May 12, 2020 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1511

Iraq On The Path Of National Recovery From Iranian Hegemony

May 12, 2020 | By Yigal Carmon and S. Ali*
Iran, Iraq | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1511

Iraq's national recovery has been brewing internally over nearly seven months of political unrest, ignited by protesters who took to the streets in October 2019 to demonstrate against the country's endemic corruption and lack of basic services, and against Iran's increasing meddling in Iraq's internal affairs.

"Tishreen [October] 2019 – The Recent Protests" by Iraqi artist Mahmoud Fahmi – a "tribute to the heroes" at Jomhoriya Bridge, Tahrir Square, Baghdad, November 2019.

Iran's attempt to silence protesters by force using its Iraqi militias failed when the protesters forced the Tehran-backed prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, to resign in November 2019, after only one year of his four-year tenure. Abdul Mahdi's resignation signaled the beginning of the shattering of Iran's grip over Iraq's political system.[1]

During the odyssey of the political attempts to replace Abdul Mahdi, Tehran failed to reinstate him as prime minister, and also failed to secure the path to this office for any of its proxies in Iraq.[2]

The only time that Iran managed to score a win, albeit short-lived, was when it obstructed the designation of pro-U.S. MP Adnan Al-Zurfi as prime minister. But it was forced to accept the pro-U.S. intelligence chief Mustafa Al-Kadhimi as prime minister-designate, yet hoped that its proxies would prevent him from fulfilling his assignment to form a cabinet by May 9, the constitutional deadline for submitting his cabinet to parliament for approval.

However, on May 6, Iraqi lawmakers defied the odds and approved Al-Kadhimi as Iraq's new prime minister, and also approved two-thirds of his proposed cabinet. His appointment is a major step that ushers in the start of Iraq's independence from a decade of Iranian hegemony.

Incoming Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kahdhimi (left) and outgoing prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi (right) during the Iraqi government handover ceremony (Source, May 7, 2020)

What Brought About Iraq's National Recovery From Iranian Hegemony?

Iran's current political decline in Iraq is inextricably linked to the bold U.S. airstrike that killed Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Qods Force together with Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) deputy commander Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis. Both men had built and nurtured Iran's network of Shi'ite militias in Iraq that were consolidated under the umbrella of the Iraqi government-funded PMU.

To avenge these killings, the PMU sponsored a parliamentary resolution in January to expel U.S troops from Iraq, and it was approved by Iraqi lawmakers. Yet four months later, and following an anti-U.S. one-million-man march staged by Iranian stooges, and despite minor rocket attacks launched by Iran-backed militias against Iraqi bases housing U.S. troops, the latter maintain a strong presence in the country.

In April, another heavy blow was dealt to Iran and its leaderless PMU, by Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani. Al-Sistani ordered his factions to withdraw from the PMU and merge with the Iraqi security apparatus, giving the green light for the dismantling of the PMU. By withdrawing these factions, Al-Sistani stripped the PMU of the cover of legitimacy that it had leveraged when he issued his June 2014 fatwa allowing all Iraqis capable of bearing arms to join the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS).[3]

A major factor in Iran's declining power has been the shrinking of its budget, due to the U.S. sanctions, along with the COVID-19 crisis and its impact on oil prices and on Iran's economy in general. All these factors further exacerbated the collapse of Iran's economy, and impacted Iran's activity via its regional military arms in Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon. They also created new conditions that paved the way for Al-Kadhimi's emergence as a prime minister who could gradually assert Iraq's national recovery from Iran in the coming months of his tenure.[4]

Reactions By Iran And By Its Iraqi Network Of Shi'ite Militias

Despite these dramatic events, Iran's reaction was a thundering silence. None of the Iranian military or political leaders expressed any objections to the emerging reversal in Iraqi politics. This highlights their inability to obstruct and stop the Iraqi political process as they had in the past. Moreover, the official reactions of Iranian President Hassan Rohani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif were acceptance and willingness to fully cooperate with Al-Kadhimi –who was being accused by the Iran-backed Iraqi Shi'ite militias of conspiring with the U.S. to eliminate Qods Force commander Soleimani.

