 

“Any party that involves Iraq in the war and makes it a battleground (for Iran and the US) will be an enemy of the Iraqi people,” the Iraqi leader said.


Iraqi PM tightens government grip on country’s armed factions

Updated 17 September 2019

Iraqi PM tightens government grip on country’s armed factions

  • The increasingly strained relations between the US and Iran in the region is casting a large shadow over Iraq

BAGHDAD: Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi is putting increased pressure on the nation’s armed factions, including Shiite-dominated paramilitary troops and Kurdish guerrillas, in an attempt to tighten his control over them, Iraqi military commanders and analysts said on Monday.

Military commanders have been stripped of some of their most important powers as part of the efforts to prevent them from being drawn into local or regional conflicts.

The increasingly strained relations between the US and Iran in the region is casting a large shadow over Iraq. 

Each side has dozens of allied armed groups in the country, which has been one of the biggest battlegrounds for the two countries since 2003. 

Attempting to control these armed factions and military leaders is one of the biggest challenges facing the Iraqi government as it works to keep the country out of the conflict.

On Sunday, Abdul Mahdi dissolved the leadership of the joint military operations. 

They will be replaced by a new one, under his chairmanship, that includes representatives of the ministries of defense and interior, the military and security services, the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) and the Ministry of Peshmerga, which controls the military forces of the autonomous Kurdistan region.

According to the prime minister’s decree, the main tasks of the new command structure are to “lead and manage joint operations at the strategic and operational level,” “repel all internal and external threats and dangers as directed by the commander-in-chief of the armed forces,” “manage and coordinate the intelligence work of all intelligence and security agencies,” and “coordinate with international bodies that support Iraq in the areas of training and logistical and air support.”

“This decree will significantly and effectively contribute to controlling the activities of all combat troops, not just the PMU,” said a senior military commander, who declined to be named. 

“This will block any troops associated with any local political party, regional or international” in an attempt to ensure troops serve only the government’s goals and the good of the country. 

“This is explicit and unequivocal,” he added.

Since 2003, the political process in Iraq has been based on political power-sharing system. This means that each parliamentary bloc gets a share of top government positions, including the military, proportionate to its number of seats in Parliament. Iran, the US and a number of regional countries secure their interests and ensure influence by supporting Iraqi political factions financially and morally.

This influence has been reflected in the loyalties and performance of the majority of Iraqi officials appointed by local, regional and international parties, including the commanders of combat troops.

To ensure more government control, the decree also stripped the ministers of defense and interior, and leaders of the counterterrorism, intelligence and national security authorities, and the PMU, from appointing, promoting or transferring commanders. This power is now held exclusively by Abdul Mahdi.

“The decree is theoretically positive as it will prevent local, regional and international parties from controlling the commanders,” said another military commander. 

“This means that Abdul Mahdi will be responsible to everyone inside and outside Iraq for the movement of these forces and their activities.

“The question now is whether Abdul Mahdi will actually be able to implement these instructions or will it be, like others, just ink on paper?”

The PMU is a government umbrella organization established by former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki in June 2014 to encompass the armed factions and volunteers who fought Daesh alongside the Iraqi government. Iranian-backed factions such as Badr Organization, Asaib Ahl Al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah represent the backbone of the forces.

The US, one of Iraq’s most important allies in the region and the world, believes Iran is using its influence within the PMU to destabilize and threaten Iraq and the region. Abdul Mahdi is under huge external and internal pressure to abolish the PMU and demobilize its fighters, who do not report or answer to the Iraqi government.

The prime minister aims to ease tensions between the playmakers in Iraq, especially the US and Iran, by preventing their allies from clashing on the ground or striking against each other’s interests.

“Abdul Mahdi seeks to satisfy Washington and reassure them that the (armed) factions of the PMU will not move against the will of the Iraqi government,” said Abdullwahid Tuama, an Iraqi analyst.

The prime minister is attempting a tricky balancing act by aiming to protect the PMU, satisfy the Iranians and prove to the Americans that no one is outside the authority of the state, he added.