The Iraq Report
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As Iraq continues to grapple with a weak government and quibbling factions jockeying for ministerial positions, Baghdad has unambiguously declared that it will not comply with any sanctions imposed on Tehran by Washington.
Iraq's position is very likely to irk American policymakers, particularly those who saw Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi as a compromise candidate between both the United States and Iran.
Meanwhile, so-called "ISIS families" continue to be denied their fundamental human rights despite the Islamic State [IS] group's defeat last year. These families have been ostracised for allegedly being related to IS militants or for simply turning up to work as bureaucrats, labourers and medics in territories formerly held by IS.
Many of them are women and children who face violence, sexual exploitation, and threats by government forces.
Iraq snubs US over Iran sanctions
Last Thursday, Iraqi Prime Minister Mahdi announced that his government would not comply with a second round of US sanctions on Iran targeting the country's vital banking, shipping and energy sectors.
Citing the unilateral nature of Washington's sanctions regime, Mahdi said, "The decision isn't international, Iraqi, or part of a United Nations resolution – it's an American one," adding that Baghdad's position was to not "respect" the financial penalties imposed on its neighbour.
He added that Iraq "does not accept diktats" and would not abide by US sanctions simply because the Trump administration wanted them to do so. His comments raised eyebrows as many see Iran's powerful influence as ubiquitous throughout Iraq, with Tehran frequently having the final say on many of Iraq's domestic and foreign policies.
The announcement came just less than a week after Iran hosted Iraqi President Barham Salih, a diplomatic trip that came just two weeks after the United States slapped new sanctions on Iran.
At a joint press conference with his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, Salih said that Iraq would not be "a field for struggle between conflicting demands and wills", ostensibly pointing to the tussle for influence between Iran and the US.
However, Salih also pledged to improve ties with Iran, and suggested the formation of a "new regional system" including Iraq and Iran that was based on "political integrity, national interests and cooperation".
Not long after sanctions were re-imposed on Iran for its alleged nuclear weapon activities on November 5, Iraq was granted a 45-day waiver by the US to continue importing natural gas and electricity from its sanctions hit neighbour. In exchange, Iraq was expected to provide the US with a plan for how it will find other sources for its energy needs.
However, it seems that Baghdad's latest announcements indicate that it has decided to throw its hat in with Iran, and could potentially expose the Iraqi people to further sanctions which may be offset by the lack of international cooperation with the US over Iran. Either way, Iraq has made clear where its loyalties lie in the matter.
Salih originally hails from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party, a Kurdish separatist party that has had close ties to the Iranian regime since the 1980s. Coupled with Mahdi – a former Baathist-turned-Shia Islamist with an ideological affinity with Iran's theocracy – Iranian influence over Iraqi policy was always going to be far more substantial than that of the United States, irrespective of these two Iraqi politicians' former friendliness to Washington during its occupation of Iraq between 2003 and 2011.
If the United States is seeking to erode Iranian influence in Iraq, it cannot do so by relying on regional allies such as Saudi Arabia, whose King Salman also invited President Salih to Riyadh after his first official visit was to Tehran. Saudi Arabia lacks the leverage and influence that Iran has managed to build since 2003, and in an ethnically, ideologically and religiously divided country such as Iraq, it has no pull in Baghdad simply because it is Arab in character.
Meanwhile, Iran ideologically dominates most of the power players in Iraq and has co-opted weaker Sunni groups like the Iraqi Islamic Party through promises of positions in governments that traditionally come with financial incentives, allowing them to be tokenised.
The US has no similar influence and neither do its regional allies, and any chance of undermining Iran will not come within the established Iraqi political class who have already been well and truly captured by the Iranians.
|Salih pledged to improve ties with Iran, and suggested the formation of a 'new regional system' including Iraq and Iran that was based on 'political integrity, national interests and cooperation'|
'ISIS families' subjected to human rights abuses
Writing for The New Arab, Human Rights Watch's (HRW) senior Iraq researcher, Belkis Wille, has detailed horrific accounts of how families are being denied their right to go back to their homes in territory formerly held by IS, and face arrest, sexual violence and exploitation in camps in the desert.