While Tehran officially welcomed Al-Kadhimi's appointment, Kataib Hizbullah (KH), the most prominent of the Iran-backed Shi'ite militias in Iraq, issued a brief communique on May 6 criticizing its own militia allies in the Iraqi parliament for failing to stop Al-Kadhimi's appointment: "We realize the great pressure to which the loyal group of brothers in the parliament were subjected in the vote for the Al-Kadhimi government, but this does not excuse their responsibility to continue to pursue those involved in the murder of our martyred leaders [Soleimani and Al-Muhandis]."[5] This statement is much softer in tone than the group's April 11 statement warning that Al-Kahdimi's appointment would constitute a "declaration of war on the Iraqi people." Such a threat is even harder to carry out now since it was KH's "brothers" in parliament who approved Al-Kahdimi's appointment.[6]

Meanwhile, Mohammad Al-Ghaban, head of the Al-Fatah parliamentary bloc which includes two of Iran's most loyalist factions, Asa'ib Ahl Al-Haq and Badr Corps (the latter of which he heads), issued an unexpected statement on May 7. In the statement, which reflects a change in the bloc's position towards the U.S., he practically acknowledged the pro-U.S. camp's victory, calling on Washington to prioritize Iraq and help Baghdad through "these critical times." He said: "We call on the United States not to consider the passing of the new government as a victory for it and a loss for its opponents in Iraq and the region. Indeed, the Iraqi political forces favored the interests of Iraq over all other considerations."

Following the release of Al-Ghaban's statement, Asa'ib Ahl Al-Haq secretary-general Qais Al-Khazali, an Iranian loyalist, tweeted a Quranic verse: "And never will the Jews or the Christians approve of you until you follow their religion."[7] By this, he was suggesting that even though the Al-Fatah parliamentary bloc had extended its support to Al-Kadhimi, the pro-U.S. camp would never consider it the bloc an ally.

Populist cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr resorted to his typical double-dealing, voicing his satisfaction with the new prime minister and at the same time noting that he would "assess Al-Kadhimi's performance after 100 days" – likely assuming that these statements would shield him from Iranian criticism.

Prime Minister Al-Kadhimi presents his cabinet in parliament, May 6, 2020 (, May 6, 2020)

Within Days, Al-Kadhimi Consolidates Power, Asserts The Independence Of Iraqi Politics

Aware of the challenges ahead, Al-Kadhimi put forth an ambitious government program asserting his government's pro-U.S. policy, which he had already begun implementing in his first week in office. The program includes the following:

1. Government Structure: The Iraqi lawmakers approved 15 of the 22 ministers proposed by Kadhimi, including his choice of pro-U.S. figures for interior and defense ministers.[8] The new interior minister is Staff General Othman Al-Ghanimi, an officer widely admired by U.S. and British military officers. Last year, in his capacity as chief of staff, Al-Ghanimi was the guest of honor at the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. In the previous Iraqi governments, this post had often gone to candidates from the Iran-backed Badr Corps and had previously been filled by officers with close ties to the PMU. The first Iraqi citizen to receive the U.S. Armed Forces Legion of Merit, Al-Ghanimi is also the scion of a powerful and wealthy tribe in southern Iraq; he is not likely to be intimidated.

General Jum'a I'nad, the new Sunni defense minister, who born was in Salahuddin province and has master's degree in military sciences, gained admiration for his command in the fighting against ISIS in his home province.

Also significant is the number of U.S.-trained senior military officers sacked by prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi and PMU who have been brought back into military service – obviously very objectionable to the Iranians. Among them is General Abdul Wahab Al-Sa'di, who played a key role in defeating ISIS in Mosul; his sacking by the previous Iraqi government was the trigger for the October 2019 protests.[9] Al-Kadhimi also promoted Al-Sa'id to head the military's Counter Terrorism Force. Another respected military figure who has been reinstated is Defense Ministry spokesman Brigadier General Yahya Rasool, who had been moved to an administrative role in April.[10] Also, Al-Kadhimi's choice for Finance Minister, Ali Allawi, was minister of trade, defense and finance after 2003 and worked for the Washington-based World Bank Group. Allawi is also serving as the acting oil minister until this vacant post is filled by a candidate approved by the parliament.

2. Legislation/Elections Laws in Order to Change the Iran-Dominated Iraqi Political Scene Through Democratic Elections: In his first cabinet meeting, on May 9, Prime Minister Al-Kadhimi announced that he had asked parliament to ratify the new elections law and political parties law, aimed at meeting two key demands of the protesters. The two laws will pave the way for the removal of the current Iran-backed elite from the Iraqi parliament and government and will allow voters to elect independent candidates instead.

3. Release of Protesters And Accountability: Prime Minister Al-Kadhimi ordered the judicial and security authorities to release all protesters arrested by the outgoing government for taking part in the demonstrations, and also ordered a full investigation of the killing of many of protesters and for "all those who shed Iraqi blood to be held to account," regardless of position or influence. This means that Iran-backed militias accused of suppressing protesters will be included in these investigations.

