Iran has effectively won the struggle to dominate the future of Iraq. It has done so against the formidable Shi’ite Arab populace, and after nearly a month of raw pressure, manipulations, special operations, threats and cajoling.
This victory is a major step in Iran’s determination to consolidate the on-land corridor to the Mediterranean.
At the same time, Turkish forces have taken advantage of the momentum to launch a major military operation against Turkish Kurd forces, deep inside Iraqi Kurdistan, with the acquiescence of Baghdad and the US.
The Iraqi election of May 12, 2018 — the catalyst for the Iranian intervention — was but the harbinger of a greater threat looming. Thus — even as the final election results are still being challenged, calculated, manipulated, and abused — the key outcome is clear: The future government in Baghdad will be dominated by pro-Iran Shi’ites.
Moreover, Iraq’s complex election procedures, which are based on showings at the province-level and the national-level, create a discrepancy between the overall numbers of votes a party or movement gets and its number of seats in Parliament.
Three Shi’a parties made discernable showings in the May election. The two victorious parties are Moqtada al-Sadr’s Al-Sayirun (Marching [Toward Reform]) Alliance of populist Arab Shi’ites with the Communist Party, and Hadi al-Amiri’s Al-Fatih (Conquest) Alliance based on the Al-Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Units or People’s Mobilization Forces) which distinguished themselves in fighting against Sunni jihadists throughout al-Jazira (that is, both in Iraq and Syria). Each alliance received about 30 percent of the popular votes. The party which is affiliated with the political establishment in Baghdad — Haider al-Abadi’s Nasr (Victory) Coalition — won about 20 percent of the votes.
All the other parties — mainly Kurdish and Sunni Arab, but also Nouri al-Maliki’ State of Law Coalition, Ammar al-Hakim’s Al-Hikma (Wisdom) Front and Ayad Allawi’s Al-Wataniya (Patriotism) Party — had lower showings, reflecting the declining demographic power of their constituencies and the evaporating faith and interest in the all-Iraqi political system of their core followers. Thus, the tabulation of the numbers of seats in Parliament boosted the smaller parties and thus only partially reflects the grassroots dynamics.
On May 21, 2018, the initial distribution of seats of the main parties was as follows:
Sayirun (Sadr) — 54 seats
Fatih (Amiri) — 47 seats
Nasr (Abadi) — 42 seats
KDP (Barzani) — 26 seats
State of Law (Maliki) — 25 seats
Wataniya (Allawi) — 21 seats
Hikma Front (Hakim) — 19 seats
Qarar (Nujaifi) — 19 seats
PUK (Talabani) — 17 seats
All the other parties won five or less seats each.
However, the actual numbers of votes received by the main parties reflect the irreconcilable polarization of the Shi’ite population. There is an almost equal division between those Shi’a Arabs who are anti-Persian, and the Iran-dominated pan-Shi’ite Arabs. Both population groupings are extremely hostile toward each other to the point of fratricidal fighting.
The Sadr-led camp appeals to the downtrodden impoverished Shi’a masses whose ancestors borne the brunt of the fighting against Iran in the 1980s, and who have been neglected by, and did not benefit from, the US- and Iran-sponsored economic programs. The Amiri-led camp appeals to the radicalized Shi’ite youth who yearn for revenge against the Sunni world and who joined the Iran-controlled militias in order to fight Sunni jihadists and for the ascent of Shi’a Islam. Abadi’s camp appeals to the Shi’ite urban élites who largely support Shi’ite Arabism, while Maliki’s camp appeals to the Shi’ite urban élites who largely support pro-Iran pan-Shiism.
Rhetoric in Western media notwithstanding, there are no longer any “nationalist Iraqis” anywhere to be found. Nor are there any “pro-American” politicians in position of power and influence. Thus, the results also mean that the several tens of millions of dollars (from the US taxpayers and the Saudi royal family) distributed in recent weeks by al-Mukhabarat al-Amriki (US Intelligence) as bribes in order to tilt the election in favor of the ostensibly pro-US candidates failed to deliver.
Significantly, this polarization is deeply rooted, has been intensifying for at least a year, and is yet to climax.
