Caught between US and Iran, Iraqis face choices in elections

The US and Iran have long been using Iraq as a proxy in competing for regional interests.

Iraqi protesters marked the second anniversary of anti-government protests in Baghdad [File: Saba Kareem/Reuters]

A seemingly perpetual battlefield caught under the tension between the United States and Iran, Iraq goes to elections at a time when the domestic discontent towards the eastern neighbour and criticism towards the American presence are at their height, paving way for an uncertain future of the US-Iran relationship that has haunted Iraq for years.

The early elections, a response from interim Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi to the mass protest movement in 2019, would in a way serve as a testimony to how Iraq perceives Iran and the US, and at large, the relationships with the country’s two most important partners.

The US and Iran have long been using Iraq as a proxy in competing for regional interests. The assassinations in January in 2020 of General Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, one being the top Iranian commander and the other being the then-deputy head of the Popular Mobilisation Forces, opened the curtain for a series of tit for tat escalatory confrontations between the US and Iran with sanctions and rockets – all happening on the Iraqi soil.

Al-Kadhimi has taken an active role in trying to mediate, and the tension between the US and Iran has since abated. Still, there is a possibility for escalation, and much of that depends on how these two countries see each other and what stance the next Baghdad government would take, according to analysts.

“The tension between Iran and US peaked in 2020, after which it somewhat eased, but there is still potential for Iraq to fall back into a venue of conflict,” said Sajad Jiyad, an Iraqi politics researcher at the Century Foundation.

Kurdsih Peshmerga soldiers wait to vote in Sulaimaniyah city [Dana Taib Menmy/Al Jazeera]

Iraqis, oftentimes the victims of the Iran-US tension, are growing increasingly discontent towards these two countries’ influence on their country. When the protests broke out in October 2019 partially due to the government’s inability to provide basic services such as electricity, the protesters soon turned their attention to structural social reform, including calling for an end to Iranian and American interference in Iraq.

Demonstrators were chanting “We Want a Nation” and “No to America, no to Iran”, while angry protesters attacked the Iranian consulates in Karbala and Najaf, in a rare united call in a deeply divided society to reject Iranian and American influence in the country.

Even though the protests have since died down after a brutal crackdown and an unforgiving pandemic, protesters’ will to repudiate foreign influence persists.

Yet, Iraq’s bittersweet relationship with the US and Iran means it is an almost impossible game for Baghdad to balance its interests with Tehran and Washington.

With the scheduled parliamentary elections on Sunday, how to strike that balance while securing its own country is inevitably to become one of the thorniest issues the new government will have to face.

Iran has taken an active role in reasserting influence in the elections by backing a number of hardline Iranian-aligned groups, including the Fateh alliance electoral bloc which hosts the Popular Mobilization Forces umbrella group.

Most recently, Hussein Muanis, openly affiliated with the Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah, one of the US-designated “terrorist” organisations, entered the parliamentary run, signalling Iran’s growing and overt influence.

Iran’s grip on the elections, however, is not a sure bet.

Among the Shia, which constitute a majority of Iraq’s population, a rift between these pro-Iran groups and the Sadrist movement led by Muqtada al-Sadr, who vocally opposes Iranian and American influence, might further complicate Iran’s role in Iraq.

Analysts say, however, despite the Sadrist Movement’s opposition to Iranian influence, al-Sadr knows well that a coalition government cannot be in existence without Iran’s blessing and support.

“Sadrist can’t form its own government without a coalition, and years of experiences have taught them that working with Iran is an unavoidable part,” said Jiyad.

Halsho Bahadin, a ballot observer from the New Generation opposition party, monitors voting in Sulaimaniyah [Dana Taib Menmy/Al Jazeera]

‘Tainted reputation’

Meanwhile, the pro-Iranian militia groups orchestrated a targeted assassination campaign that has killed dozens of activists following the street protests and has alienated many Iraqis, even in southern Iraq where Iran normally retains its loyal base. Many protesters now see Iran as a threat to the betterment of the country.

“Iran-aligned groups’ reputation has been tainted because many Iraqis hold them responsible for violence against peaceful protesters, do not approve of their dragging Iraq into confrontation with the United States, and see them as part of a corrupt system,” said Sarhang Hamasaeed, director of Middle East Programs at the US Institute of Peace.

However, analysts say whether that discontent would be reflected in the election is not necessarily clear due to a potentially low voter turnout.

“One shouldn’t overstate the resentment Iraqis have towards Iran,” said Jiyad. “The election is not going to get high turnout, which means the elites are still going to pick up votes, and those close to Iran will also get votes.”

Iraq’s entangled relationship with Iran means Iraq’s wellbeing is deeply associated with the latter, without which Iraq could lose the supply of food and electricity. The same cannot be said of the US, according to analysts.

“Iran and Iraq’s bilateral relationship is crucial for both countries – it is deeply grounded in history and will continue despite the threat of boycotts, sanctions, and war,” said Jiyad.

The US had played a dominant role in Iraqi politics up until 2011 when then-President Barack Obama withdrew most of the American troops. Even though the fight against the ISIL (ISIS) armed group brought some troops back to the country, their presence in Iraq has drawn incremental criticism among Iraqis after the effective defeat of the group in 2017.

The Biden administration has announced that it would withdraw all combat forces from Iraq by the end of the year, although many analysts have said such withdrawal is simply rhetorical given the fact that the US has only been playing auxiliary roles in aiding the Iraqi forces to fight ISIL (ISIS).

Despite Iran’s animosity towards the US, however, its goal of completely expelling the Americans is “reality clashing with rhetoric”, some experts say. To continue quelling domestic insurgencies is still a priority across sectarian groups.

“You can’t get any lower than 2,500 troops – lower than that would be zero,” said Hamzeh Hadad, an Iraqi politics researcher. “The US’s presence in Iraq is already dwindling to a trickle.”

No matter how the elections play out, however, the potential coalition government down the line will not necessarily change how the US and Iran deal with each other – confrontations might still arise, and without a strong governance, Iraq will be again at the palms of the powers in the region, say analysts.

“The election definitely plays a role in what kind of government we will see in Baghdad and how they will deal with both countries,” said Jiyad. “But the bulk of how Iran and US tension could play out depends on those two countries and how well they deal with each other.”

Such sentiment is shared among common Iraqis, too. “We need to have a strong government – as long as we have one, then there will be less influence,” Jowad, a resident in Baghdad, said. “Although I’m not sure if we’ll ever have one.”

Source: Al Jazeera