IRAQ IS AT THE CROSSROADS – A CIVIL UNREST AND AN INEVITABLE DIVISION

By: - August 24, 2022

Iraq is on the brink of fierce civil unrest or, in other words, an internal Shiite-Shiite conflict between the pro-Iranian camp and the Sadrist movement that could lead to an armed confrontation and eventually to an inevitable division after two decades of political and security turmoil after two decades of chaos, instability, waste of resources, mismanagement, rampant corruption and terror that followed the invasion of Iraq and the collapse of the former Ba’ath regime in 2003. Yet, for the many U.S.-based think tanks and influential decision-making centers, the situation is viewed as an implicit stage of the evolution of “the so-called” democracy.

The recent escalation of events and the severe tension emerged between the “Coordination Framework (CF); an alliance that includes prominent Iran-sponsored Shiite forces and political blocs, and the Sadrist movement, led by the Shiite religious clerk Muqtada al-Sadr, over the elections and government formation process.

The political dispute revolves around forming the next government, as Muqtada al-Sadr, whose bloc won first place in the elections, insists on forming a national majority government, refusing to return to quotas-based governments and sectarian formations. On the other hand, the “Coordination Framework” alliance, which includes several forces allied to Iran, rejects the concept and also confirms its refusal to form any government that is not formed by the Shiite component bloc in Parliament.

The growing Iranian influence over the Iraqi political system in all branches (legislative, political, and executive) continues to constitute an obstacle to the stability of Iraq and a critical point that has brought the street to a boiling level; however, the recent escalation over the elections and government formation process indicates that Tehran has lost the ability to bridge the gap that afflicted the Shiite house, which was founded, sponsored, and empowered by Tehran since the fall of the Iraqi regime in 2003.

Popular anger and resentment against the political system in Iraq has started to become a general phenomenon and is no longer confined to a particular group or sect of the people. While Iraqis suffer the lack of services and basic life necessities, the main demands remain unchanged; changing the system, ending the Iranian guardianship over Iraq, and overcoming the rampant corruption, waste of resources, sabotage of infrastructure, and armed militias.

As the dispute between the Sadrist movement and the coordination framework rages, the Sunni and Kurds, some of which are siding with al-Sadr, are closely monitoring developments to take a political position regarding the dissolution of the current Parliament and holding early elections.

The major Sunni blocs tend to side with Muqtada al-Sadr in challenging the Iranian-linked camp and the legislative authority in Baghdad, while others among the Sunni community are preparing a counterattack. IRGC-Sponsored Sunni political officials (Mostly from Al-Anbar) have agreed during the past days to form a political bloc supporting the Coordination Framework. The effort has been coordinated by the controversial militia commander Qassim Musleh, the PMF Head of Operations in Al-Anbar province and the primary coordinator of multiple attacks on U.S. and coalition bases in western Iraq.

It is also imperative to note that many of the current Sunni representatives and leaders of political blocs are connected to Iran in one way or another. The presence of these Sunni officials in the political arena is exclusively linked to the blessing granted by the Islamic Republic of Iran, either directly or through its militias and proxies in Iraq. In contrast, the prominent Sunni political and popular leaders, whether secular, technocrats, liberals, or conservatives, chose to distance themselves from the scene and either observe or participate in covert opposition in exile.

–      The Iranian Position 

Experience shows that Tehran’s regime sees its interest in keeping Iraq under control, away from any armed conflict that may lead to a new American intervention in Iraq, whether on the military or intelligence level. Therefore, the “Coordination Framework” is unlikely to violate the directives of the Iranian regime and will try to avoid Shiite-Shiite confrontation at all costs.

Accordingly, the recent visit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) commander; Ismael Qaani, to Iraq revolved around showing some flexibility in dealing with AL-Sadr in order to avoid any unnecessary clash that might turn into an armed conflict between the Shiite factions, which would complicate matters for the Iranian regime and may encourage the U.S. government to intervene again in one way or another in Iraq. However, in recent days, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) special units activities have been reported in the Jurf Al Sakhar area (60 kilometers southwest of Baghdad). Additionally, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) forces and technical vehicles have been mobilized along the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) borders.

