For almost the first time since 2003, the leading candidates with a genuine chance at becoming prime minister and heading the Iraqi government have not been “Iran-friendly”.
By Mustafa Habib in Baghdad
Over the past few days, one of those candidates Adnan al-Zurfi has withdrawn from consideration for the position, mostly because he couldn’t get the support of Shiite Muslim politicians for his proposed cabinet. Now, the name of Mustafa al-Kadhimi, the head of Iraq’s intelligence services, has been put forward and he seems to have a green light. Due to what experts describe as his non-confrontational nature, he seems to have a better chance of getting the job.
Al-Khadimi’s appointment as prime minister would still be a break from contemporary political tradition. In the past, prime ministers needed the tacit approval of Iraq’s two major allies, neighbouring Iran and former-invader, the US. Both al-Kadhimi and al-Zurfi have previously been accused of spying for the US and of trying to arrange a military coup in favour of the Americans.
The main reason why Iranian influence is fading in Iraq is a rapid increase in Iraqi nationalist spirit. “Iran has failed in its involvement in Iraq,” a senior Shiite Muslim politician, who wished to remain anonymous because of the controversial and potentially dangerous nature of his comments, told Al Menasa. “Iran has used violence as a strategy but this has started to backfire. If Iran had focused on peace and reconstruction and the transfer of knowledge to Iraq, things would be very different now.”
When it comes to the political process, Iran-supported militias inside Iraq are usually seen as dangerous troublemakers.
Recent and ongoing anti-government protests in Iraq can be credited for at least some of this change in national attitude. The demonstrators in these protests, which erupted mainly in the centre and south of the country and involved many ordinary young Shiite Muslims, spot lit the inefficacy of the Iraqi government and the overbearing nature of Iranian influence on it.
Iran is a Shiite Muslim nation and is often seen as wanting to control Iraq, a country where the population is almost evenly split between Shiite Muslims and Sunni Muslims, in order to extend its sphere of influence in the Middle East; Iran and the Sunni-majority Gulf States are in opposition.
This is why it was such a shock when the mostly-Shiite-Muslim protesters went so far as to try to burn down Iranian consulates around Iraq.
The popular protests, which have been decreasing in size over the past month or so, were so big and loud at one stage, that the former prime minister, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, resigned. Since then, there have been multiple attempts to find a prime minister who is acceptable to all of the factions – Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish – in the Iraqi parliament.
However all of the candidates first suggested were dismissed by the protesters, who have been playing an increasingly large role in Iraqi politics.
They have been able to do so partially because Iraqi president, Barham Salih, has decided it is important to try to represent the protesters’ views in parliament. Iraq’s president is generally considered somewhat of a ceremonial figure. However the Iraqi Constitution does assign the president the job of nominating a politician to be prime minister.
Politicians who are considered Iran-friendly proposed several names that may well have been able to put together enough support to form a government. However Salih, taking a fairly big risk, rejected those candidates. He told the nominating parties that it was more important than ever to make sure that the prime ministerial nominees were acceptable to ordinary Iraqi voters – this was the only way to dampen the ongoing disruption caused by the long-running protests, disruption that likely would have worsened, if the pandemic – the novel coronavirus, COVID-19 – had not dampened them recently.
As a result, Salih was threatened with both violence and legal measures, and even had drones “buzz” the presidential headquarters.
There are also other reasons for Iran’s diminishing influence in Iraq though. One of these is the assassination of Iranian military commander, Qasim Soleimani, by the US. He and senior Iraqi militia leader, Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes of Hezbollah in Iraq, were murdered in the same incident.
Soleimani was the Iranian commander who nurtured Iraqi relationships for literally years and his experience, connections and charisma were often key to resolving affairs in Iraq, in Iran’s favour.
Last week, Soleimani’s replacement as the head of Iran’s infamous Revolutionary Guards came to Baghdad to meet with senior Iraqi officials. However this visit by the new leader, Esmail Qaani, differed a lot from Soleimani’s stopovers: Qaani doesn’t have the same close relationships in Iraq, that Soleimani did.
Additionally, sources say that Qaani was told that, in the future, his visits to Iraq must be official and not secretive, or arranged through military channels. The message apparently was: We seek the best relationship with you but those relations must be balanced and mutually respectful.
The outcome of the visit appeared to be conciliatory. Iraqi politicians now seem to agree that al-Kadhimi is a good candidate for prime minister. This is despite the fact that only a few months ago, he was accused of playing a part in the assassination of Soleimani, a hero to many of the Shiite Muslim fighters in Iraq; certain pro-Iran factions said that al-Kadhimi provided information to the Americans about the movements of Soleimani on the night he was killed.
Yet today, even those parties seem to have agreed that al-Kadhimi could be Iraq’s next prime minister.