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Iraq Tries to Separate Itself from Iran

Entifadh Qanbar Summer 2020
The Turkish restaurant “Mount Uhud” is one of the symbols of the Iraqi October protest movement. (Photo: Mondalawy/Wikicommons)

To understand Iraq and talk about its future, you first have to understand Iran.

The Iranian regime is oppressive, tyrannical, and totalitarian. In this kind of dictatorship, disasters and catastrophes do not play as out as they would in an open society like the United States or other Western countries. Given the degree of oppression and suppression of information and lack of transparency, it’s difficult for outside observers to be certain even of what they’re looking at. We will never know the truth about a lot of things happening in Iran, including the result of the Covid-19 pandemic and the reinstated U.S. economic sanctions on the government. Add to that the international drop in oil prices and the country’s restless population and there is a lot of misinformation out there.

Being an Iraqi-American with a lot of friends in Iraq who go back and forth to Iran, I hear stories. I believe there is a massive amount of coronavirus spread inside Iran, but we don’t know the number—whether it is hundreds or thousands or hundreds of thousands or millions. But it definitely will cripple the regime. How much will it hurt and in what ways? I don’t think we will know until the effects appear outside the borders.

As I said, you never get the truth, but very clearly, the disease is creating mayhem and problems inside Iran, especially in light of the maximum pressure policy [Ed. Note: The U.S. restoration of sanctions] and the economic collapse—which is almost total. As the problems add up for the ruling clerics, it is important to understand that they don’t care about the people. They will let people die, put out propaganda to cover it up, and in the end blame someone else.

Iraq’s New Government

Iraq is making an extraordinarily strong anti-mullah, anti-Iran statement with its new government. The anti-government and anti-Iranian demonstrations, which started in October 2019, are still going on today despite the pandemic. It has been almost eight months, and the demonstrations remain a strong, daily occurrence. What has not been reported in the United States is that thousands of young Iraqis have been killed and 20,000 to 30,000 people are injured or missing – and yet, the protests are still going.

Another thing people in the West may have missed—or what wasn’t properly reported—is that the demonstrations came from the Shi’a heartland of Iraq. This is very significant because the Iranian government used to claim that only the Iraqi Sunnis were against them, or the Kurds were against them, or both were against the Shi’a. But these Iraqi demonstrators are hardcore Shi’a believers, and they are burning the Iranian consulate in Karbala—which is the cradle of Shi’ism, which contains the shrine of Imam Hussein [Ed. Note: Shi’a Islam’s founding martyr figure]—and that sent a very important message.

The message is clear. The Iraqi Shi’a and Iraqis in general refuse Iranian hegemony and they made that statement in a way that cannot be ignored. Interestingly, President Donald Trump did catch up with it and tweeted about the burning of the shrine.

Saddam’s Demise and ‘Maximum Pressure’

That would have not happened without two important events.

The first is the “maximum pressure campaign” that President Trump has imposed on Iran. It has not only weakened Iran economically, but it has also shaken its image. Perception in the Middle East is a big deal. The Iranian regime had been perceived as powerful and unchallengeable during the Obama administration, because of the way President Obama acquiesced to the regime’s actions. That spread the fear in the Middle East that the Iranian regime was able to bring the United States to its knees.

Most distressing were the pictures of the U.S. Navy sailors kidnapped by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in the Persian Gulf and the video of them sitting on their knees with their hands behind their backs. Then, the shameful method of their release sent another message to the people of the Middle East that Iran was the strong man and that the United States was weak. So, the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure campaign” was necessary to destroy the image. It worked, and it has led to the rise of the people of Iraq.

On the Streets of Iraq

It also has to be said that along with the “maximum pressure campaign,” we would not have this revolutionary moment—this uprising—if it had not been for the removal of [Iraqi dictator] Saddam [Hussein] in 2003 by the U.S.-led coalition. The people who are out in the streets of Iraq now, the revolutionaries, are all millennials who did not live under Saddam. They have lived under freedom and violence, but most important, they have lived with freedom of information.

Yes, there is mayhem. There is chaos. There is terrorism, but there is not a totalitarian regime that could oppress them or suppress their ideas. If it had not been for the liberation of Iraq, we would not be seeing this revolution. And let me be clear, this revolution has hastened the weakening of Iran, and we are seeing signs of that every day.

The most important event that weakened the Iranian regime was the killing of the most notorious terrorists of at least the last 40 years, Qassem Soleimani and with him Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. [Ed. Note: Soleimani headed Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force and Iran’s chief means of international force projection and terrorism support. Al-Muhandis was deputy leader of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, mostly Shi’a militias allied with Iran. They were killed in a U.S. drone strike near Baghdad International Airport on January 3.] Their deaths emboldened the people of Iraq against Iran. If we continue this policy with Iran, we will see the end of Iran’s hegemony in Iraq, but not without a hefty price.

