How outside help can break Iraq deadlock

Salah Nasrawi , Thursday 14 Apr 2022

In order to resolve its political crisis, Iraq may need foreign help, but that could only work if external actors stopped affecting the conflict, writes Salah Nasrawi

How outside help can break Iraq deadlock

Hadi Al-Amiri, the leader of the Iran-backed Shia militia Badr Organisation, is the kind of Iraqi politician who is used to bragging. Last week he boastfully accused the British government of meddling in Iraq’s politics.

“We have information from a foreign intelligence service that confirms your constant intervention in Iraq’s political situation,” Al-Amiri told the British ambassador in Baghdad Mark Bryson-Richardson during a meeting.

Even by the chaotic standards of Iraqi politics that was a stunning statement. Al-Amiri, who has no official status, was not only discussing Iraq’s government crisis with a foreign envoy but also accusing that envoy’s government of interfering in Iraq’s affairs.

The next day, when Al-Amiri received both the Italian and the German ambassadors to Iraq, his office issued a bizarre statement declaring that their talks centred on the country’s chronic political paralysis.

It is not unusual for Iraqi politicians to have talks with foreign leaders and diplomats reviewing the country’s endless stalemate. Some even travel to neighbouring countries to build trans-regional connections.

The irony, however, is that this tendency ignores the significant role of foreign interference in exacerbating the messy dynamics of Iraq’s post-US invasion politics. It also raises the question of whether tackling the role of external actors could be the solution to Iraq’s problems.

Since the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime, outside powers have been deeply involved in shaping the transition in Iraq, showing the extent to which the country straddles between multiple, regional, and world powers.

While the ruling cliques who run Baghdad’s dysfunctional government are largely blamed for the rot from within that keeps Iraq broken and on edge, external actors have their share of responsibility for such failure.

Some of these foreign governments were so deeply entangled in the standoff to the extent that they have turned the beleaguered nation into a playground for their geopolitical interests or a battlefield for their proxy wars.

Among the main countries caught up in the Iraqi crisis are Iran and the United States. Tehran and Washington have been supporting the opposite sides of the conflict for many years.

Over nearly two decades, Iran has cemented its influence in Iraq and exercised a muscular policy reflecting its wider strategic objectives of building a political, economic, security and cultural power base after the US invasion.

Iran’s hegemony over Iraq is now taken for granted thanks to the proxies it has employed to extend its power and political influence and to fend off resistance to its interference.

The United States, meanwhile, is still actively involved in Iraq despite the Biden administration policy of scaling down the US military mission to fight the Islamic State (IS) terror group.

Nearly 12 years after it pulled out most of its combat troops in the wake of the 2003 invasion, the United States still maintains a powerful military presence ostensibly to prevent a resurgence of IS.

While the US counterterrorism mission includes training the Iraqi armed forces and providing them with badly needed intelligence to help deter future attacks, its military power corresponds to the influence it can exercise in the fields of command, control and communication over Iraq’s military.

Perhaps more importantly, the United States is playing a leading political role in Iraq’s institutions through the two countries’ bilateral “strategic partnership”. It exercises remarkable political and diplomatic influence in Iraq with an unparalleled network of domestic, regional and international partners.

Washington’s numerous assets permanently or temporarily deployed to various spheres and sectors in the country seriously hamper Iraq’s ability to disengage without paying a heavy political price.

Iraq also remains caught in regional rivalries raging across the Middle East, leaving the battered nation little capacity to chart a way free of the crossfire.

The ongoing conflict in Iraq has fallen to a certain extent along regional sectarian lines, with many Middle East Sunni heavyweights lending support to Sunni Arabs and Kurds.

Unlike Iran, which exercises “direct” influence in Iraqi politics, some Arab Gulf countries and Turkey are engaging with leaders of the country’s Sunni community through rituals signalling interests in Iraq’s events.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is used to publicly hosting Iraqi Kurdish and Sunni politicians in his plush presidential complex in Ankara to demonstrate his support to leaders of the two communities on different levels.

In February, Erdogan received the President of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Nechirvan Barzani and a Sunni delegation led by Parliament Speaker Mohamed Al-Halbousi who is leading the main Sunni political groups in the new assembly.

On the other hand, the United Nations has been a major actor in shaping Iraq’s transition and its UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) has never been innocent of affecting the dramatic events of the last 20 years.

As far as the current government crisis is concerned, UNAMI has played a key role in pushing for and organising the troubled election in October. Yet it has failed to help in resolving the country’s gridlock though its mandate to facilitate Iraq’s transition and help Iraqis achieve recovery.

Now, Iraq faces an uncertain 2022 as the conflict over forming a new government worsens rapidly and significant tensions persist. The crisis has sharply escalated the political instability in which Iraq has been embroiled for two decades.

It had been hoped that the early parliamentary election of October 2021 would be an opportunity to stifle the ruling cliques’ control of the main levers of power, but that has not been translated into political s-tability or badly needed reforms.

Iraq’s parliament has failed three times to vote for a president or name a prime minister after the Iran-backed alliance blocked the vote in a setback for a coalition assembled by Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr.

Iraq has plunged deeper into an abyss as the 6 April deadline by Iraq’s High Federal Court to elect a president was not met, meaning the current caretaker government will continue to run the country and the start of a constitutional logjam.

Ultimately, Iraq appears as deadlocked as ever in its quest to end the cycle of conflicts and political divisions that have marred its national polity since 2003. The root cause of this blunder is the ruling political class who are failing to remove domestic impediments to progress.

Yet, sucked into all the surrounding external conflicts and blatant interference in its domestic affairs, it leaves open the question of whether a much needed political breakthrough in Iraq can be achieved by foreign actors who stake out aggressive roles.

Of course, inviting external actors to help in breaking Iraq’s deadlock is by no means an optimal, or even plausible solution, but reversing the effects of their blatant interference could work.

What is clear is that Iraq’s new government is entangled in regional conflicts, mainly the US-Iran standoff, Iran’s nuclear programme crisis and its regional influence, as well as Turkey’s ambitions in the regional geopolitical competition.

While resolving all these conflicts in order to help Iraq chart its way to avoid being caught in regional rivalry is still in question, attempts to readjust the external powers’ strategies may help.

These external powers should realise that Iraq’s crisis has reached a dead end and intensifying the face-off between opposing parties could translate into fighting, adding to regional instability.

Therefore, rather than risking the region falling into the grip of greater violence triggered by Iraq’s conflict, regional and world powers should take at least partial responsibility to stop the country’s total failure.

One obvious question is how the outside actors can help while they themselves are on the frontlines of the conflict in Iraq. One key step is that these powers should transform their meddling in Iraq into influence to force the opposing sides into agreement.

With such outside pressure, it may become possible for Iraq’s embattled factions themselves to forge a compromise on forming a new government and then move the country’s broken transition forward.

In the absence of a tangible, concrete and a concerted strategy by the international community to address Iraq’s crisis, stopping the country becoming a playground for external interests remains the best global and regional powers can do.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 April, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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