When Jassim Al-Assadi, a leading campaigner for the preservation of Iraq’s famed southern marshes, was kidnapped by unidentified gunmen last month, many Iraqis felt shocked by the drama playing out in their streets.
Al-Assadi, 65, is head of Nature Iraq, an environmental NGO dedicated to “protect, restore, and preserve Iraq’s natural environment and the rich cultural heritage it nourishes.”
Al-Assadi was freed two weeks later after he was tortured by his kidnappers who tried to force him to abandon his environmental work. The incident was a stark reminder of the conflicts and misery still troubling Iraq.
Another hideous reminder of the forces that are shaping Iraq’s political and security scene came on 21 February when a Sunni family was a target attacked by rival Shia tribesmen in Diyala, a volatile ethnically and religiously mixed province east of Baghdad.
The two incidents rekindled fears of the violence that has become a fixture of Iraqi life. It was a harrowing phenomenon in Iraq, following the US-led invasion that ushered in years of sectarian conflicts and the appearance of the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group, Shia armed factions, power struggles, and tribal clashes.
This month will mark 20 years since the US-led coalition sent 160,000 troops into Iraq in what was the start of a full-blown invasion of the country which toppled the regime of former dictator Saddam Hussein and the onset of its protracted occupation.
Though Iraq has miraculously survived as a sovereign nation, it continues to suffer from dysfunctional state institutions after the US placed collaborators in key positions and enriched its cronies, paving the way for what seems to be an endless tragedy.
There are no celebrations planned in Baghdad or Washington to mark what was dubbed by the administration of former US president George W Bush and Saddam’s opponents as a “war of liberation” that would bring democracy to Iraq.
Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been killed and wounded in Iraq since the 2003 US-led invasion in occupation-related violence, attacks by terrorist groups, or extra-judicial acts by armed factions, some of them state-affiliated.
It has not only been loved ones who have been buried under the rubble, but also the promises of good governance, a corruption-free country, and a state that is responsive to the needs of its people.
Instead, misrule, widespread corruption, an incompetent political system, factional divisions, and unresponsive state institutions under successive governments have led to a perpetual cycle of conflicts and chaos.
Many analysts expected the invasion from planning to occupation to go badly wrong. But to turn into a fiasco on such a large scale for most seemed unthinkable.
Yet, it soon became abundantly clear even to the fervent war hawks and those who supported Saddam’s ouster that the invasion was profoundly mistaken and its outcome would be staggering.
The US-led invasion left misery and inexorable crises behind it. Democracy has not come to Iraq, and nor has stability and the reconstruction of the war-ravaged nation.
The US-led occupation authorities dissolved key state institutions, placed hirelings in key positions, and enriched its cronies to create a small circle of proxies who were later empowered as Iraq’s ruling oligarchs.
The culmination of this mischief paved the way for the crumbling of the foundations of the Iraqi state and later for the tragedy that struck the country. Long after the invasion, Iraq’s political system is still dysfunctional and tensions remain high as all the post-Saddam’s crises have been left unresolved.
As the 20th anniversary of the invasion looms, Iran’s rising influence in Iraq, one of the dire consequences of the occupation, stands out and threatens to strengthen the dominance of pro-Tehran factions in the country’s politics.
Iran-backed parties succeeded in consolidating their power in the political system after the disputed elections in 2021, becoming key partners in the ruling Shia Coordination Framework in Iraq.
Among these Iran-backed groups that joined Iraqi Prime Minister Mohamed Shia Al-Sudani’s government are the Badr Organisation, the Kataib Hizbullah or Hizbullah Brigades, and the Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq, while their military wings maintained their participation in the Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF) designated as part of the Iraqi armed forces in 2016.
Since Al-Sudani came to power last October, the framework’s leaders have been playing a key role in steering national politics, and its pro-Iran groups have reinstated their members in key government and security posts.
To boost their chances in the next polls, the framework has introduced a new election law designed to increase its number of seats in the next parliament. The draft, which covers provincial elections and passed its first reading in parliament last month, has stirred opposition from independent parties and is expected to spark further divisions.
