The Iraqi Puzzle


It has become clear after Baghdad’s active attempts to suppress Iraqi Kurdistan that the region cannot hope for independence. Instead, it will remain autonomous. The resignation of President Masoud Barzani showed that the Kurds do not have a coherent independence strategy and are unwilling to see it through to the end. It is also significant that Iran played a decisive role in resolving the incident with the disputed territories.

According to Kurdish sources, the US military promised its support (including fire support) to the political leadership in Erbil and the Kurdish Peshmerga armed forces in a possible conflict with the Shi’ite militia and regular units of the Iraqi army, while recommending the withdrawal of Kurdish units from the outskirts of Mosul and Kirkuk, where there are oilfields. When the Iraqi Armed Forces and Shi’ite units entered these areas, Washington kept quiet. In the meantime, the victors did not lose the initiative – the pipeline to Turkey was closed and oil started being pumped to Iran.

America’s decision to ‘abandon’ the Kurds, whom the Americans have been directly and indirectly supporting since 1991, is related to its desire to maintain influence in Baghdad. But will it work? After all, Washington has not been particularly successful in the past.

The US placed their bet on Nouri al-Maliki, who became prime minister in 2006, but this was a victory for the Shi’ites and Iran. Under the leadership of Major General Qasem Soleimani, the Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have long since developed mechanisms for cooperating with the Shi’ites of Iraq and also the Kurds. And al-Maliki was proposed as a candidate by ethnic Kurd Jalal Talabani, the then president of Iraq and secretary general of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, who has long-standing ties to Iran. It was only after al-Maliki began pursuing a more pronounced pro-Shi’ite policy in 2014 following his victory in the parliamentary elections that Washington began to worry. It was forced to conduct complex negotiations with the leader of the Iraqi Shi’ites, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and a compromise candidate was chosen, Haider al-Abadi, who had the support of the Sunnis. This was another trap for the US, however. 

It can be assumed that forces will come to power in the 2018 spring elections in Iraq that will continue the country’s pro-Iran policy while taking into account the interests of various ethno-religious groups, of course. The dominance of Shi’ites in Iraq is likely to continue, both because there are so many more of them and because of Iran’s support. The Iraqi Sunnis have no such patron. Yet again, Tehran’s policy making concerns not just Shi’ites, but also Sunnis, Kurds, and Christians.

A prime example of Iran’s influence is Arba’een – a mass commemoration and annual procession in memory of the martyrdom of Imam Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of Muhammad, who was killed in the Battle of Karbala (a city located around 100 km southwest of Baghdad). Every year in November, millions of Shi’ite pilgrims flock to Karbala, with Iran also encouraging the presence of foreign delegations from other faiths. This year, more than 20 million people gathered in Karbala for Arba’een, which is rightfully considered to be the largest peaceful gathering of people in the world. Most of the pilgrims travel on foot from Najaf (73 km away from Karbala), where the grave of Imam Ali, the father of Imam Husayn ibn Ali, is located. The journey takes several days, during which numerous voluntary organisations provide the millions of pilgrims with food, rest, medical assistance and whatever else they may need. Shi’ites believe that the army of the twelfth Imam Mahdi will gather in Iraq, after which he will return to earth and begin a war against Al-Masih ad-Dajjal (the Antichrist). In addition to its religious esotericism, however, Arba’een also has a distinct social function – the proclamation of slogans referring to justice and the struggle against oppression. By oppressors, they obviously mean the US and its satellites, transnational capitalism, and liberal democracy. This is why the media in the West does not give any coverage to the Arba’een pilgrimage.

Even all the conflicts within the Shi’ites (such as the 2014 uprising in southern Iraq by Muqtada al-Sadr and his “Mahdi Army”) develop on an anti-Western basis. The Americans tried to arrest or eliminate al-Sadr, but the spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shi’ites, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, stood up for him and al-Sadr was taken to Iran. And although the Iranians are not banking on al-Sadr directly because of his unpredictability, there is some evidence that the “Mahdi Army” has not laid down its arms.

While America’s direct role in the creation of hotbeds of chaos in the Middle East is not openly talked about in Iraq, certain politicians (such as al-Maliki) are increasingly commenting on America’s malign influence on the situation in the country.

Subconsciously, Iraq’s Shi’ites often draw a parallel between the Islamic State and the US. The soldiers, Iraqi police officers and members of the security forces killed by terrorists are considered martyrs, and their heroism bears an underlying protest against US occupation.

Broadly speaking, a huge number of serious problems have accumulated in Iraq, not least corruption, the rise of which America has also had a hand in. Many believe that Iran will also have to deal with these problems, however, since preserving its influence in Iraq is one of Iran’s most important foreign policy priorities.

Strategic Culture Foundation