At the core is the inclination of Shi’a leaders to acknowledge the break-up of Iraq in order to secure the survival and empowerment of Iraq’s distinct Shi’ite Arab population, and thus achieve freedom from the stifling Iranian embrace and de facto annexation. These leaders are convinced that the fate of Baghdad and the Shi’ite Arabs will be determined by the success of their efforts to prevent that Iranian de facto annexation and Persianization of Shi’ite Iraq.
Tehran is cognizant of the fateful struggle unfolding in Shi’a Iraq and is committed to preserve its gains virtually regardless of the cost. Indicative of the importance of this struggle are the leading rôle of the Pasdaran’s Jaysh al-Qods and particularly Chief Commander Maj.-Gen. Qassem Soleimani and his right-hand man Brig.-Gen. Iraj Masjedi who, since April 2017, is also Iran’s Ambassador to Iraq.
After numerous and frequently contradictory political maneuvers, Sadr announced on June 7, 2018, a tentative fragile coalition effort.
There would be “a political alliance” between Sadr’s Sayirun, Hakim’s Hikma and Allawi’s Wataniya: a total of 95 seats. Meanwhile, anti-Shi’a terrorism, especially in Sadr City and the greater Baghdad area, continued to escalate, hurting Sadr’s hardcore constituents. As well, pressure mounted on Sadr to form a coalition with Amiri and other Iran-dominated parties. Most significant was the appeal of Grand Ayatollah Kazem Husseini Haeri (Sadr’s revered Marja al-Taqlid) who favored the cooperation with Amiri and Hakim. Other Qom notables known for their support of the Najf Marja’iyya also implored Sadr to reach out to pan-Shi’ite powers.
On the morning of June 10, 2018, the heated struggles over the corruption of the elections culminated in the arson and burning down of the ballot box storage site in Baghdad. The damage makes it impossible to carry out the manual recount favored by Abadi and many politicians considered pro-American. However, Sadr was the most adversely affected victim of the fire.
Within hours of the fire, Soleimani and Ayatollah Khamene‘i’s powerful son, Mojtaba Khamenei (the de facto chief of Iran’s foreign intelligence and security forces), arrived in Baghdad as guests of Ambassador Masjedi. “Soleimani has come to end tensions between Shia political blocs and the Al-Hashd al-Shaabi militias,” explained Shi’ite seniors. Tehran was alarmed by the potential of a widening crisis with Sadr’s supporters.
“The crisis has taken a new turn as there are accusations of a [pro-Iran] Shia group being involved in the fire, especially because most of the burnt ballot boxes were from area won by Moqtada al-Sadr,” the seniors elaborated. “Sadr was likely the target of the incident and his supporters are promoting this theory.” That night, Masjedi organized a special Iftar Dinner in honor of Soleimani and Khamenei which was attended by Maliki, Amiri, as well as numerous pro-Iran Shi’ite notables, officials and politicians.
The conversation around the Iftar table focused on the imperative to form a solid Shi’ite “majority bloc which will be tasked to shape the upcoming government” irrespective of differences among its members. Soleimani and Khamenei stressed that Tehran expects all Shi’ite allies to reach out to Sadr in order to exclude Abadi, Sunni Arab, and Kurdish leaders from the government, as well as negate any calls for repeat elections.
Meanwhile, Sadr was cognizant of the escalating crisis. The next day, June 11, 2018, he warned that Iraq remained in a fragile state on the verge of a civil war if the crisis was not defused. “Iraq is in danger,” he stated, because the arsonists “are trying to drag Iraq into civil war”.
Throughout, the Iranians and their allies continued to pressure Sadr and his allies to form an all-inclusive Shi’ite coalition which would be beholden to Tehran. On June 12, 2018, Sadr capitulated and announced an alliance with Amiri and the Al-Hashd al-Shaabi. “An alliance has been formed between the Sayirun alliance and Fatih to create the largest bloc,” Sadr said. “This move comes from a spirit of patriotism.” Sadr explained that after meeting in Najf with Amiri, they agreed that it was imperative “to end the suffering of this nation [Ummah] and of the people. Our new alliance is a nationalist [Qaumi] one.” Amiri’s spokesman Ahmad al-Assadi added that the new alliance will “not to exclude anyone, it will become a basis to form a national government based on service.”
