If there is one thing that distinguishes the situation in Iraq, it is Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s narrow margin for manoeuvring regarding Iraq’s relations with its Arab neighbours. Abadi has taken advantage of that margin and made official visits to Riyadh, Cairo and Amman.
Apparently, however, that margin has shrunk dramatically. What else explains Abadi’s reaction to US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s declaration in Riyadh?
Tillerson called for the withdrawal of all Iranian militias from Iraq but Abadi saw it differently, saying that fighters from the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) were Iraqi, not Iranian, and that the PMF was an “Iraqi institution” and that “we should stand by the PMF fighters because they will bring hope to the country and the region.”
What hope can there be when sectarian militias become the backbone of the state?
Where is the error in Tillerson’s declaration?
What’s wrong with inviting Iran to keep its hands off Iraq and stop meddling in its politics?
There is nothing wrong with a state, any state, refusing to hold ties with sectarian militias, regardless of the nationality of their fighters.
There will be those who say that Iraq is a sovereign state and has the right to invite in any foreign force but that talk is hogwash. There is a weird state of affairs in Iraq that Abadi seems unable to get rid of.
Iran is trying to create a fait accompli in Iraq by imposing its own experience on it with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The Iraqi PMF must be modelled on the IRGC. Iran’s proxy forces must have the upper hand in Iraqi politics.
Abadi is not the only one in Iraq trying to both resist Iran’s influence and go along with it at the same time. Without a quick change in the region that reduces Iran to its real size, the Iraqi prime minister’s mission seems impossible.
During the Arab League summit in Jordan in March, Abadi met with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. In June, he flew to Riyadh for an official visit. After that, officials from both countries exchanged visits and the border crossing at Arar in Saudi Arabia was reopened. Another Iraqi Shia leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, was welcomed in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Amman.
Iraq’s relations with its Arab neighbours are evolving fast, with positive results as well as disappointments. The Arab side can only encourage the positive flow in the hope of a miracle in which the Iranian nightmare is lifted off Iraq.
In the end, which version of Haider al-Abadi should we believe is authentic? He seems very sincere in his efforts even though he is a prisoner of his Dawa Party’s ideology. He must have been sincere to have undertaken reconciliation efforts with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. He is also sincere in wanting to maintain Iraq’s unity and fight the Islamic State (ISIS).
However, his positions regarding the Kurdish question are inexplicable. Because of them, the Kurds had no other choice but to go as far as they could with their desire for independence. Abadi should have known that Kurdistan Regional Government President Masoud Barzani wouldn’t have taken such steps had he been negotiating with an Iraqi government willing to share power and unwilling to turn Iraq into a religious state.
Can Abadi consolidate the positive results of his term and make it easy for Barzani to retract without losing face, especially after the latter’s defeat in Kirkuk?
Abadi is between a rock and a hard place. He was brave enough to visit Saudi Arabia knowing that Iran considers the Saudi kingdom its arch-enemy. Now he has no choice but to bet on Iraq and on having it return to the Shia ideology headed by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Najaf. Sistani refuses the Shia ideology coming out of Iran, supports Abadi and has doubts about Iraqi Vice- President Nuri al-Maliki.
For sure, there are forces inside Iraq that are convinced the country has been imprisoned by Iranian influence. Among the Arabs, as well, there are those who say it is possible to save Iraq and that it cannot be left to be ruled by Iran through a bunch of people who roared into the country on the backs of American tanks before quickly turning their weapons on those tanks.
Iran can engage all it wants in sectarian cleansing in many areas in Iraq, starting with Baghdad but Iraq will not become another Iran. In the meantime, we can only bet on Abadi to do the right thing.
Khairallah Khairallah is a Lebanese writer.
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