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Caught in the middle?
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 18 - 04 - 2019

US President Donald Trump's classification of Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist group has sparked fears among many Iraqis that their country may emerge as a potential field of confrontation between Tehran and Washington.
The Trump administration has taken the unprecedented step of officially designating the IRGC as a “foreign terrorist organisation”, a move which imposes wide-ranging economic and travel sanctions on the group as well as organisations, companies and individuals with ties to it.
Yet, in essence the decision is seen as an attempt by the United States to force Iran to abandon its policy of interfering in Middle East proxy conflicts, including the one in neighbouring Iraq.
In a broader sense, the administration's move is meant to hit Iran's nerve centre in Iraq and specifically to punish the Iraqi Shia militias and politicians who are supported by Iran.
Therefore, there are concerns in Iraq that the US-Iranian standoff may increase tensions between Washington and Baghdad, deepen communal divisions in Iraq, and even trigger a wider regional conflict that could cost Iraq dearly.
In the absence of a robust and coherent Iraqi national security strategy, the US-Iranian standoff is likely to impact Iraq, and it could be hard for the Iraqi Shia-led government to get out of the middle of the US-Iran conflict.
With the assumption that it is only a matter of time before the US-Iranian conflict evolves, the most persistent and urgent question remains how the Iraqi government will react.
The truth is hard to discern in Iraq these days. The ruling political class is opaque, and there are few ways to figure out what its members are up to even on such strategic matters.
Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi has warned that the US decision “could have an adverse effect on Iraq and the entire region”. He said that Iraq could not afford to be the site of conflict between rival powers and that Iraq would continue to invest in its relationship with both the US and Iran despite the White House designation.
Yet, one can hardly find a unanimous or bold reaction from the Iraqi leadership to the smouldering crisis next door, raising more questions about Iraq's weak and clumsy response to the conflict on its border.
The ramifications of the Iranian-US standoff on Iraq have been well documented. The US Treasury marked Iran's Al-Quds Force, a component of the IRGC which is operative in Iraq, as a “supporter of terrorism” in 2007. But the consequences of the IRGC sanctions are expected to be even more dire.
There are some 5,200 US troops stationed in Iraq after they participated in the war to fight the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group. Iran, on the other hand, enjoys the loyalty of several powerful Shia militias, including the Kataib Hizbullah, the Asaib Ahl Al-Haq, and the Badr Organisation.
The presence of such a large American force in juxtaposition with Iran's proxies makes Iraq one of the most dangerous places in the world as the two countries vie for power and exchange accusations and threats.
Iran's top leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei urged Iraq on 6 April to ensure that the US troops leave Iraq “as soon as possible”. The unprecedented demand, made to Abdul-Mahdi during a visit to Tehran, highlighted Iran's strong influence in Baghdad and the centrality of the US military presence in Iraq to Iran.
Meanwhile, Iraq's political leaders have been sharply divided over the future of the US presence in their country. While the country's Sunni and Kurdish communities are eager to see the Americans stay, Iran's Shia allies are pushing for the US troops to exit.
Iraq's Kurdish President Barham Salih has said he does not see any “serious” opposition to the presence of the US forces in Iraq. He told the US Associated Press (AP) news agency in an interview that there was a “general consensus” that Iraq needed continued collaboration with the forces, which he said could go on “as long as is necessary”.
Iraqi Sunni Parliamentary Speaker Mohamed Al-Halbousi has said that proposals from the Shia parliamentary blocs to submit a bill calling for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq have become a thing of the past.
In an interview with the Saudi-owned Al-Sharq Al-Awsat newspaper from Washington, Al-Halbousi stressed that calling for the withdrawal of the US-led coalition forces from Iraq at this stage was “in the interests of terrorism”.
He added that the presence of the forces was “a guarantee for Iraq and provided political cover in the face of foreign interventions.”
The Iraqi president and speaker's comments stand in stark contrast with those of the mostly Iran-backed MPs in the Iraqi parliament, who say they are preparing draft laws calling for a full withdrawal of US troops from the country now that the war against IS militants is over.
As it stands, Iraq's leadership seems to lack a well-defined and workable strategy on issues related to Iran. Its approach to the US-Iran conflict, at least in public, has often appeared confused and even erratic.
For example, Abdul-Mahdi disclosed last week that his government had tried to stop the US from labelling the IRGC a “foreign terrorist organisation” by seeking Saudi Arabia's mediation to resolve the issue.
If this is true, it would have been a diplomatic blunder as the Iraqi initiative would have obscured the fact that such a go-between does not add to Saudi Arabia's anti-Iran strategy or to its closeness to the United States.
The Iraqi government seems to be in a state of denial, preferring to play political football rather than seek a solution based on Iraq's long-term national interests.
There are many reasons to be sceptical of its policies. The Iraqi leadership has made too many grave mistakes in the past, and its handling of this crisis adds to them. Its inability to see the dangers and work to stop them gives even more cause for concern.
On Saturday, several Iraqi Shia militias announced their solidarity with the IRGC, which they said had helped to prevent four or five Middle Eastern nations from “falling to IS”.
Leaders of the groups, which are backed and trained by Tehran, delivered their statement from the home of Iran's consul-general in Iraq in the Shia holy city of Najaf. In the past, the Shia militias have declared that the US should leave Iraq and have threatened to attack US troops in the troubled country.
Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Lebanon's Shia Hizbullah group, has also raised the prospect of retaliation by Iran and its Shia allies in the Middle East over the US sanctions against Iran.
“There are measures which are taken by the Americans... who said they will remain without a response,” Nasrallah asked in a televised address on 10 April. “There will be an appropriate response for sure,” he added.
This throws into doubt the question of whether Iraq can avoid the consequences of any US-Iranian confrontation if the Trump administration decides to turn its get-tough rhetoric into action by instigating a war with Iran.
Iraq will certainly find itself stuck in a proxy conflict if this takes place, and this will put the country in greater danger and introduce far-reaching complications that its leadership seem so far unable to consider.
Signs coming from Iran already yield clues that Tehran is preparing to interpret the US designation as an attack on its proxies in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria and to respond accordingly.
The implication is clear: Iran's clients would be instructed to move against US interests, including US military personnel in Iraq. Even if the US does not instigate a strike, Iraq will remain trapped in the unfolding conflict.


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