Sadr clarified that his earlier alliance with Hakim and Allawi remains in effect. This means that the new coalition has 141 seats: Sadr 54, Amiri 47, Hakim 19, and Allawi 21. To form a new government, a coalition requires 165 seats out of the 329 members of the Council of Representatives (Majlis an-Nuww?b al-?Ir?qiyy).
Maliki has the missing 25 seats to reach a total of 166 seats. Back on June 10, 2018, Soleimani and Khamene‘i promised to deliver Maliki. Indeed, Maliki tacitly promised to join Sadr and Amiri on June 13, 2018. However, Sadr remains interested in some Sunni Arab and Kurdish token presence which Allawi can deliver.
As a result of all this, Iraq is about to have a de facto Shi’ite Government which is beholden to Iran and inherently hostile to the United States and the West. This Shi’ite Government, however, only papers over the profound crisis dividing the Shi’ites of Iraq: the schism between Shi’ite Arabs and pro-Iran pan-Shi’ites. Related: Oil Demand Growth Could Start To Soften Soon
The roots of the crisis are in an issue which is of far greater importance than political power and influence in Baghdad. Najaf and Karbala were the dominant centers of Shi’ite Islam between the second half of Seventh Century and 1979 when the Shi’ite leadership was massacred by Ba’athist leader Saddam Hussein. The survivors of that massacre accepted the invitation of Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (who himself was sheltered in Najaf from the wrath of the Shah of Iran between 1964 and 1978) to escape to Iran.
Consequently, Qom has become the center of Shi’ite Islam with Iranian clerics, all devotees of Khomeini and Khamene‘i, assuming prominence. Since 2004, the leadership in Qom resisted all efforts to revive the prominence of Najaf and Karbala. In Summer 2017, the crisis reached a critical point with the impending death of Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Hosseini Sistani, the extremely popular spiritual leader of Shi’ite Iraq who is now 88 years old and in failing health. Hence, Qom and Tehran resolved to empower an Iran-controlled cleric as Sistani’s successor in Najaf.
Desperate, Sadr traveled in Summer 2017 to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. He advocated an all-Arab unified front against the Iranian onslaught and called for ending the sectarian schism — Sunni versus Shi’ite — in favor of reviving the heritage conflict between Arabs and Persians. Alarmed, Iran increased pressure on Sistani and his inner-circle to accept and legitimize their selected successor: Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi.
In September 2017, Shahroudi traveled to Iraq and was rebuffed in a most insulting manner. First, Sistani would not accept the message from Tehran and refused to meet with him. As well, Sadr refused to meet, citing the issue of improper Iranian intervention in Iraqi political affairs. Consequently, Shahroudi also failed to meet with the other four leading religious authorities in Najaf.
Outgoing Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi was cognizant that Tehran would avenge the humiliation and rejection of Shahroudi. As a result, he appealed in early October 2017 to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi for help against Iran, citing the conclusions of Sadr’s visits. King Salman bin ‘Abd al-’Aziz al Sa’ud responded quickly and invited Abadi. By the time Abadi arrived in Riyadh on October 20, 2018, Iran-sponsored Al-Hashd al-Shaabi forces under the command of Soleimani and Amiri took over Kirkuk and other key Kurdish sites, ostensibly in the name of Baghdad.
Having realized the enormity of the Iranian challenge, Riyadh decided to bring in the Trump Administration in order to foster a stronger alliance against Iran.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson rushed to Riyadh as Abadi was asked to wait for him. Upon arrival, Tillerson would not listen and only made demands. Trump insisted, he said, that it was imperative to sustain a unified Iraq with a centralized government even if this was the Iranian primary instrument for crushing Shi’ite Arab identity and aspirations. He demanded the unilateral disbanding of the Al-Hashd al-Shaabi, oblivious to the fury of Iranian reaction. He also instructed Riyadh to compromise with Qatar.
Tillerson then left for Qatar, further infuriating the Saudis. Petrified by the US hostility toward their initiatives, Saudi leaders told Abadi they would not help Baghdad against Tehran.
