Caught Between the US and Iran, Iraqis Face Election Choices | Election News

A seemingly perpetual battlefield trapped by tension between the United States and Iran, Iraq is going to election at a time when internal discontent toward its eastern neighbor and criticism of the American presence are at their peak, paving the way for an uncertain future for America. -Relationship with Iran that has persecuted Iraq for years.

The snap elections, a response by interim Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi to the mass protest movement in 2019, would somehow serve as testimony to how Iraq views Iran and the United States, and in general, relations with the two most important countries. from the country. important partners.

The United States and Iran have long used Iraq as their proxy to compete for regional interests. The murders in January 2020 of General Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, one being the main Iranian commander and the other the then deputy head of the Popular Mobilization Forces, opened the curtain for a series of intensive clashes between the United States and Iran with sanctions and rockets, all taking place on Iraqi soil.

Al-Kadhimi has taken an active role in trying to mediate, and since then the tension between the United States and Iran has lessened. Still, there is the possibility of escalation, and much of that depends on how these two countries look and what position the next Baghdad government takes, analysts say.

“The tension between Iran and the United States peaked in 2020, after which it eased a bit, but there is still the possibility that Iraq will slip back into a place of conflict,” said Sajad Jiyad, Iraqi policy researcher. of the Century Foundation.

Kurdsih Peshmerga soldiers wait to vote in Sulaimaniyah city [Dana Taib Menmy/Al Jazeera]

Iraqis, often victims of the tension between Iran and the United States, are increasingly dissatisfied with the influence of these two countries in their country. When protests erupted in October 2019 partly due to the government’s inability to provide basic services such as electricity, protesters soon turned their attention to structural social reform, including the call to end Iranian and American interference in Iraq. .

Protesters shouted “We want a nation” and “No to America, no to Iran,” while angry protesters attacked Iranian consulates in Karbala and Najaf, in a rare joint call in a deeply divided society to reject Iranian influence and American in the country.

Despite protests having since subsided after a brutal crackdown and relentless pandemic, the protesters’ willingness to repudiate foreign influence persists.

However, Iraq’s bittersweet relationship with the United States and Iran means that it is an almost impossible game for Baghdad to balance its interests with those of Tehran and Washington.

With parliamentary elections scheduled for Sunday, how to strike that balance while securing your own country will inevitably become one of the thorniest problems the new government will face.

Iran has played an active role in reasserting its influence in the elections by backing several hardline groups aligned with Iran, including the electoral bloc of the Fateh alliance, which is home to the umbrella group of the Popular Mobilization Forces.

More recently, Hussein Muanis, an open affiliate of the Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah, one of the “terrorist” organizations designated by the United States, entered the parliamentary race, indicating the growing and open influence of Iran.

However, Iran’s control over the elections is not a safe bet.

Among the Shiites, who make up the majority of Iraq’s population, there is a gap between these pro-Iran groups and the Sadrist movement led by Muqtada al-Sadr, which openly opposes Iranian and American influence, could further complicate Iran’s role in Iraq.

Analysts say, however, that despite the Sadrist Movement’s opposition to Iranian influence, al-Sadr knows well that a coalition government cannot exist without Iran’s blessing and support.

“The Sadrist cannot form his own government without a coalition, and years of experience have taught them that working with Iran is an inevitable part,” Jiyad said.

Halsho Bahadin, an election observer for the opposition New Generation party, monitors the vote in Sulaimaniyah. [Dana Taib Menmy/Al Jazeera]

‘Tainted reputation’

Meanwhile, pro-Iranian militia groups orchestrated a targeted assassination campaign that killed dozens of activists following street protests and alienated many Iraqis, including in southern Iraq, where Iran normally retains its loyal base. Many protesters now see Iran as a threat to the betterment of the country.

“The reputation of groups aligned with Iran has been tarnished because many Iraqis hold them responsible for the violence against peaceful protesters, do not approve of dragging Iraq into confrontation with the United States and see them as part of a corrupt system,” he said. Sarhang Hamasaeed. , Director of Middle East Programs at the US Institute of Peace.

However, analysts say that whether that discontent would be reflected in the elections is not necessarily clear due to potentially low voter turnout.

“The resentment Iraqis have towards Iran should not be overstated,” Jiyad said. “The elections are not going to have a large turnout, which means that the elites are still going to get votes, and those close to Iran will also get votes.”

Iraq’s complicated relationship with Iran means that Iraq’s well-being is deeply associated with the latter, without which Iraq could lose its supply of food and electricity. The same cannot be said for the United States, according to analysts.

“The bilateral relationship of Iran and Iraq is crucial for both countries, it is deeply rooted in history and will continue despite the threat of boycotts, sanctions and war,” Jiyad said.

The United States had played a dominant role in Iraqi politics until 2011, when then-President Barack Obama withdrew most of the US troops. Even though the fight against the armed group ISIL (ISIS) brought some troops back to the country, their presence in Iraq has drawn mounting criticism from Iraqis after the group’s effective defeat in 2017.

The Biden administration has announced that it will withdraw all combat forces from Iraq by the end of the year, although many analysts have said such a withdrawal is merely rhetorical given the fact that the United States has only been playing auxiliary roles to help Iraqi forces to to struggle. ISIL (ISIS).

Yet despite Iran’s animosity toward the United States, its goal of completely expelling the Americans is “reality clashing with rhetoric,” some experts say. Continuing to suppress internal insurgencies remains a priority among sectarian groups.

“You can’t get fewer than 2,500 troops; less than that would be zero,” said Hamzeh Hadad, an Iraqi policy researcher. “The US presence in Iraq is already reducing to a trickle.”

No matter how the elections unfold, however, the possible coalition government in the future will not necessarily change the way the United States and Iran treat each other; Clashes may still erupt, and without strong governance, Iraq will once again be in the palms of Iran’s hands. the powers of the region, analysts say.

“The election definitely plays a role in the type of government that we will see in Baghdad and how they will treat both countries,” Jiyad said. “But most of how the tensions between Iran and the United States could develop depends on those two countries and how well they treat each other.”

That sentiment is also shared among ordinary Iraqis. “We need to have a strong government; as long as we have one, there will be less influence,” said Jowad, a Baghdad resident. “I’m not sure if we’ll ever have one though.”

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