Iraq Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi under pressure to start delivering
Turkey last week launched a major assault into areas of northern Iraq occupied by elements of the dissident group the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), whose members are described by Turkey as “terrorists.” The two-stage operation consisted of attacks on 150 Kurdish targets in the Haftanin region, followed by attacks on 500 targets, involving jets, drones and heavy artillery, in three other regions: The Qandil Mountains, Sinjar, and a Turkish refugee camp at Makhmour, south of Irbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
Turkey was backed in these attacks by artillery firing from Iran. This followed a hurried visit to Ankara by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, when the two countries agreed on joint action against “terrorism” even as Turkey criticized US sanctions on Iran.
The Turkish-Iranian attacks on Iraqi territory have elicited a formal rebuke to the ambassadors of the two countries in Baghdad. The UAE issued a statement criticizing the “violation” of Iraq’s sovereignty and the “principles of international law.” Surprisingly, the KRG reluctantly issued only a mild statement asking Turkey to respect the “sovereignty of our lands,” while also asking the PKK “to leave these regions.”
These attacks are a further projection of Turkey’s power across the Middle East, with its ongoing military interventions covering northern Syria, Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean, and now northern Iraq. The US has so far been an ineffectual observer of its NATO partner’s aggressive pursuit of agendas that often conflict with its own policies and interests. In Syria and Iraq, Turkey’s activities are, ironically, taking place in collaboration with Iran, the US’ regional rival and sworn enemy.
Besides the recent Turkish incursions, Iraq has been experiencing competing pressures from both Iran and the US. The sources of Iran’s influence are the Shiite militias it has sponsored, which have been brought together under the rubric of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), and politicians from various Shiite parties that, under Iranian encouragement, have appointed successive prime ministers, aided by other coalition partners.
Both these bases of Iranian influence are now under stress. The PMU has begun to splinter, with some militias distancing themselves from Iran and affirming their loyalty to the Najaf-based Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani — a powerful doctrinal rival of Iran’s Qom-based clerics. The popular demonstrations that have swept Iraq since October last year specifically demand the end of Iran’s interference and of sectarian politics in Iraq.
The US exercises its influence through its 5,500-strong armed forces presence, which is deeply embedded in Iraq’s military and security establishments and provides training as well as intelligence, planning and air support during operations against the remnants of Daesh. The US’ presence is also being questioned in Iraq. January’s killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad by US forces has led to strong demands from Iraq’s parliament for the departure of all foreign forces.
Thus, like Iran, the US is also anxious to consolidate its interests in the country during the early days of Mustafa Al-Kadhimi’s prime ministership by retaining its military presence, ostensibly to combat Daesh elements, but primarily as a counterweight to Iran.
A two-hour US-Iraq “strategic dialogue” took place online on June 11. It provided the US with the opportunity to affirm the enduring importance of its security role in the country, as well to diversify its ties with Iraq.
Iran sent its energy minister to Baghdad two weeks before this dialogue. He signed an agreement to supply electricity to Iraq for the next two years, clearly signaling that energy ties between the two neighbors would continue and would ease, to some extent, the impact of the US’ “maximum pressure” policy toward Iran. Iraq’s Shiite militias, by maintaining a regular fusillade of rocket fire on Baghdad, have also been reminding the Americans and the Iraqi government that they remain a lethal force in the country.
During the June 11 dialogue, the US acknowledged Iraqi sensitivities by agreeing to reduce its military presence, confine its role to training at command level, not seek any permanent bases, and not use Iraqi soil to launch attacks on any neighbor. The US also agreed to a more active role in developing Iraq’s energy sector and advising on economic reforms. This dialogue will be a regular feature, with the next one due to take place in Washington, possibly in July.
A visit to Mosul this month brought home to the prime minister what the Iraqi people desperately want.
While Turkey, Iran and the US have made Iraq the theater to assert their regional geopolitical interests, Al-Kadhimi’s principal challenges remain domestic. A day-long visit to Mosul this month brought home to the prime minister what the Iraqi people desperately want: The repair of infrastructure; public services, including electricity and health and education facilities; compensation for properties destroyed during the war on Daesh; the return home of the displaced; and personal security.
Al-Kadhimi reminded the people that the country needed reconciliation between its diverse communities, to root out corruption to make a fresh start, and, above all, money. Because oil revenues have collapsed, funds are just not available at the moment.
These words will provide little comfort to Iraqis. Al-Kadhimi now has to start delivering.
- Talmiz Ahmad is an author and former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE. He holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies at the Symbiosis International University in Pune.