Browbeaten, Abadi decided to travel to Amman, Ankara, and Tehran in order to gain their instructions and blessing for Baghdad’s next moves. In Amman, he summoned Sadr for urgent consultations. Sadr was very pessimistic, given the Iranian audacity and high-profile presence in northern Iraq and eastern Syria. The next day, Abadi had to break his trip and return to Baghdad to deal with a surprise visit by Tillerson. Tillerson reiterated the “reaffirmation of US support for a unified Iraq” and did not criticize Abadi’s acknowledged subservience to Iran. Contradicting Tillerson, Abadi insisted that Al-Hashd al-Shaabi “is part of the Iraqi institutions” and not an Iranian proxy. “Al-Hashd al-Shaabi fighters should be encouraged because they will be the hope of the country and the region.”
Abadi resumed traveling in late October 2017. In Ankara, Pres. Reçep Tayyip Erdo?an and Abadi agreed on joint “political, economic and military measures” to suppress the Kurdish challenge. In Tehran, all the leaders reiterated Iran’s commitment to a strong central Shi’ite government and promised support for Abadi’s “efforts to boost national unity”.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamene‘i demanded that “Iraq should not rely on the United States” in its fight against both Sunni jihadism and Kurdish secessionism. The Shi’ite brotherhood of Iranians and Iraqis was the key. “[Shi’ite] unity was the most important factor in your gains against terrorists and their supporters ... Don’t trust America ... It will harm you in the future,” Khamene‘i told Abadi.
Khamene‘i, his closest assistants and the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) High Command did not trust Abadi. Tehran notified Masjedi and other stalwarts in Baghdad. On November 1, 2017, Amiri went to the Marja’iyya (the Shi’ite highest religious jurisprudence) in the holy city of Najaf in order to receive a religious edict and guidelines for managing the enduring conflict with the Kurds. All future negotiations must abide by the strict interpretation of Shi’ite jurisprudence; a constraint aimed to stall any meaningful discussions. The edict effectively deprived Abadi of power to manage Iraq’s crises.
By now, official Baghdad had to cope with Al-Hashd al-Shaabi and their Iranian patrons. By mid-December 2017, Sistani, Sadr, and Abadi urged all Shi’ite militias to continue fighting for Iraq while under State authority. Amiri concurred that in the long term they must be both under the Iraqi State and with a say in the governing of the Iraqi State. Grand Ayatollah Sistani reacted with fury, stating that it was “wrong” for Al-Hashd al-Shaabi to participate in any elections.
Tehran correctly interpreted Ayatollah Sistani’s statement as criticism of the growing Iranian influence in Iraq.
Prime Minister Abadi, however, could not survive a direct confrontation with Tehran and launched complex negotiations with Amiri and, in reality, Maj.-Gen. Soleimani. In mid-January 2018, Abadi announced that in the May 2018 election he would be heading a coalition bloc comprised of his old followers and Al-Hashd al-Shaabi. Abadi’s announcement was harshly criticized by Sadr and his supporters. The next day, Abadi reversed himself and announced that Al-Hashd al-Shaabi would run separately in the May election because he and Amiri disagreed on the conditions for a coalition.
Amiri hardened his position on instructions from Soleimani.
Still, Prime Minister Abadi could not afford to completely alienate Al-Hashd al-Shaabi and their followers. Hence, in early March 2018, he signed a decree that formalized the integration of the force into the Iraqi Armed Forces. That would also put the force under the command of Abadi in his rôle as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. Quds force commander Soleimani would have nothing of this. A few days later, Al-Hashd al-Shaabi spokesman Naim al-Abudi formally thanked Abadi for his good will but stated that they “will not be merged into any of the country’s security institutions”. Abudi reminded the Prime Minister that Al-Hashd al-Shaabi was 140,000-strong, including 122,000 fighters.
Meanwhile, the Shahroudi issue became irrelevant on its own. Back in Autumn 2017, soon after his return from Iraq, he started complaining about weakness and his health. He was diagnosed with “a relatively endemic gastronomical disorder”; that is, cancer. In mid-December 2017, he was sent for specialized treatment in a private hospital in Hanover. However, German politicians demanded his arrest for crimes against humanity. In early January 2018, Shahroudi fled on an Iran Air flight from Hamburg to Tehran. By then, his medical treatment was far from over.
Shahroudi resumed his rôle as the Chairman of the Iranian Expediency Council, but his health continued to deteriorate.