This does not contradict the established fact that the regime in the Islamic Republic of Iran masters both negotiations and retaliation. The Iranian intelligence services and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) forces have a wide range of capabilities and a near global reach to carry out unconventional operations against the most challenging targets. Based on past experience, should this situation heat up further to the level that threatens the Iranian establishment achievements in Iraq, Iran will eliminate Muqtada Al Sadr without any hesitation. 

–      Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI)

Impacts; the KDP and PUK leaderships in Kurdistan want little to no part in any armed confrontation. If tensions escalate, the Kurds will initially avoid taking action in support of either party. However, if any armed confrontation occurs between the two parties to the conflict, the most likely scenario is for the KRI to declare its secession and independence officially, which goes beyond the framework of possibilities more towards reality, taking into account the readiness of the Kurds for this stage.

Iran views the Iraqi Kurds as a potential threat. The KDP and PUK cooperated closely with the U.S. to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime. Since 2003, the KRG has provided a base for U.S. Special Operations Forces and intelligence agencies. Iranian leaders believe that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia secretly supported anti-Iranian Kurdish insurgent groups based in the KRI. Some Iranian leaders also view the KRG as a secret ally of the Israelis.

Iran already has a long history of working with and against Kurdish groups in Iraq. In the 1970s, the Shah supported and then abandoned Iraqi Kurdish insurgents fighting Saddam’s regime. In the 1990s, Iran militarily supported the PUK in the KDP-PUK civil war. Since 2003, Iran has used its economic influence in the KRI to manipulate Kurdish leaders. Iran views the KDP as a more significant threat to Iranian interests than the PUK.

In the event of an Iranian failure in containing the chaos, and the continued collapse of the Coordination Framework (CF) under the momentum of the Sadrist Movement, supported by popular anger and the Sunni-Kurds political harmony, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) will most likely provide support to anti-KDP and anti- PUK Kurdish groups and encourage them to demonstrate against the government and create some level of public disorder. If tensions increase further, the groups may be tasked to conduct limited terrorist operations in the KRI. Iran may apply pressure on the disunited PUK leadership and attempt to form a political coalition to oppose the KDP.

–      The Sunni Arabs

For more than two decades, the Sunni Arabs have tried to reach a formula of coexistence that guarantees their constitutional and human rights in their country after being subjected to a systematic “Iranian Sponsored” campaign of persecution, marginalization, exclusion, and assassinations on sectarian grounds, in addition to campaigns of organized displacement and demographic changes to limit their territorial existence.

The suffering experienced by the Sunni Arabs in Iraq over the past two decades prompted the Sunni Arabs to accept any viable option, including autonomy, confederation, or political separation formulas. Should an armed conflict erupt in Iraq and resulted in a collapse of the existing political system, the Sunnis will immediately seek some form of independence.

Impacts; the Sunni community is ideologically prepared to distance themselves from the conflict and to resort to any means that would enable them to obtain their rights to self-determination. However, this does not eliminate the possibility of being drawn into an armed confrontation and perhaps the emergence of a new era of insurgency, extremist movements, and the return of terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS, which still have noticeable capabilities to conduct systematic operations (Seize, Contain and Advance) in fragile areas and territories that lack military coverage.

–      United States’ Interests 

Should this conflict develop into an armed confrontation, there could be security implications for the U.S. diplomatic mission, logistics installations, and U.S. companies working in Iraq. While the primary objective would most likely be to strike U.S. government posts, military assets, or allies. International companies and personnel could possibly become a target of opportunity as well.

Additionally, should the situation escalate, resulting in U.S. interests being targeted by Iranian-sponsored militias or proxies, Iran’s initial focus in Kurdistan will be to contain the KRI support for U.S. intelligence, covert action, and military operations to limit the U.S. response capacity.

Iran may also find some benefit in sending a message to the U.S. Government by having PMUs and affiliated militias harass U.S.-owned International Oil Companies (IOCs) and other businesses operating in southern areas of the Kurdistan Region (KRI). To further distract and preoccupy the U.S. forces in the region, Iran may have regional proxies and affiliates such as Hezbollah and other factions coordinate systematic attacks on U.S. posts in Syria.