Iraqis need our help again. This time, that help must be focused on the source of Iraq’s trouble: Iran.
On Saturday, Iraq conducted its fourth parliamentary election since Saddam Hussein’s overthrow. The clear victor was Muqtada al-Sadr, leader of an influential Shiite clan.
Sadr has much American blood on his hands. Considered the “black sheep” of his revered Sadr family, he led a ragtag militia that became one of the biggest thorns in the US military’s side after the 2003 invasion.
But Sadr has become a wily politician. No longer just a rabble-rouser, he’s widely seen as a patriot on a mission: expel all outsiders and leave Iraq to the Iraqis.
That should be our goal, too. Especially since Sadr’s top goal these days is thwarting Iran’s attempt at consolidating Iraq’s status as a major hub of the Tehran-controlled Shiite Crescent — a bridge to Lebanon and Syria.
Sadr has explicitly denounced Syrian butcher Bashar al-Assad, a top Iran ally. He’s railed against Shiite Iraqi fighters Iran sends to Syria, and criticized Iran-backed militias in Iraq (some of which, regrettably, America allied with in the fight against ISIS).
Sadr has also developed a closer relationship with the Saudi monarchy, which sees Iran as its main regional rival and America as its key ally.
Note: While the Sadrists are proud of their esteemed religious scholars, they break with Iran’s Shia establishment over mosque/state separation; Sadr’s current election partners are secular Iraqis, Communists and others Iran sees as heretics.
Sadr’s much-revered father, Mohammad, was an opponent of Saddam but never had political aspirations himself. Nor is Muqtada running for political office, but after Saturday’s victory of the coalition he led, he’s widely seen as Iraq’s new kingmaker.
And Iraqis who know him say that despite the popular belief that Saddam was responsible for the 1999 assassination of his father, Muqtada believes Iran did it.
So he has many reasons to resist Tehran, but as part of Sadr’s political maturing process, he’s also learned that as long as Iran wants and can control its neighbor’s politics, he has only a few tools to confront it.
The president of the Washington-based Future Foundation, Iraqi-American Entifadh Qanbar, cites a two-year-old incident to illustrate that point: Sadr led tens of thousands of his followers in an anti-corruption sit-down at Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, right in front of the prime minister’s office.
“Muqtada had his own tent there, leading chants of ‘Iran out,’ and calling Qassem Suleimani out,” Qanbar says, referring to the Iranian general charged with exporting the revolution.
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“They could have just walked into [Prime Minister Haider] Abadi’s office and taken over,” says Qanbar. But then Suleimani threatened Sadr’s life, and he immediately folded his tent. The next day Sadr was in Tehran, where he was read the riot act.
So yes, Sadr will likely now ally with Abadi, who has long tried to juggle ties with America and Iran. With anti-Iran sentiments growing among Iraqis, as seen in the Saturday vote, these two new allies will — within limits — try to shake off Suleimani and his Revolutionary Guard.
The Iranians insist on running every aspect of Baghdad politics like control freaks that can’t let go, which intensified Iraqi Arabs’ resentment of them, and neither Sadr nor Abadi or their allies, despite their aspirations for a new, unified and independent Iraq, have the power to resist Iran by themselves. Suleimani still commands some of Iraq’s strongest Shiite militias, and Iran pours money and resources into keeping Iraq divided and too weak to resist Iran’s hegemony.
Which is where America comes in.
Washington has attempted, over and over again, to gain political friends in Iraq. And failed.
“Every time the Americans interfere, they mess up,” says Qanbar. Instead, he says, “the best service Washington could provide to Iraq is to weaken Iran.”
The good news: America no longer seeks to appease Tehran, as it did in the runup to completing the nuclear deal. The question now is how long before this American turn yields fruit and starts hurting Tehran’s ability to keep Iraqis (as well as Lebanese, Yemenis, Syrians and Gazans, to mention a few) under Iran’s thumb.
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