Can Anyone Stop Iran From Taking Over Iraq? – New York Times

Ahead of next years general election, a large majority of Iraqs political forces are seeking to reinforce their independence from Iran. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who can take credit for the recent victories against the Islamic State, has long had strained relations with Iran. Now he has become a critic of lawless behavior in some elements of the security forces, including Iranian-backed groups. His governments position has been to strengthen state institutions and to reinforce the chain of command.

Meanwhile, Ammar al-Hakim, one of Iraqs leading politicians and the scion of one of the countrys most prominent Shiite families, announced in late July that he would leave the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, a political party that his family founded in Tehran with Iranian assistance in the 1980s. He has also formed his own party, from which he continues to establish his independence from Iran.

The Sadrist movement, which represents millions of poor Shiite Muslims in Baghdad and throughout southern Iraq, has also openly aligned itself in the anti-Iranian camp. The grass-roots movements leader, Moktada al-Sadr, paid a visit this summer to Saudi Arabia, Irans biggest regional rival. He also visited the United Arab Emirates, another Sunni state that opposes Iran. These trips were intended to help develop bilateral relations and, thus, Iraqs independence from Iran.

The only major political coalition to have formally adopted a pro-Iranian approach is led by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Since leaving office in 2014, Mr. Maliki has been tainted by the armed forces humiliating defeat by the Islamic State, for which he has rightly been blamed, and which has affected his popularity. He has since sought to reinvent himself as the patron saint of a pro-Iranian militant Iraq that is in confrontation with an ever-growing list of conspirators, including Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Kurds and the United States, among others.

With nearly all of Iraqs political forces lined up against Iran in 2018, it looks likely that the pro-Iranians will be trounced at the ballot. And yet it looks just as likely that this will have little effect on Irans influence in Iraq.

In Iraqs electoral system, its very difficult for any one alliance to take much more than 20 percent of the vote. This means the various alliances must engage in horse trading and coalition building to form a government. As parties try to secure lucrative ministries, they will lose sight of the goals that they campaigned on like Iraqi independence. Like every government formed since the invasion in 2003, the next one will be made up of parties pulling the country in different directions. It is a recipe for inaction and Iran will prey on this.

Neither the United States nor Saudi Arabia nor any other country will be able to have a decisive influence. Outside countries have consistently failed to positively influence Iraqi politics. If these parties really want to prevent Iranian influence, they should provide assistance to security units, like the Counter Terrorism Service, which has been by far the most effective force against the Islamic State. The continued success of professional security services, rather than Iran-backed paramilitary groups, will allow for Iraq to guarantee its own security.

Against this backdrop, there remains one wild card that could present a real challenge to Iranian domination: intervention by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraqs Shiite spiritual leader.

In 2014, Ayatollah Sistani issued a fatwa that called for Iraqis to defend the country against the Islamic State. In response, tens of thousands of Shiites joined the army and other groups, including pro-Iranian paramilitary forces. The fatwas unintended effect was to give these groups some form of religious legitimacy. Many commentators have speculated that Ayatollah Sistani may now be on the cusp of rescinding his fatwa, which could, in turn, force the Popular Mobilization Forces to dissolve.

For now, that seems unlikely. The Popular Mobilization Forces enjoy broad legitimacy for their contribution to the war effort, and many Iraqis prefer that they be maintained as part of the official security forces. Even Mr. Abadi has opposed any such dissolution for many of these same reasons.

But a new fatwa from Ayatollah Sistani, following the total liberation of Iraqi territories from the Islamic State, could redefine the obligations of those Iraqis who volunteered in 2014 as being to support Iraqs army and police which prohibits Iraqis from engaging in any actions that would undermine Iraqs national sovereignty. Mr. Abadi has already insisted that the Popular Mobilization Forces are prohibited from acting outside of Iraq. If the religious establishment supported the prime minister in this, it could nudge Iraq toward greater independence from Iran.

Since 2003, Ayatollah Sistani and the religious establishment have largely failed to control the worst tendencies in Iraqi politics. Now the stakes are so high that there is reason to hope for more decisive action. Iraqs future is in their hands. The margin for error is worryingly small.

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Can Anyone Stop Iran From Taking Over Iraq? – New York Times

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August 15, 2017   Posted in: Iraq |

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