Hence, in the months leading to the Iraqi election, Tehran focused on undermining the Arab Shi’ite identity (the Sadr camp) and the Iraqi political-economic élites (the Abadi camp). Tehran was able to exploit the popular glory of the triumphs over the Kurds and Sunni jihadists, the Al-Hashd al-Shaabi (the Amiri camp) and the immense profits of Shi’ite élites from relations with Iran (mainly the Maliki camp but also the Hakim camp).
Hence, by the time the election took place in mid-May 2018 — the Iraqi Shi’ite population was broken and polarized.
The non-Shi’ite population — mainly Sunni Arabs and Kurds — had long been completely alienated from the concept of Iraq and the legitimacy of Baghdad. The popular grassroots abandonment of the entire concept of Iraq — the state — also manifested itself in the dramatic drop in voter participation from more than 60 percent in previous elections to 44.5 percent in the May 2018 elections.
As the results of the election were becoming clear, Sadr started to discuss the formation of a government.
Sadr did so from his unique position as undisputed political-religious leader of the Shi’ite Arab camp while not a candidate for Prime Minister or any other official position (since he himself did not register as a candidate and thus did not run in the election). This distinction gave Sadr moral authority in the complex negotiations.
Rhetoric notwithstanding, it was clear to all that the new government would be Shi’ite dominated. On May 20, 2018, Ammar al-Hakim predicted the forming “in the next 72 hours” of a coalition government comprised of Sadr’s Sayirun, Amiri’s Fatih, Abadi’s Nasr, and Hakim’s own Hikma blocs. Amiri rushed to call the claim “baseless”. However, Sadr and Amiri held lengthy meetings on the joint formation of what Sadr called “an inclusive government”, “a paternal government”, and a government which “must include the participation of all the winning blocs”. Amiri expressed his support for the principles raised by Sadr and urged that the forming of a government be sped up.
As the results of the election were becoming clear, Brett McGurk, the US Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, rushed to Baghdad to try to salvage the US standing after the millions of CIA bribes did not deliver electoral triumph for Abadi. He met with several Iraqi politicians who impressed the imperative of a Sadr-influenced Shi’ite-dominated government, the extent of Iranian influence, and the irrelevance of the US. Having failed to convince the key Shi’ite parties to empower Abadi as the anti-Sadr/anti-Amiri leader, McGurk traveled to Erbil and Sulaymaniyah in order to convince the Kurds, who had declared boycott of Baghdad politics, to change their mind and join an Abadi-run coalition.
McGurk’s heavy-handed intervention, coming on top the CIA’s bribes and pressure, further infuriated the entire Shi’ite Arab élite.
All this expedited the success of the other foreign intervention in Baghdad: that of Iran. Qassem Soleimani also rushed to Baghdad once Sadr’s victory was confirmed in order to salvage Iran’s preeminence.
Together with Masjedi, Maj.-Gen. Soleimani met repeatedly with all the Shi’ite leaders including Sadr and Abadi. Sadr stressed the crucial significance of retaining Iraq’s unique identity. He also thanked Iran for its help against the Sunni jihadists and expressed hope for a marked increase in the economic and religious relations. Abadi effectively raised hands as to confronting Iran’s dominance and so acknowledged to Soleimani.
Talking to confidants, Abadi expressed little hope that the US would remain in Iraq and somewhat balance the Iranian overwhelming influence. The Shi’ite leaders were in agreement that Soleimani and Masjedi were extremely knowledgeable, forthcoming, and ready to listen to their interlocutors. At the same time, Soleimani was very self-assured and conveyed Tehran’s supremacy. He told all the Shi’ite leaders he met in the second half of May 2018 that Tehran would accept and support any government in Baghdad provided it was Shi’a-dominated, supported the Iranian regional strategy, and was not a US puppet.
None of the Iraqi leaders objected.
The resignation, at least to some extent, of the Shi’ite leadership to subservience to Iran does not mean the disappearance or resolution of the profound differences within Shi’ite Iraq. Nor is there any acceptance of Iran’s rôle among the Sunni Arab, Kurdish, and other minority communities. On the contrary, the pressure wrought by Iran and its key proxies — from Al-Hashd al-Shaabi to key segments of Iraqi Intelligence — only heightens the anxieties of the traditional Shi’ite Arab communities.
The recognition that there was no escape from the Iranian predominance, given the refusal of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Sheikhdoms to help, added to the despair of Shi’a Arab leaders. And hovering above all was the inevitable core crisis over Ayatollah Sistani’s successor when the vital core interests of the pan-Shi’ites and Shi’ite Arabs would clash and prove irreconcilable.
