Iraq has always played a defining role in the destiny of the Middle East, but its sovereignty is being threatened by its all-powerful neighbour and the US.

With such a storied and fabled history, Iraq has long been viewed as a land that possesses inherent worth and value. Whether that value was utilised by the people who inhabit the land or whether it was exploited by a multitude of different empires, Iraq, as it's called today, has always played a central and defining role in the destiny of the Middle East.

In more recent years, however, it would appear that Iraq’s own destiny has been reduced to little more than becoming the plaything of regional and global powers, its policies haphazardly put together with no clear indication as to how it advances the country’s interests.

The only clear thing is that Iraqis themselves rarely see any benefit to their leaders’ decisions, which always appear to be geared towards either pleasing Iran or appeasing the United States.

Tendrils of Iranian influence

At the outset, it bears dispelling any illusions that Iraq is a sovereign country that executes its own decisions in a way that is comparable to its peers internationally.

One can never emphasise this point enough, particularly as the mainstream media seems intent on framing Iraq’s policy decisions as being in its national interest rather than serving the interests of foreign powers.

But should this be any surprise considering the origins of the vast majority of Iraq’s political class? Every prime minister Iraq has ever had since the disastrous and illegal US-led invasion in 2003 has been from a political party that was incubated, financed, and empowered by Iran, whether it was the Dawa Party’s Nouri al Maliki and Haidar al Abadi, or today’s incumbent from the former Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) Adel Abdul Mahdi.

If the influence were limited to only the prime minister’s office, there would be some hope at using parliament and other ministries to negate some of his power in a system of checks and balances.

However, one need only look at the pro-Iran Badr Organisation’s control of the interior ministry and therefore of most of the police and security services to see the extent of the rot and how Iraq’s policies are being geared towards serving primarily Iranian interests while placating the odd American outburst, such as when the US accused Iraqi Shia militias of attacking Saudi oil infrastructure in May.

That said, the United States can hardly complain when they supplied these Iranian proxies with airpower in the fight against the Daesh terrorist group. 

Rather than insisting on supporting only a multi-ethnic and cross-sectarian force, the US Air Force conducted numerous close air support missions on behalf of these militants, going so far as to decimate the civilians they claimed to want to protect.

In March 2017, for instance, the US conducted an airstrike in the mostly Sunni Arab city of Mosul on behalf of Iraqi forces staffed by sectarian militants and blotted out the lives of more than 200 people in a storm of fire and collapsing rubble.

Ever since these Iran-backed militants banded together as part of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) and were formally recognised by the Iraqi government as a distinct branch of the armed forces, pro-Tehran actors have been legitimising themselves within the military sphere too.

Militias still fight using their insignias, but they have access to a portion of the defence budget, could now legally operate their military bases, and had access to US-supplied armaments. This is obviously contradictory considering Washington’s blacklisting of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organisation and these militants’ links to the IRGC are open.

Even economic decisions are calibrated towards serving Iranian interests. Iraq’s energy policy, for instance, is an international laughing stock as one of the most energy-rich countries on the planet has to import energy from its neighbour and suzerain, Iran. 

The US continues to grant sanctions waivers to allow Iraq to trade with Iran, which Tehran has exploited masterfully to continue to ward off the worst of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign.

Iraqi markets are also dominated by Iranian produce and goods, with even advanced exporters like Turkey not allowed to export pasta, eggs and other staples. The excuse? Iraq wants to boost its domestic production. That is, of course, commendable were it not for the fact that Iraqi politicians have allowed markets to be flooded by substandard and cheap goods from Iran, destroying domestic production and crippling the labour force.

How Iraq intends to produce staple goods domestically without the capacity or capability to even begin to wean itself off cheap Iranian products is anyone’s guess.

Balancing Iranian needs with American anger

With all the recent sabre-rattling and gunboat diplomacy between Tehran and Washington, the US is perhaps finally beginning to understand just how weak and vulnerable it is in Iraq.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last month paid a visit to Baghdad and, within a short time, Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi announced that he would be dissolving the independent militias within the PMF and pressing them into service with the formal Iraqi army brigades and battalions.

However, that does not change how these groups operate, and in fact, makes them even more dangerous. Instead of being distinctly identifiable within the overall defence ministry chain of command, they will now be formally merged into it in much the same way the Badr Organisation has entirely co-opted the domestic security forces to serve its political agenda. 

IRGC-sponsored militants will now still be loyal to Tehran while wearing Baghdad-supplied uniforms and firing American-made guns.

No one can seriously believe the US is dumb enough to think that such a move will ameliorate the militias’ dominance and control on behalf of Iran’s interests, even with a man like President Donald Trump in power.

However, the US needs to appear to at least be doing something, if only to show its uneasy allies in the region such as Saudi Arabia that it is still there and can still pull strings.

In the meantime, the lack of appetite for war and Trump’s isolationist agenda will mean that, short of direct attacks against US personnel and not drones, the status quo in Iraq will continue and Baghdad will leverage its anti-Daesh credentials and counterterrorism alliance with Washington to continue to bypass American sanctions and to perpetuate its role as Iran’s abundant back garden.

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