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Islamic State families held in desert camps
According to Wille, perhaps more than 100,000 men, women and children are being held in camps whose conditions are "grim and getting worse" after being branded as "ISIS families" by the Iraqi authorities and vengeful neighbours.
Some of these families are alleged to have had members who fought alongside IS against the federal government after they surged into numerous towns and villages in 2014. Other families simply had relatives who were civil servants, doctors, teachers and other professionals who continued to turn up for work after IS authority was established over their cities. Either way, entire families have now been forced to pay the price of ostracisation without any prospect of being integrated back into Iraqi society or returning to their homes.
HRW warns that these "de facto desert prisons" and the fates of their inhabitants "may be one of Iraq's most significant obstacles to national security and future stabilisation".
This is likely due to the conditions that led to the rise of IS in the first place, where predominantly Sunni Arabs were heavily discriminated against by sectarian policies enacted by a succession of Shia-dominated governments.
|More than 100,000 men, women and children are being held in camps whose conditions are 'grim and getting worse'|
Now with activities such as soldiers forcing women into sex just to leave the camps for medical appointments having the potential to once again leave the population outraged and incensed, it is easy to see how this may ignite yet more violence.
IS activities have remained a security threat, with three schoolchildren from just outside Mosul – IS' former capital in Iraq – dying after an explosion that could have been caused by a leftover militant bomb. Baghdad had promised last year to make former IS strongholds safe and free of unexploded ordnance, but locals have taken to this dangerous activity themselves after accusing the federal authorities of abandoning them.
These incidents that could be relatively easily avoided through proper government investment and tasking of military bomb squads will only increase apathy amongst Iraq's disenfranchised communities, mirroring sentiments that existing prior to the rise of IS in 2014.
PMF Shia militias seek expanded role
Another cause for concern amongst Iraqis across the ethno-sectarian divide is the expanding power and influence of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), a pro-Iran paramilitary force that is officially recognised by Baghdad as an independent arm of the Iraqi armed forces.
Earlier this month, the Iraqi government announced that PMF fighters would receive equivalent salaries to their Iraqi army counterparts. The move could complicate US-Iraq relations as Washington seeks the disbandment of Shia militias loyal to Iran who make up the majority of the PMF's fighters.
Iraqi military officers may also be irked at being placed on a similar footing to the PMF who they see as inferior having little to no formal military training. This could lead to further divisions between the two arms of the Iraqi military, with the sectarian PMF butting heads with the more secular army. This has been likened to how Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini pitted his newly formed Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) against the traditional Iranian army to coup-proof his regime in the 1980s with a religiously motivated force.
Making matters worse is controversial and sectarian Shia militant leader, Qais al-Khazali, demanding that the PMF be granted a formal border security role, according to Reuters.
Khazali – who has been accused of war crimes and is blacklisted as a terrorist – has had a long and storied history fighting as an Iranian proxy in Iraq, targeting US troops in Iraq, and participating in some of the worst of the sectarian killings that rocked Iraq between 2006 and 2008. As leader of the Asaib Ahl ul-Haq (AAH) militia, Khazali was one of three main commanders of the PMF alongside Badr Organisation chief Hadi al-Ameri and Kata'ib Hizballah leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis – all closely tied to the IRGC.
Despite being forbidden by Baghdad from any extraterritorial operations, the PMF have been extremely active in Syria and have even pledged their support to other IRGC proxies such as the Houthis in Yemen. If they are granted responsibility over Iraq's borders, this could further cement Iran's land route all the way to Lebanon via Syria.
With the rise of the PMF's influence both militarily and in the halls of political power via the Conquest Alliance bloc, and in addition to Iran's backing for the group, it seems there is little preventing the militants becoming an Iraqi version of the IRGC.