Iraq’s New Prime Minister

Now there is a new prime minister, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi. Some people in Washington view him as friendly to the United States. I have known Mustafa Al-Kadhimi very well since the 1990s. As a person, he is a nice guy, but he is very mediocre, he is very limited. His education is extremely limited, and he is not known to be a strong personality.

Iraq today needs someone willing to throw himself into the fire to liberate the country. There are major issues in Iraq to be resolved. Most important, the biggest elephant in the room, are the Iranian-sponsored militias. The Shi’a militias are an existential threat to Iraq as an independent country.

In addition, al-Kadhimi must tackle the issue of money laundering on behalf of Iran and the draining of the Iraqi Treasury to Iran through the dollar auction by the Central Bank. This is not an issue that Americans are very familiar with, but they are areas in which he must act right away—if he doesn’t do them, or can’t do them, he will not be effective.

There is more. There are two issues that every post-war or post-revolutionary country has to deal with in order to create a proper society. These are the punishment of people who perpetrated crimes against the protesters, and the release of peaceful protesters who have been wrongly accused of heinous crimes.

These are all challenges Mustafa Al-Kadhimi has to face. I am very skeptical. I hope he will succeed, but at the same time I am skeptical. And in my skepticism, I am going to keep my eye on him.

He made a promise, for example, that the first day he was in office he was going to release all the peaceful protesters in Iraqi prisons. But the spokesman of the Iraqi High Court said, “We do not have any peaceful protesters in prison.” Of course not, first, because they were falsely accused of violent crimes, and second, because many of protesters are in the hands of the Shi’a militias who work for Iran. The court is not prepared to admit that either is the case, so it simply rejects the idea.

Will al-Kadhimi stand up to the courts as well as to Iran? We must wait and see, but in the meantime, I recommend that people in Washington not over-praise him or overstate what he can do.

Iraq as U.S. enemy

Let me be very, very honest, and clear: Iraq today is an enemy of the United States. The current regime in Iraq is an enemy of the United States. Why? Iraq, constitutionally, is a parliamentary system, with parliamentarians—in theory—chosen by the electorate. But the parliament in Baghdad was entirely selected by Qassem Soleimani before his demise. [Ed. Note: Al-Muhandis had been a member of parliament.]

Iraqi voter participation in the February 2020 election was below 25 percent, and there was tremendous electoral fraud. Many of the names on the voter rolls were forged and most of the parliament, if not all of it, was selected, not elected, but selected, by Soleimani. Even if we have a good prime minister, it will be very difficult for him to do anything in light of a legislature whose members stood weeping and crying inside the parliament building for hours the day after Soleimani was eliminated.

At this moment, the Iraqi government is closing its eyes to attacks by militias against the Americans. Government officials are using the United States to protect the regime and the establishment of corrupt officials, rather than using the United States as a friend and ally. America should appeal to the Iraqi people, not to Baghdad. The United States should always appeal to the people—it is always the case that the United States wins when it does that.

The People of Iraq are America’s Friends

The people of Iraq are friends of the United States. The government of Iraq is not friend; it is an enemy. Any policy made toward Iraq by Washington has to take this into consideration. The United States, for example, is helping Iraq financially at the same time the Iraqi government is using part of its budget to fund Shia militias – $2 billion for salaries and $3-4 billion in logistical support.

Iraq today, I believe, represents the first-time terrorist militias are funded by a national government; even Hezbollah in Lebanon does not get funding from the government. The United States is subsidizing the situation by giving the Iraqi government aid without conditions. Washington should always have conditions—if Iraq needs financial help from America, it should stop paying the militias. The policy must be very pinpointed and very strict with no blank check and no “wiggle room.” In the interest of U.S. national security as well as regional security, Washington should call the government in Baghdad to account for every step and every action and every dollar.

And, perhaps most important, Americans should understand that the protest movement, against Iran and against corruption in Iraq, is still viable, still very strong, still very solid despite the arrests and deaths suffered at the hands of the government and the militias. The young people are not fooled by empty promises. They are not going to be swayed by cosmetic changes. They want to overthrow the corrupt Iraqi regime. They want to end the hegemony of Iran over Iraq.

The current prime minister, despite the hopes of a lot of people, never mentioned Iran’s hegemony, the number one demand of the demonstrators, including Shia protesters. In May, demonstrators burned every Shia party headquarters or building in the southern cities of Iraq for the 10th time – or maybe the 20th time. They have sent yet another message that they refuse parties who are proxies of Iran.

The United States should look at this and understand what the Iraqi people want, not what bureaucrats in the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad decide in coordination with corrupt officials in the Iraqi government.

The latter is not what the Iraqi people want.

Entifadh Qanbar is President of the Futures Foundation and an Iraq-born U.S. citizen.