The Iraq Report: Amid political wrangling, Iran is still kingmaker

An Iraqi protester waves the national flag amid clashes with riot police at Baghdad's al-Khilani Square on February 19, 2020 during ongoing anti-government demonstrations. (Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP) (Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images)
6 min read
19 January, 2022
Iran views Iraq as its most important foreign policy arena and maintains excellent and deep ties with every faction. In other words, whoever wins in the Iraqi elections, Iran wins.

Since Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr surged to victory in a widely boycotted election last October, there has been a steady stream of news reports and analyses claiming that this could represent the beginning of the end of Iranian meddling in Iraqi affairs.

While such assessments are certainly optimistic, they may perhaps be naïve. Iran is still the single most powerful entity in Iraq today, and it is extraordinarily unlikely that Tehran – with Iraq as the central lynchpin to its regional strategy – will simply allow Baghdad to set its own course.

Political wrangling continues

The most significant recent development on the political scene was the reconvening of parliament earlier this month which – despite some bloodshed and hospitalisations – managed to re-elect Speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi.

The parliamentary session was marred by violence as the acting speaker and oldest member of parliament, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, was accosted by angry parliamentarians who wanted to disrupt the inaugural session to slow negotiations down.

Mashhadani was hospitalised with minor injuries and was eventually discharged.

However, the Sadrists formed a coalition with the main Sunni bloc and Kurdish parties to cement another term in office for the Sunni Taqaddum Party leader.

"Iran is still the single most powerful entity in Iraq today, and it is extraordinarily unlikely that Tehran – with Iraq as the central lynchpin to its regional strategy – will simply allow Baghdad to set its own course"

Parliament now has 30 days to elect its next president, who has to be a Kurd. Once the president is elected, he must appoint a Shia prime minister within 15 days who must then form his cabinet to be approved once again by parliament.

However, this process is likely to be protracted, with the last election in 2018 taking approximately five months before a government was selected.

With the question settled for at least one of the three constitutional leadership positions – with the other two being the presidency and the premiership – it was clear that many parties were far from thrilled by the result and chose to express their dissatisfaction by other means.

Mashhadani himself, along with fellow lawmaker Basim Khachan, filed a petition with the Federal Supreme Court of Iraq last Thursday to investigate Halbousi’s re-election. While the details of the complaint are not clear, it has been suggested that Mashhadani was unhappy with how he was accosted.

The Supreme Court issued a temporary injunction suspending the speaker from his role, effectively freezing the activities of parliament as it cannot sit without him.

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The following day, Halbousi’s party headquarters in Baghdad were attacked when assailants threw hand grenades at the building last Friday, wounding two guards.

While some reports have sought to overplay Halbousi’s anti-Iran credentials, as well as that of Sadr himself, the reality is more complex.

Since his rise to prominence as governor of the restive Anbar governorate in 2017, Halbousi has worked closely with Iran-backed factions to cement his control over the Sunni region and to quash remnants of the Islamic State (IS) group.

Despite strong evidence that the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) – an umbrella group of pro-Iran Shia groups that now operates as a formal part of the Iraqi armed forces – had committed atrocities against Sunni civilians in his governorate, Halbousi has not called for their accountability.

This cooperation with Tehran’s proxies and allies continued well into his speakership, a role he was appointed to in 2017, and Halbousi has now simply shifted alliances from the PMF-linked Coordination Framework to the Sadrists who have their own long history with Iran.

A youth walks in front of a large poster of Iraq's populist Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr, in Sadr City, east of the capital Baghdad, on 15 July 2021. [Getty]
Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr surged to victory in a widely boycotted election last October. [Getty]

Iran is still kingmaker

While much has been made of Sadr’s disruptive potential and his alleged nationalist credentials, he has substantial links to the Iranian regime and has very recently suppressed anti-Iran protesters.

After the US-led invasion in 2003, Sadr was one of several recipients not only of Iranian largesse, but also of its training, arms, and political support.

He and his top lieutenants all benefitted from Tehran’s backing in forming Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia and subsequent offshoots such as Qais al-Khazali’s Asaib Ahl ul-Haq group.

Despite reports of Sadr falling out with Iran and being at odds with them, he took shelter in Iran in 2007 after his conflict with supposed nemesis and former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and then, at Tehran’s urging, assisted Maliki into yet another term in office after the 2010 elections.

For their efforts, the Sadrists were rewarded with a number of smaller ministerial portfolios as well as one of the two deputy speakerships of parliament.

After the IS group took over a third of Iraq in 2014, Sadr once more teamed up with Iran’s more well-known Shia militant proxies, groups that would later become the PMF following Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s fatwa.

"While much has been made of Sadr's disruptive potential and his alleged nationalist credentials, he has substantial links to the Iranian regime and has very recently suppressed anti-Iran protesters"

Prior to the conclusion of the war against IS in 2017, the Shia cleric began to criticise “foreign meddling” in veiled attacks against Iran and the US, but only specifically singled out Washington for violent attacks.

Sadr orchestrated a storming of Baghdad’s Green Zone and the parliament in 2016 to gain a larger share of the political pie, accusing the “elites” – that he is a part of – of failing the Iraqi people.

Despite all of these stunts and claiming to stand behind the legitimate rights of Iraqis seeking to change a system that was mired in corruption and nepotism, Sadr was one of the leading militia commanders who violently cracked down against civilian-led civil society groups in 2019, directly defending the system he had long derided as corrupt and unfit for purpose.

Perhaps as a reward for his service, Sadr was invited as a guest of honour to Iran’s commemorations for the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the Islamic Republic. He was photographed being seated directly next to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and former Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force commander, Qasem Soleimani.

Soleimani – the architect of much of Iran’s strategy in Iraq – would lose his life months later at the hands of a drone strike ordered by former President Donald Trump in the early days of 2020.

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It is therefore best to view the current political wrangling as a sort of sibling rivalry, but with deadly consequences for at least the foot soldiers for each of the factions as well as Iraqi civilians more generally until and unless these closely interconnected parties put aside their differences.

Each faction picks a different method of disrupting society and politics, with some preferring the courts while others, such as Kataib Hezbollah, preferring to launch rockets at the US embassy as recently as this week.

While the US embassy was unscathed, the rockets landed in nearby neighbourhoods, hitting a school and injuring a woman and a girl.

Fundamentally, Iran views Iraq as its most important foreign policy arena and maintains excellent and deep ties with every faction. In other words, whoever wins in the Iraqi elections, Iran wins.

This phenomenon is something the Iraqi protest movement of 2019 attempted to address, and it is likely to be a flashpoint for public anger in the very near future once again.

The Iraq Report is a regular feature at The New Arab.

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