All of these dynamics laid the groundwork for an eruption within the Shi’ite community.
Hence, Kurdish senior intelligence officials warned already in mid-May 2018: “Iraq is on the brink of civil war”. Such a civil war was now virtually inevitable because of the grassroots rejection of “the empowerment and presence of Iranian commanders and leaders within Iraqi politics”. Moreover, any inner-Shi’ite conflagration would likely expand into a wider civil war where the Sunni Arabs and the Kurds would exploit the chaos to free themselves from the Iraqi Shi’ite and Iranian yoke.
There was widespread conviction among the Sunni Arab, Kurdish, and other minority communities that decisive fighting over their own self-identities and survival was imminent. Co-existence between the Shi’ites and the Kurds and Sunni Arabs broke down when the active presence of Iranian-affiliated militias in Iraq became the main instrument for oppressing the non-Shi’ite minorities. In the coming weeks, in other words as the Shi’ite pro-Iran character of the new government in Baghdad become pronounced through June 2018, “Iraq will witness more escalations, and the sectarian tensions will further increase in many cities across the country”.
The impending civil war Iraq would benefit Iran, warned the officials.
In the month following the election, the slide toward a Sadr-led, Iranian-dominated new government only hastened the polarization within, and fracturing of, Iraq’s Shi’ite populace, as well as alienating the Kurds, Sunni Arabs, and other minorities. Smarting from the recent US betrayals of both the Syrian Kurds and the Iraqi Kurds, as well as from Baghdad’s ignoring and rejection of their offers to join a new Iraqi government, Kurdish leaders resumed the quest for stronger self-rule.
Given the repeated violent clashes with Al-Hashd al-Shaabi forces since late September 2017, the prospects of Al-Hashd al-Shaabi having a central rôle in a government in Baghdad was of profound concern to all Kurds. Kurdistan anticipates renewed confrontation, and even military clashes, with Baghdad.
Meanwhile, neither Iran nor Turkey would accept a Kurdish entity and loss of dominance along their borders with Iraq. Both states committed to intervening in order to suppress the ascent of any Kurdish entity. In early June 2018, Kurdish leaders anticipated “a major conflict with Turkey” very soon.
A senior PKK leader warned of the “hot summer” ahead. “There are increasing signs of an imminent full-scale invasion of Iraqi Kurdish territory, including the mountainous Qandil region of northern Iraq, in an attempt to further encircle and strangle the only place of freedom in the region,” he said.
The outcome of this drive would likely determine the future not only of Iraq, but of the greater Middle East. This is because the entire Bilad al-Sham was ready for a widespread eruption of violence; and any insurrection or conflagration in Iraq will provide the sought-after spark.
In early June 2018, Turkey markedly escalated its foray into Iraqi Kurdistan, ostensibly in pursuit of the Kurdish PKK (Kurdish Workers’ Party: Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan). Turkish forces seized vast tracks of land inside northern Iraq. On June 2, 2018, the Turkish forces were already 26 to 27 km deep inside Iraqi territory. Over the next week, they seized several villages and the entire tri-border area with Iran.
On June 7, 2018, Ankara announced that the main objectives of the offensive were “the PKK headquarters” in the Qandil Mountains near the Iranian border. The Turkish army was already holding about 400 sq.km, having captured the Bradost region and entered the Barazgir valley, the gateway to Qandil. The Turkish forward bases established some 30 km inside Iraqi Kurdistan were defined as the “First step toward Qandil”. Meanwhile, the Turkish military also established 11 bases along the 23km-long-border in order to prevent possible infiltration into Turkey. On June 8, 2018, Ankara committed to “clearing the PKK from Qandil, Sinjar and Makhmour with an extensive military operation”.
On June 11, 2018, Turkish Pres. Reçep Tayyip Erdo?an announced the launch of “anti-terror operations deep inside Iraqi territory” in order to finally resolve the PKK problem. “We’ve started anti-terror operations in Qandil and Sinjar,” Erdo?an declared. “Qandil will not be a threat, a source of terror for our people any more. We will drain the terror swamp in Qandil as we did in Afrin, Jarablus, Azaz, al-Bab [in northern Syria]. ... Our goal is to drain the biggest of the swamps.”
