BY:SALAH NASRAWI

According to the prevailing judgement, the Iraq crisis can be largely blamed on the US-led war in 2003 to topple Saddam Hussein and the Iranian interference in the beleaguered nation that followed the invasion.The American occupation, the argument goes, created instability that Tehran exploited out of a long-standing desire to expand Iranian influence in the country

(some even say empire) that it may eventually extend to other countries in the Middle East.

More than 14 years later, Iraq stands on the brink of the abyss while the United States and Iran are still vying for influence to keep Iraq as part of their own strategic orbit.

In this view, the two powers continue to prepare the Iraqi leaders and the country’s political groups for the longer and broader confrontation that lies ahead and that has stretched around Iraq’s borders.

As Iraq prepares for post-conflict stabilisation following the defeat of the Islamic State (IS) terror group, the two sides seem to be focused on a long-term engagement in the country after the defeat of IS.

At the heart of the contest are the leaders of Iraq’s Shia majority who have recently been hobbled by strains and divisions including their views on relations with Tehran and Washington.

Last week Tehran dispatched one of its most influential leaders to Baghdad in a fresh bid to demonstrate its influence in Iraq and to tell the Shia groups to end their political divisions.

Chairman of Iran’s Expediency Council Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi was reportedly sent by Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to urge the Shia leaders to put their house in order before next year’s crucial national and provincial elections.

Shahroudi, accompanied by powerful adviser to Khamenei Mohsen Rezaei, met with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi and several other Shia leaders. Some reports in the local media suggested he had been shunned by Iraqi cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr who has recently been showing signs of resisting Tehran’s clout.     

Shahroudi’s visit to Iraq came amid growing tensions inside the Shia Iraqi National Alliance after defections within the Shia factions that form Iraq’s ruling coalition.

The visit also came as Masoud Barzani, president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, has refused to rescind his decision to push for a referendum on Kurdish secession from Iraq scheduled for later this month.

Both events have provoked Iran, which feels it is in a partnership with the Iraqi Shia Alliance and that its wider regional geopolitical interests are threatened by the new developments. 

On the other hand, Washington has built up enormous influence in Iraq, and it is expected to continue to interfere in the country, contributing to the long-term political conflict.

While the United States provides substantive military support to the Iraqi security forces and maintains close relations with some of their commanders, it also wields strong influence in the country’s civilian sectors.

Politically, Washington has a large number of allies in the Iraqi government who are left-overs from its nine-year occupation. Many of its allies are in top positions in the government, the Foreign Ministry, the intelligence services and in civil society.

Many of those who have dual Iraqi-US citizenship and are in public service or in business are believed to play major roles in securing Washington’s political and economic goals.

US agencies such as the State Department and USAID are providing generous funding and other facilities for some Iraqi media outlets engaged in the public debate about Iraq’s national and political issues.

The United States is also playing a key role in the reconstruction of the Iraqi areas affected by the war against IS. It has sponsored several meetings of donors to help collect millions of dollars in emergency aid for Iraq.

Perhaps most crucially, Washington has been building enormous military capacities in western Iraq as part of the International Coalition to fight IS. The buildup is widely seen as being part of efforts to block Iran’s plans to establish a strategic corridor stretching from Tehran to Damascus.

Arab Sunni governments also oppose this project, dubbed the “Shia Road,” out of fears that potential Iranian control of a vast swathe of land across the Middle East could refashion the region.

All this has put Iraq on the fault lines between Iran and the United States and its Sunni Arab allies. The struggle between Iran and the United States for dominance in Iraq now threatens to fuel a wider confrontation.

Several Shia militias have voiced objections to the US military remaining in Iraq after IS militants are expelled from their remaining strongholds.

Jaafar Al-Husseini, a commander of the Kataib Hizbullah, one of the largest Iranian-backed militias in Iraq which waged fierce resistance against the US occupation, has warned the Americans that they must leave Iraq or face another war.

Similar warnings from other militia leaders have underscored the fierce power struggle going on between Iran and the United States and the need for the US to keep a wary eye on Iran’s most violent proxy groups in Iraq.

As for the Trump administration whose emerging Middle East policy seems to be built around containing and isolating Iran, it is unlikely to squander its most valuable assets in Iraq.

On the contrary, Washington is expected to mobilise these resources in its bid to cordon off Iran by working together with Tehran’s regional rivals of Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab powers.

Over the past three years, the Americans have returned more than 5,000 troops to Iraq to help fight IS. The US troops are based in military bases across Iraq, and Washington has shown an interest in keeping some American troops’ presence in the country after the battles against IS are over.

The United States also maintains thousands of contractors in the country who work for security firms guarding Western interests, airports, highways and oil installations.

These are huge assets for the US and are in addition to the political, economic and oil interests that make US power in Iraq on a par with that of Iran.

Based on such calculations, Iraq seems to be pitting the United States and Iran against each other in a high-stakes poker game that is expected to revolve in the short and medium terms around regional post-IS arrangements.

The war against IS in Iraq and Syria has radically changed the equilibrium of the whole Middle East, and it is expected to reshape the region’s maps and its entire geopolitics.

The war has ratified a new role for Iran as well as the decline of the United States as a reference point for the Sunni Arab regimes. However, it is unlikely that Washington and the Sunni powerhouses will tolerate Iran’s hegemony over Iraq and the new regional equilibrium.

Whether they recognise it yet or not, the United States and its Sunni allies will be forced to confront the Iranian challenge, and Iraq is most likely to emerge as the playground for the coming conflict.

originally published in the  weekly.ahram

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