Exclusive – Iraq PM Caught between Internal Pressure, American-Iranian Conflict

Saturday, 13 July, 2019 - 08:30 -

Exclusive – Iraq PM Caught between Internal Pressure, American-Iranian Conflict

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Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi. (Reuters)
Baghdad – Hamza Mustafa
Whoever occupies the position of prime minister in Iraq is the envy of political forces because it is the country’s primary executive post. At the moment, however, no one envies PM Adel Abdul Mahdi as he faces massive local and external challenges.

Nearly a year since assuming his position, he has yet to complete the cabinet lineup. After months of arduous negotiations, political factions were able to agree on the defense, interior and justice portfolios. The education ministry still remains vacant.

Compounding his political headache are the almost yearly protests that take place in summer over poor services, namely water and electricity. Anti-government demonstrations erupt almost every July and last until October when the weather improves and the electricity crisis resolves itself.

The electricity crisis costs Iraq more than $100 billion annually and billions of dollars are spent over this issue to no avail.

Add to these crises, the American-Iranian escalation and the narrowing room for maneuver for Iraq, which is caught between its neighbor and the United States that demands Baghdad to take a sterner stance on Tehran’s influence in its territory. Washington believes the government has been week in confronting Iran and its influence, such as its armed factions that pose an open threat to the Americans.

The US accusations are not unfounded as it had informed Abdul Mahdi that drones that struck Saudi airports were flown from Iraq. The recent storming of Bahrain’s embassy in Iraq is another example. The Hezbollah brigades in Iraq admitted to supporting the raid.

The Iranians, on the other hand, believe that the Iraqi government has been weak in confronting US influence in the country, namely its military bases. It also cites thousands of American troops, whom Iraq says play an advisory role and whom Tehran says are combat units.

Furthermore, a looming crisis appears on the horizon after Abdul Mahdi ordered the integration of the pro-Iran Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) into the military and the possible conflict of interest it may incur.

Abdul Mahdi’s predecessor, Haidar al-Abadi, had made a similar order in 2018 months before his term ended. Abdul Mahdi made his order in July 2019 with years remaining in his tenure.

Ultimately, it remains to be seen whether the premier’s order will be respected. The raging American-Iranian tensions will likely add a new dimension to the order given Iran’s sway over the PMF. It has become evident that the Americans are pressuring the government over its policy towards the pro-Iran factions operating in Iraq, most notably after Katyusha rockets landed on the American embassy in the heart of Baghdad and after drones were flown towards Saudi Arabia from Iraq.

Security expert Fadel Abou Ragheef told Asharq Al-Awsat that Abdul Mahdi’s decree on the PMF obligates its factions to choose between joining the military or a political path.

The decree, he revealed, also covers Sunni tribal factions and was part of follow-up measures taken by Iraq in wake of its defeat of the ISIS terrorist group.

Another expert, Hashem al-Hashemi offered a different view. He told Asharq Al-Awsat that Abdul Mahdi’s instructions should not be interpreted as an attempt to restrict the influence of the PMF politically, economically and militarily in undermining the Iraqi state.

The decree was not aimed at passing conspiratorial deals or imposing the will of the commander of the armed forces, meaning Abdul Mahdi, against the PMF, he added. He noted that Abadi made similar orders, but they were thwarted by some PMF commanders.

He stressed that the orders differentiated between the disciplined and illegal PMF factions.

“This requires legal and security follow-up that may end with an armed mutiny and political opposition that may lead to division within the Shiite political ranks or even on the street,” Hashemi said. “This all remains speculation and hinges on the government’s seriousness in implementing its instructions and how much the PMF commanders will comply with them.”

Observers predicted that Abdul Mahdi will have to contend with various opposing campaigns that question his motives by the time the July 31 deadline for the PMF to comply with his decree expires. Among the doubters was the Hezbollah brigade that wondered why the premier did not include the Kurdish peshmerga forces in his decree.

On the Katyusha attack, the Iraqi government has clearly not controlled the possession of weapons outside of the authority of the state. The American administration is likely to expect more attacks as part of deliberate Iranian provocation against Washington, even though the latter has previously warned Iraq against such excessive actions through its proxies in the country. Iraq is therefore, caught over how to deal with this situation.

Reform alliance member Haidar al-Malla told Asharq Al-Awsat that Iraq had adopted a “special position” regarding Iran and the United States. He said that it refuses to become part of “one axis against the other.” Washington has “succeeded in dealing with this issue, as opposed to Iran, which has used its economic crisis to send messages that Iraq will remain its first line of defense.”