Iraq: Who’s left standing when the dust settles?
With the battle of Mosul continuing, it is important to understand the powers vying for influence in Iraq: Iran and the United States. In a recent article in The Economist, Who runs Iraq?, the history of the region and the parties vying for a strategic position are examined to help predict how Iraq’s future will play out.
After the U.S. withdrawal in 2011 and the movement of the Islamic State into Iraq in 2014, Shi’a militias declared a hashad, or “popular mobilization”, and banded together under the umbrella of the People’s Mobilization Forces (PMF) to push ISIL out of Baghdad. As Special Groups militia, those associated with Iran’s form of clerical rule, extended their reach across Baghdad, initiating religious policing and influencing a countrywide alcohol ban, a divide between Shi’a political interests formed. While most Iraqi Shi’a and some militias followed Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah, Ali Sistani, many militias, some of which continue to have political representation in parliament, followed Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameni.
However, a rise of Iraqi and Arab nationalism had occurred in conjunction with the growth of Shi’a-revivalism, and with it came a shift away from dependence on Iran. The choice to have U.S. advisers train the Iraqi special forces meant a step away from Iranian influence in the military and less reliance on the hashad brigades. Other militia groups wary of Iran launching a direct bid for control of Najaf, the center of Shi’a political power in Iraq, welcomed U.S. military presence to reduce dependence on their neighbor.
Currently, it is apparent that Iran still has influence in Iraq. Militia leaders retaining their support for Iran could ban together for the 2018 elections to form a decisive Iran-leaning bloc. This Iranian support could be bolstered by continued U.S. presence and plans to demobilize half of the hashad, with the integration of the remaining forces into the Iraq army. As anti-Americanism and Iranian propaganda take root, painting Iran, not America, as Iraq’s ultimate guarantor of stability, continued U.S. policy in Iraq will have to address this growing animosity.