In this regard, on May 11, Al-Kadhimi ordered security forces in Basra to close the headquarters of the Iran-backed Tha'ir Allah militia, whose fighters had, the previous day, killed one protester and wounded four others.[11] According to a statement by the Prime Minister's Office, several militiamen were arrested and their arms and ammunition were also seized.[12]

4. Disarming Militias: In line with the previous objective, the program of Al-Kahdimi's government includes restricting weapons to state and military institutions. In his speech before the parliament immediately following his appointment, Al-Kadhimi explained: "The government's authority must be restored everywhere, in accordance with the constitution, by enforcing the exclusive right of the state to bear arms and making sure that Iraqi territory is not used to settle accounts or attack others."

5. The U.S Military Presence in Iraq: Following his first cabinet meeting, Al-Kadhimi told reporters that his government had established a crisis desk, comprising foreign affairs experts, to commence detailed preparations for the upcoming talks with the U.S. in June on the future relationship between the two countries and the presence of the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq. The talks are aimed at preserving "Iraq's higher interests and fulfilling the aspirations of the Iraqi people." These remarks seem to be in line with the U.S. State Department's statements that stressed that "all strategic issues between our two countries will be on the agenda, including the future presence of the United States forces in that country, and how best to support an independent and sovereign Iraq."[13]

6. Expansion of Partnership with NATO: Al-Kadhimi invited NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg to visit Baghdad "as soon as possible, to discuss ways of increasing collaboration especially in the areas of training and support to the security forces." This collaboration with NATO would allow U.S.-led coalition troops to remain in Iraq under NATO control.

7. Fighting Corruption: Al-Kadhimi's program stresses that the government will focus on fighting corruption by promoting integration among state institutions, to provide judges with the powers to implement necessary laws and to begin audits of financial records of officials regardless of their influence. It also openly stresses reactivating old corruption cases in which Iran-backed officials in previous governments could be indicted.

8. Distancing Iraq from Iran: Al-Kahdimi's government program emphasizes that "Iraq will not allow any country to violate its sovereignty and will not permit its territories to be used to launch attacks on any of its neighbors or be used as an arena to settle regional or international scores."[14] In his speech before the parliament, Al-Kadhimi noted that Iraq is seeking "brotherly and cooperative relations" with Arab countries, which could further distance the country from Iran.

9. Symbolic Gestures: Al-Kadhimi made several significant gestures, including the removal of a giant billboard depicting Soleimani and Al-Muhandis at the entrance of Baghdad International Airport where they were killed. Notably, the depiction of Al-Muhandis was restored yesterday, probably by members of his militia; the depiction of Soleimani was not.

Poster by Iraqi artist Nadia Osi" "Tear Off [i.e. Down] The Barrier Of Fear!!! Reclaim The Motherland"

Is Iran Accepting U.S. Demands To Become A Normal State That Does Not Meddle In Other Countries' Affairs Regionally Or Globally?

On May 9, in an unexpected show of weakness, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei marked the birthday of the second Shi'ite Imam Hassan (624-670 CE), tweeting his praise of him and noting that Hassan had made concessions by giving power to his enemy Mu'awiya ibn Abi Sufyan.[15]

Khamenei chose the occasion of Imam Hassan's birthday to describe him as a hero at a time when Iran's hegemony in Iraq is rapidly declining. He said that when Hassan could not form a government he handed power to his rival Mu'awiya and moved on "as a great revolutionary movement." Thus Imam Hassan acknowledged his weakness and gave up power in order to preserve the ideology and the lives of its followers, the Shi'a. While the tweet does not connect these events to anything specific, this approach should be interpreted as relating to all elements of the Iran-Iraq relationship, and reveals a new pragmatic approach based on Iran's acknowledgement of its current weakness.

It is not unusual for Iranian leaders to use the Shi'ite heritage to convey political messages. A well-known example is the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's statement, "I drink this chalice of poison," describing his acceptance of the ceasefire with Iraq in 1988. It is one of the most memorable metaphors used by Iran when capitulating to pressure.

Yigal Carmon is Founder and President of MEMRI; S. Ali is a Research Fellow at MEMRI.


[1], December 1, 2009

[4] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1508 Is Iran Accepting Its Defeat In Iraq?, April 20, 2020 by S. Ali.

[5], May 7, 2020.

[6], April 10, 2020.

[7] Surah Al Baqarah, verse 120

[8], May 7, 2020.

[9], May 9, 2020.

[10], May 9, 2020.

[11], May 11, 2020.

[12], May 11, 2020.

[13], April 7, 2020. 

[14], May 7, 2020.

[15], May 9 2020.

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