Meanwhile, hardline Shia factions in the government and judiciary have been pushing for tougher measures to control the Internet in Iraq. They are working on a new cyber-security law that critics warn would infringe on freedom of expression.
Earlier, the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior formed a committee to monitor social media for “violating public morals, containing negative and indecent messages, and undermining social stability.” It referred several bloggers to court on charges of publishing “indecent content.”
To many in Iraq, the empowerment of the militias and the draconian measures that have been taken, including a ban on alcohol, are aimed at reshaping the country into an Iranian-style Islamic republic.
History has already made its judgement on the US-led invasion, which will be remembered as a tragedy for Iraq and a catastrophe for the wider Middle East.
Volumes could be filled with the disasters the invasion brought upon Iraq. If the stupidity of the occupation is not clear, then at least the failure to rebuild an inclusive, fair, and stable political system after Saddam indisputedly ranks as America’s top sin in Iraq.
The biggest question now is what is going to happen to Iraq and whether the US Biden administration will be able to start on a new course in order to correct the terrible mistakes of its predecessors who missed all opportunities to bring Iraq back to its feet.
The Biden administration appears poised to shift its focus in the Middle East and assume more responsibility for containing Iran’s influence in Iraq following the formation of the Al-Sudani government, which is backed by pro-Iran factions.
This unleashed a wave of concern in the US, which seems to have been irritated by Iran’s defeating its attempts to bring the government of Al-Sudani closer to the US and its allies while continuing to navigate the US-Iran tensions playing out on Iraqi soil.
There are increasing signs that the US administration has been resorting to new proactive policies by targeting Iran and its local proxies using a carrot-and-stick strategy with Al-Sudani to curtail the Islamic Republic’s activities in Iraq.
This strategy was partially outlined in a joint statement by the US-Iraq Higher Coordinating Committee that met in Washington last month. The Biden administration offered Al-Sudani’s government a partnership in exchange for closer cooperation in several fields.
These include economic cooperation, the energy sector, water management, fighting corruption, addressing the climate crisis, and assisting in government reforms.
More significantly, the US has started targeting Iran’s influence in Iraq by helping the country to impose tighter controls on the flow of hard currency from Iraq that offers a lifeline to the cash-strapped Islamic Republic.
These controls are being reinforced by measures to restrict Iraq’s access to its own dollars in the US Federal Reserve in order to halt the siphoning off of dollars to Iran.
Thus far, the mechanism seems to be working in stamping out the flow, though it has also impacted the value of the Iraqi currency, which has dropped significantly on the international markets.
The administration has also named Amos Hochstein, a top US diplomat, as its special presidential coordinator for Global Infrastructure and Energy Security in Iraq after he emerged as a key interlocutor on Iran-related dealings.
To follow up on previous decisions to blacklist the leaders of pro-Iran groups such as PMF leader Faleh Al-Fayyad, the US Embassy in Baghdad has also been monitoring Iraqi government ministers and officials connected to the militias.
Ratcheting up the pressure on Al-Sudani to take concerted steps to stifle Iran’s activities in Iraq, US Ambassador in Baghdad Alina L Romanowski told a local satellite TV station on 18 February that he should take “the responsibility to ensure that he has full control of Iraq’s sovereignty.”
Some two decades after its invasion of the country, it is clear that the US has no clear strategy in Iraq and that it is relying instead on pressure diplomacy and the threat of sanctions, along with swagger and intimidation.
On the face of it, the new approach seems to be designed to keep Iran in check, while giving Al-Sudani breathing room to reform his government. However, all previous attempts to contain Iran’s influence in Iraq have failed because Washington’s policymakers have relied on over-the-counter solutions that lack the merit of being taken seriously.
Meanwhile, the invasion will forever be interpreted as simply another chapter in the US arrogance of power. The Biden administration’s conflation of grandiose ideas about cooperation on climate change, the economy, and combating corruption to help bring Iraq back to normal cannot be interpreted any differently.
Source : Ahramonline