Iraqi election may check Iran's desire for greater regional influence

Campaign banners for various candidates line a street in Baghdad ahead of the upcoming electionBAGHDAD – Perhaps the greatest irony of the American occupation of Iraq was that ousting former president Saddam Hussein’s in 2003 empowered not only the country’s Shiite majority but also gave Iran a political foothold in what had been a bastion of Arab power in the region.

But there are signs that members of Saudi Arabia’s royal family – stalwart defenders of Sunni Islam in the region – are likely to be more pleased with the outcome of Iraq’s parliamentary election on Saturday than the Shiite clerics and Revolutionary Guard commanders in Tehran.

Political splits inside Iraq’s Shiite community, which comprise around 65 percent of the population, have created an opening for Saudi-backed candidates to contest politicians with ties to Iran.

“Saudi Arabia seems to have understood, even if late, that the strategic depth to combat Iran should be through Iraqi politics,” said Ali Bashar, a political scientist at Bayan University in Irbil.

Few contest the current reality of Iran’s military influence in Iraq.

“Iran’s superiority in Iraq was on full display as its agents commanded most of the militias that pushed ISIS out of Mosul and other cities,” said Hussam M. Botani, chief analyst at the Son’i El-Siyasat Center for International and Strategic Studies in Istanbul. “Now it’s supporting the Popular Mobilization, also known as the Al-Fateh Alliance [a militia-affiliated political group], to strengthen its superiority in politics and try and change the government in Baghdad.”

Iranian-trained military commander Hadi Al-Amiri, 63, runs Al-Fateh. He also simultaneously serves as the head of the military wing of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, an umbrella organized for militant Shiite groups.

If Al-Amiri’s party scores an upset Saturday, their success will reflect how the Shiite masses give him credit for driving ISIS away from the gates of Baghdad, said Anas Al-Sheikhli, a commercial television director in Baghdad.

“There is one phrase spreading among people: that Al-Fateh is the protector of your pride, meaning that they kept ISIS away from the women in your family,” said Al-Sheikhli. “But when you look at their program, it’s obviously not for Iraq, it’s for Iran.”

Some Al-Fateh officials have even indicated support formal confederation with Iran. Officials in Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s administration hinted Saturday that Tehran-backed parties may be attempting to interfere with Iraqi electronic voting devices.

“Intelligence information revealed attempts of some influential political parties to disrupt electronic voting devices in order to resort to manual counting to falsify the results,” the chairman of the Iraq’s parliament's security and defense committee, Hakim al-Zamili told the Saudi daily Asharq Al-Awsat.

But as Iran flexes its muscles in Iraq, some Shiite Iraqi politicians have found an opening to turn to wealthy Persian Gulf countries for support for bringing Iraq securely back into the fold of Arab nations.

The 44-year-old Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr Sadr, who at the time of the US occupation tacitly cooperated with Al Qaeda to plan attacks on American troops, is now seeking the backing of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to lead a new non-sectarian Sa’iroon multi-party bloc that includes Sunni Arabs, secular Iraqis and even communists.

Sadr met Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman last July and walked away with a $10 million public pledge to assist Iraqis displaced by interreligious violence .

It’s understood in Baghdad political circles that Sadr also won private assurances of support for his efforts to create a joint Shiite-Sunni electoral list to push back against Iranian dominance.

"Sadr and bin Salman agreed to continue using a language of moderation and to get rid of this sectarian discourse," said Sadr's spokesman, Salah al-Obeidi. “A breakthrough was also made when Bin Salman admitted mistakes were made in the former Saudi administration that, helped Iran dominate Iraq."

The Iranians oppose the Sadr-Salman alliance.

“Iran will not allow the liberals and the communists to govern Iraq,” declared Ali Akbar Velayati, the top adviser to Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, during a recent visit to Baghdad.

The scrambled alliances have raised hackles in traditional Shiite quarters – with the mullahs’ Hezbollah Brigades and Al-Fateh organizing demonstrations to protest plans for a proposed Saudi crown prince to visit Baghdad.

A high-profile visit by the heir apparent to the Saudi throne, on the other hand, would be a massive public relations victory for Sunni Arabs and others who oppose Shiite extremists.

"Iraq has a very important role in the Arab world and we support reconstruction efforts there” said Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir in February at ab international donors’ conference held in Kuwait to help Baghdad’s reconstruction efforts in the wake of the war against the Islamic State.

Saudi Arabia pledged $1 billion in loans and $500 million in export credits backing. Iran pledged nothing.

“This is not just happening because the Saudis are smart,” said Ali Bashar, a political scientist at Bayan University in Irbil. “The Trump administration told the Saudis to change their policy towards Iraq and engage the Shiites here as well as their traditional Sunni friends. Saudi Arabia has realized that Sunnis are not able to directly face the Iranian influence. It changed its tactics towards supporting some Shiite powers to face that influence.”

An alternative version of this story can be found in The Washington Times. 
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