Shortly after the results of the Iraqi elections on 12 May began emerging last week, the US treasury designated an Iraqi politician and banker as a global terrorist for funnelling money to the Lebanese group Hizbullah.
To many Iraqis, the move to blacklist Aras Habib on charges of smuggling Iranian money to proxies of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard through his Al-Bilad Islamic Bank was hardly news.
In 2004, an arrest warrant was issued by the US occupation authorities in Iraq against Habib, a close associate at the time of US-backed politician Ahmed Chalabi, for allegedly passing intelligence to Iran.
He was never arrested or tried, and he is believed to have spent years in Iran until the US troop withdrawal from Iraq in 2011.
The big surprise, however, is that Habib was at the top of the list of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi in the recent elections, since Al-Abadi is seen as a rare ally of Washington in Baghdad.
When the results were announced last Friday, Habib was declared as the seventh winner on Al-Abadi’s ticket in Baghdad.
Washington has reimposed sanctions against Iran after its withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, but it is not clear if the Trump administration was aware that Habib was running for the Iraqi parliament as part of Al-Abadi’s bloc.
However, the move illustrates once again the failure of successive US administrations since the 2003-led invasion of the country to understand the context in which they are acting in Iraq and their propensity not to look before they leap.
Put in a wider context, the blacklisting of Habib and the Trump administration’s eagerness to see Al-Abadi reelected clearly show the extent to which Washington is again missing the point in Iraq.
Washington’s new sanctions against Tehran are part of the Trump administration’s broader strategy to isolate Iran and to contain its influence in the Middle East, starting with Iraq.
The strategy which was disclosed by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday shows that in addition to its demand to eliminate its nuclear programme Washington wants Tehran to end its support for its regional allies.
The State Department said earlier that the aim of the strategy is to “bring together a lot of countries from around the world” with the goal of confronting Iran’s destabilising activities.
In his sweeping list of a dozen demands for Iranian policy reversals, Popmeo spelled out, among other groups in Lebanon, Gaza and Yemen, Iraqi Iran-sponsored Shia militias which he accused of infiltrating and undermine the Iraqi security forces and jeopardise Iraq’s sovereignty.
However, in order for any US bid to roll back Iran’s influence to succeed, the Trump administration should begin with Iraq and first and foremost with enlisting the cooperation and collaboration of a friendly new government in Baghdad.
But as the results of Iraq’s elections began to be released last week, showing that a less friendly government might emerge following the 12 May elections, doubts have begun to cloud US plans to contain Iran through Iraq.
In a surprising result, the main victor was the influential Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, whose On the Move Alliance, a coalition of Al-Sadr’s own Islamic-oriented faction and communist and nationalist groups, defeated a coalition led by US favourite Al-Abadi, who finished third.
Al-Fatah, or the Conquest Alliance, a coalition of mostly Shia para-military groups led by the Iranian-backed militia leader Hadi Al-Amiri, finished second.
Al-Sadr’s victory in the elections and Al-Abadi’s unexpectedly poor third-place finish were a disappointment to Washington, which must now deal with an Iraqi government chosen by an anti-American firebrand cleric.
Even if a small chance remains that Al-Abadi will join with Al-Sadr in the formation of the new government and will probably stay on as prime minister, it will be hard for Washington to make a deal with a long-time nemesis of the United States such as Al-Sadr.
Furthermore, the Al-Fatah list of Iranian ally Al-Amiri, a political umbrella for the Iran-backed Shia militia, will be a formidable force both inside and outside the government, especially if it forges a broader Shia coalition with former prime minister Nouri Al-Maliki, another ally of Iran.
This pro-Iran alliance, which will have a combined total of 73 members in the 329-seat parliament, should make Washington less hopeful about the possibility of a friendly government in Baghdad that would be able to ease the path to further tightening the noose around Tehran.
Some lobbyists and pundits have suggested that the Trump administration may resort to putting maximum pressure on the Iraqi political factions, but it is unlikely to achieve buy-in from any new government in Baghdad to toe its anti-Iran line.
Take the case of blacklisting the head of the Bilad Islamic Bank case, for example. Habib who was intelligence chief of Chalabi’s Pentagon funded the Iraqi National Congress (INC) which spearheaded the US-backed exiled opposition groups against former dictator Saddam Hussein had turned against the Americans soon after the 2003 invasion.
Numerous reports in the US media in 2004 quoted CIA and FBI officials as charging Habib with passing American classified intelligence on Iran to Tehran.
The Al-Bilad Islamic Bank, founded by Chalabi himself, has long been known as one of the key instruments for channelling Iranian money abroad.
Nevertheless, Habib was a top candidate on the same list as Al-Abadi’s bloc, which US Iraq strategists had convinced themselves would make up the next government in Iraq and help the administration to isolate Iran.
Another fool’s errand demonstrated in the Trump administration’s pinball trajectory was Washington’s underestimation of the Shia militias, which will now combine their military force with their newly acquired political power to torpedo any attempt to contain Iran.
To be sure, the Shia militias are among Iran’s key assets in Iraq, and they are seen as Tehran’s instrument to consolidate its influence in the country and even beyond. Some of their leaders have also warned that they will join Iran in its struggle with the United States.
Washington is also betting on dividing the Iraqi Shias, who still care more about their political empowerment in a hostile regional environment than allying themselves with the Trump administration to roll back Iran’s influence in Iraq.
What is even more worrying is Washington’s attempt to influence the results of the elections in Iraq without bothering about the future of democracy and stability in the war-battered nation.
For an administration that is itself being investigated for cooperation with foreigners suspected of being involved in the last US presidential elections, attempts to influence the Iraqi elections could be routine, but the impact of the collusion in Iraq will be devastating.
Iraq’s dysfunctional political system was imposed by the US occupation authority after the 2003 invasion. It has not created a democracy in Iraq, but instead has given rise to sect-based politics and a corrupt political elite that has thrust the country into confusion.
The Trump administration’s attempts to meddle in Iraqi politics for the purpose of advancing its wishful-thinking strategy on Iran leaves little doubt as to where the fantasies and myths of the American planners stand on the future of this beleaguered nation.
From the perspective of the United States and its regional allies, Iran could be a threat, but escalation against Iran can end up bolstering its proxies in Iraq by allowing them to appeal to their Shiaism, which will be a recipe for growing sectarian tensions.
Iraq’s recent elections were certainly imperfect, and in a way farcical, because they simply recycled the same smothering ruling elite in Baghdad.
By continuing to manipulate Iraq’s political system, Washington will sabotage the country’s democratic opportunities and its stability.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 May 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly with headline: America gets Iraq wrong again