From the very beginning, Baghdad gave its consent to the Turkish incursion with some Iraqi generals cheering the destruction of the Kurds which they could not accomplish because of lack of military capabilities. Official Washington also endorsed the Turkish incursion. “Operations by Turkey in Iraq are done through close cooperation with the government of Iraq,” explained Col. Sean Ryan of Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR). “Turkey is a close ally ... and the Coalition does not foresee conflict with our mission to defeat Daesh [DI’ISH/IS].”
Most important for Ankara has been Tehran’s understanding of, and support for, the anti-Kurdish operations.
“The second phase [of the Turkish incursion] is a Qandil operation to be carried out in cooperation with Iraq and Iran,” Turkey stressed on June 7, 2018. Ankara is looking anew at a regional operation stretching from the Mediterranean to the Iranian border.
“Manbij is set to be the first step in establishing the ‘safe corridor’ that will encompass eastern Euphrates regions in Syria at a depth of 30-40 kilometers along Turkey’s southern borders ... until it converges with the safe zones created in northern Iraq.” On June 12, 2-18, Turkish Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli noted that Iran declined to join the Turkish operations but was supporting the Turkish offensive against the PKK including the operations in the Qandil Mountain range near the Iranian border. “Our offer to Iran was to carry out the operation together. Iran, in its remarks at least, has voiced very important support,” Canikli stressed.
The Kremlin, on the other hand, was most alarmed by these developments.
Any eruption in Iraq — be it a Shi’ite civil war or escalation of the clash with the Kurds — would set the entire region aflame. Such violence would inevitably reverse the strategic achievements and vital interests of Russia. Therefore, Russia initiated an effort to improve the military coordination and cooperation of Syria, Iraq and Iran in order to reduce the chances for accidental eruption. Related: Why There Won’t Be An OPEC For Battery Metals
On June 14, 2018, senior military commanders from Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Russia met in Baghdad “to discuss regional security and their continued cooperation in the battle against terrorism”. Russian senior officials noted that “the representatives of the four countries emphasized the need to continue and expand cooperation in [the] fight against terrorism”. The Kremlin hoped that the Russian military retained sufficient influence to restrain the local forces from escalating localized conflagration, as well as to guarantee their conforming to Russia’s understandings with other neighboring countries.
By mid-June 2018, the crisis in Baghdad was far from over. But it was clear to all that the new government would be predominantly Shi’ite, Iran-dominated and anti-American.
Karim al-Nuri, a senior leader at the Fatih Alliance and Al-Hashd al-Shaabi, noted that the new coalition “conforms with Iran” and “serves the interests of all stakeholders, including Iran”. The Iraqi Communist Party, part of Sadr’s Al-Sayirun Alliance, issued a communiqué explaining that the alliance with Al-Hashd al-Shaabi was agreed to in order “to help prevent the country from being exposed to serious dangers that would intensify conflicts across Iraq”. The Communist Party’s communiqué contrasted Sadr’s conciliatory move with “some Iraqi political parties” which kept “resorting to measures that would endanger the country in an attempt to prevent conditions for a smooth and peaceful transition of power”.
The Communist Party’s communiqué hinted at outgoing Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who was still trying to propose a coalition in which he would be the compromise Prime Minister in order to deprive both Sadr and Amiri of power. Initially, Abadi believed that the US would support his initiative if only to block the ascent of both Sadr and Amiri.
However, by mid-June 2018, Abadi realized that there was no chance to prevent the Iran-supported Shi’ite bloc from rising to power. Hence, on June 14, 2018, Abadi urged all key leaders to convene after the 20th and bring the crisis to an end.
“I extend an invitation to political blocs to hold a high-profile meeting after the end Eid al-Fitr feast, at a place to be named based on consultations to protect the homeland and citizens, ensure the soundness of the political process and democratic gains and to agree on specific mechanisms to hasten the formation of constitutional institutions in the best form possible,” he wrote to Sadr, Amiri, and other leaders.
Abadi called for a “unified stance” of all pertinent leaders in order to adopt “the next program to govern the country”. Tehran tacitly endorsed the initiative only if it would lead to the consolidation in power of the Shi’ite bloc.
By Yossef Bodansky via GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs.
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