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Iran Dominates in Iraq After U.S. ‘Handed the Country Over’

Political Ascendancy

When a group of Qatari falcon hunters, “including members of the royal family, were kidnapped in 2015 while on safari in the southern deserts of Iraq, Qatar called Iran and its militia allies — not the central government in Baghdad.

For Mr. Abadi, the prime minister, the episode was an embarrassing demonstration of his government’s weakness at the hands of Iran, whose proxy militia Kataibb Hezbollah was believed to be behind the kidnapping.

So when the hostage negotiations were about to end, Mr. Abadi pushed back.

Around noon on a day in April, a government jet from Qatar landed in Baghdad, carrying a delegation of diplomats and 500 million euros stuffed into 23 black boxes.

The hunters were soon on their way home, but the ransom did not go to the Iranian-backed militiamen who had abducted the Qataris; the cash ended up in a central bank vault in Baghdad.

The seizure of the money had been ordered by Mr. Abadi, who was furious at the prospect of militias, and their Iranian and Hezbollah benefactors, being paid so richly right under the Iraqi government’s nose.

“Hundreds of millions to armed groups?” Mr. Abadi said in a public rant. “Is this acceptable?”

In Iraq, the kidnapping episode was seen as a violation of the country’s sovereignty and emblematic of Iran’s suffocating power over the Iraqi state.

In a post on Twitter, Mr. Zebari, the former finance minister, who was previously foreign minister, called the episode a “travesty.”

Mr. Zebari knows firsthand the power of Iran over the Iraqi state.

Last year, he said, he was ousted as finance minister because Iran perceived him as being too close to the United States. The account was verified by a member of Parliament who was involved in the removal of Mr. Zebari, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid angering Iran.

Mr. Zebari, who recounted the events in an interview from his mountainside mansion in northern Iraq, said that when President Barack Obama met with Mr. Abadi last September at the United Nations, the American leader personally lobbied to save Mr. Zebari’s job. Even that was not enough.

Mr. Abadi now finds himself in a difficult position. If he makes any move that can be seen as confrontational toward Iran, or as positioning himself closer to the United States, it could place a cloud over his political future.

“He had two options: to be with the Americans or with the Iranians,” said Izzat Shahbander, a prominent Iraqi Shiite leader who once lived in exile in Iran while Mr. Hussein was in power. “And he chose to be with the Americans.”

Mr. Abadi, who took office in 2014 with the support of both the United States and Iran, has seemed more emboldened to push back against Iranian pressure since President Trump took office.

In addition to seizing the ransom money, he has promoted an ambitious project for an American company to secure the highway from Baghdad to Amman, Jordan, which Iran has opposed. He has also begun discussing with the United States the terms of a deal to keep American forces behind after the Islamic State is defeated.

Some are seeing an American troop commitment as a chance to revisit the 2011 withdrawal of United States forces that seemingly opened a door for Iran.

When American officials in Iraq began the slow wind-down of the military mission there, in 2009, some diplomats in Baghdad were cautiously celebrating one achievement: Iran seemed to be on its heels, its influence in the country waning.

“Over the last year, Iran has lost the strategic initiative in Iraq,” one diplomat wrote in a cable, later released by WikiLeaks.

But other cables sent warnings back to Washington that were frequently voiced by Iraqi officials they spoke to: that if the Americans left, then Iran would fill the vacuum.

Ryan C. Crocker, the American ambassador in Iraq from 2007 to 2009, said that if the United States left again after the Islamic State was defeated, “it would be effectively just giving the Iranians a free rein.”

But many Iraqis say the Iranians already have free rein. And while the Trump administration has indicated that it will pay closer attention to Iraq as a means to counter Iran, the question is whether it is too late.

“Iran is not going to sit silent and do nothing,” said Sami al-Askari, a senior Shiite politician who has good relationships with both the Iranians and Americans. “They have many means. Frankly, the Americans can’t do anything.”

Source: NYT > World

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