Iraq’s prime minister has managed to avoid acquiescing to a move by pro-Iranian factions in his government who wanted to retaliate against President Donald Trump’s so-called “Muslim Ban”. The struggle shows the difficult position the Iraqi leader finds himself in – pulled between his most powerful neighbour and the United States under Trump.
For Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi, the situation had looked difficult on Sunday night. At a meeting of the most powerful Shia leaders and their representatives, he faced calls to respond in kind to the ban affecting seven mainly Muslim nations, including Iraq.
Trump’s order had triggered angry reactions among Shia politicians in Iraq. Those who are closest to Iran were insisting that Iraq should retaliate with a ban on US nationals, just like Tehran did the day before.
However, the prime minister warned the Shia leaders that a ban on Americans would jeopardise US support for the war on Daesh. His warnings meant that the Iranian lobby and Shia politicians were forced to shelve their disappointment for fear of losing US support in a war that only recently they were losing against a non-state extremist organisation.
While Shia leaders agreed that the US order was unfair, it was understood that Iran’s allies had no alternative plan on how to finish the battle in Mosul, the last major city under the control of Daesh militants, without US help.
Al-Abadi said at a news conference on Tuesday that Iraq was best served by preserving the US alliance. “We are…in a battle and we don’t want to harm the national interest.”
Iran’s allies are, nevertheless, preparing to press their cause again should relations deteriorate further between Washington and Iran after the battle of Mosul, said Ahmed Younis, a professor of international relations at the University of Baghdad.
One prominent Shia member of parliament warned the situation could change if the ban was extended.
“The Americans promised to review the ban in three months,” said Hassan Khalati, a lawmaker close to Ammar Al-Hakim, a prominent Shia cleric and politician who hosted Sunday’s meeting. “If it is maintained, there will be [further] pressure” on the government to retaliate, he said.
In a sign of lingering dissatisfaction a show of hands in parliament on Monday signalled that the majority of lawmakers would have preferred a retaliatory travel ban. The show of hands was purely symbolic because Shia leaders had already backed down at the meeting the day earlier.
The new American president has indicated a cooling of relations with Iran, unlike the previous administration of Barack Obama which reached a deal providing for curbs on the Iranian nuclear programme in return for easing international sanctions.
Washington ratcheted up pressure on Iran yesterday, putting sanctions on 13 individuals and 12 entities days after the White House put Tehran “on notice” over a ballistic missile test.
Iran’s dominant influence in Iraqi politics is pervasive and can be seen all over Iraq. Iraq’s government-backed Shia jihadists largely all swear loyalty to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and can even be seen in Mosul carrying pictures of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, showing their loyalty is to an Iranian leader and not an Iraqi.
However, and although they are mostly loyal to Iran, Shia politicians also regularly require the aid of the United States, whom Iran is infamous for branding as the “Great Satan”. Iranian interests in Iraq have therefore been under an air power umbrella provided by their apparent archenemy.
But the US travel curbs – which bar the admission of people from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen – fuelled the arguments of pro-Iranian political factions who seek to bolster Tehran’s influence at the expense of Washington.
Iranian officials state their support for Iraq in the war on Daesh and have several high profile military personnel directing Iraqi troops, such as IRGC Qods Force commander General Qassem Soleimani, but make no public comments on US-Iraqi affairs to avoid causing embarrassment for Baghdad.
“Why should we trust the new American administration?” asked Iskandar Witwit, a lawmaker from Maliki’s bloc, the biggest in parliament. “We have the right to get closer to Iran as a secure ally in order to preserve our national interests.”
Trump’s travel ban has “definitely muddied the waters” between the two nations, Witwit added.
One veteran Iraqi politician, who declined to be named, also pointed out that Baghdad’s relationship with Washington was not a direct reflection of the assistance that has poured into Iraq.
“When you look at the level of military and financial support Iraq gets from Washington you would expect it to be as close an ally of the US as Jordan or Morocco,” he said.
“And yet, Iraq appears like a reluctant ally of the US; we rarely hear Iraqi officials praising the Americans when talking to an Iraqi audience,” he said, suggesting this is because Iraqi politicians and officials follow the lead of the Iranians.
For now, however, Al-Abadi has pushed back the factions that are more ardently pro-Iranian than he himself is.
At the meeting on Sunday, Al-Abadi won the argument over those who wanted retaliation with the critical backing of Al-Hakim, who chairs the National Alliance, an umbrella for the main Shia groups, backed by Iran.
Reuters cited one of Al-Hakim’s aides as saying that the Shia leader was convinced of the pressing need to defeat Daesh with American military might.
In particular, Al-Hakim’s critical support allowed Al-Abadi to resist pressure exerted by representatives of the most radical Shia jihadist groups within Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), paramilitary units trained mainly by Iran, who wanted Iraq to follow Iran’s lead in imposing a retaliatory ban on Americans.
“Iraq should not become a ground where Iran and the US settle scores,” said MP Khalati, explaining the opinion of Al-Hakim, the heir of a wealthy clerical dynasty whose large membership pay a tithe on their incomes in order to finance the clerical family’s enterprises.
“Iran is supporting Iraq and the US is supporting Iraq, our interest is to get rid of terrorism,” he said.
After the meeting, Iraq’s Foreign Minister Ibrahim Al-Jaafari asked the US ambassador to Iraq to convey a request to reconsider the ban, arguing for the need to cooperate against Daesh and saying no Iraqi was involved in terrorist attacks carried out on US soil, despite the fact that Daesh is headed by Iraqis, most notable of whom is Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the organisation’s self-proclaimed caliph, himself.