Iraq on the brink of The Abyss

Iraq on the brink of The Abyss

We are all locked in on Syria. Our eyes and ears have been focused on this land. Yet this seems to make us overlook what’s going on in another country along Turkey’s southern borders, which is Iraq. The country has been going through its darkest period in the last 14 years, ever since the U.S. invasion and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

The capital Baghdad has been a mess since last Saturday. Supporters of Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have poured into the city’s Green Zone - a cluster of embassies and government buildings. During protests against Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, seven people have lost their lives. Their apparent motivation is their accusation against the elections commission for being corrupt and biased ahead of the upcoming local elections in September. Yet this is only the tip of the iceberg.

Iraq has come to this point after two main breaking points. The first one was the U.S. invasion and the toppling of Saddam in 2003. Shias have dragged Iraq into sectarian politics, saying it was “revenge time.” Former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who was in office between 2006 and 2014, pursued sectarian policy, putting the country under Shia influence. The second breaking point was the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s (ISIL) invasion of Mosul in July 2014, taking 40 percent of Iraq under its control. Since then, Iran’s influence in the country peaked. The split of Iraq into three areas - Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish - became more certain. 

However the problem is that not only different ethnicities and sects, but also Shias are split among themselves. To rough out; when al-Abadi formed his government in August 2014, he received the approval of al-Sadr. Yet this did not save him from Shia opposition. In due time, some other Shia groups increased their opposition against him, which in turn weakened his hand. Today the Shia National Iraqi Coalition which al-Abadi belongs to is split into 4 main groups:

The first one is al-Abadi’s front, while the second one is al-Maliki’s group, “the State of Law Coalition,” known as being allies with Iran. The third clique is the Sadrist Movement, led by al-Sadr, which can be defined as Iraqi nationalist. The fourth one is the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq led by Ammar al-Hakim. Al-Hakim is the most reconciliatory one among all candidates since he also touches base with Sunnis and Kurds.

As a result of this competition, al-Abadi has suffered seriously. However this is not the first crisis al-Abadi has experienced. Exactly a year ago, in February 2016, due to pressure, al-Abadi announced he would form a new government, composed of technocrats. In March, he offered a new list of ministries to the Iraqi parliament. Yet since then he has not been able to fulfil these ministries due to the resistance of other parties. This has made the government mostly dysfunctional.

This is why al-Sadr called the Iraqi people, previously too, to pour into the streets. His supporters had taken it to the Green Zone last April. That time the situation was brought under control in short time. But this time it seems to be out of control.

Foreign powers are also trying to benefit from this situation. No need to say that it is Iraqis who will define the result of the elections. Yet their selection is prone to be manipulated by foreign powers. And Iran is certainly the first one among them.

First of all, Iran is the most influential power in Iraq “thanks” to its struggle against ISIL, especially by its paramilitary force, Hashd al-Shabi. In other words, Tehran has the power to change the dynamics on the field. My sources in Iraq have told me that Iran has been locating Shias only into areas it saved from ISIL. This way, it’s transforming the demographics of those areas. And this, in turn, would naturally change the votes. Moreover, the fact that Hashd al-Shabi grows stronger in the country makes room for al-Maliki.
The U.S., on the other hand –especially following Donald Trump’s presidency- is after reducing Iran’s sphere of influence in Iraq. This is why it supports al-Abadi and is against al-Maliki, who is known for having close ties with Iran. Trump’s message in his recent phone call with al-Abadi was interpreted in Iraq as the two leaders agreed to “work together against the Iranian threat.” This made al-Abadi later announce that he would “not wish to be part of any regional conflict.”

The second factor that will define the election results is whom the religious authorities will stand by. In case al-Maliki or al-Abadi comes to the forefront in due time, al-Sadr would have to choose between the two candidates. Likewise Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s message will also play a role. 

The third determinant is how Shia groups will form alliance with other coalitions. For example, Ammar al-Hakim and al-Sadr might affiliate with al-Maliki or al-Abadi in due time in case one of the latter ones happen to strengthen one of the former ones’ hand.

Having said that, what will happen from now on?  Mesut Özcan, the chairman of the Center for Strategic Research under the Turkish Foreign Ministry, says that the victory of neither al-Abadi nor any other leader is for granted. “Al-Abadi has rivals even in his own party, such as al-Maliki” he says. He adds that “the floor is slippery and fragile. The balance of power will change a lot in the due time.” According to him even the dates of the elections might get postponed. 

So stay tuned.