Ammar al-Hakim, pictured on June 2, 2016. Photo: AFP / Haidar Hamdani
Ammar al-Hakim, pictured on June 2, 2016. Photo: AFP / Haidar Hamdani

A handful of Iraqi Shiite leaders have been trying – with very limited success – to shrug off long-held stereotypes that they are stooges of the Iranian regime. In April, the powerful cleric Muqtada al-Sadr called on Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad to step down, raising speculation that he was ready to part ways with the mullahs, given the amount of support Tehran has shown its Syrian ally since 2011.

Sadr, who commands a powerful parliamentary bloc and runs a militia bearing his name, was formerly a firm friend of Damascus and a 2012 recipient of the Syrian Order of Merit. His words were seen as a “soft defection” from the Iranian orbit; yet three months later, they seem like more of a trial balloon, as he remains firmly allied to Tehran and Damascus.

This month, heavyweight Shiite leader Ammar al-Hakim walked out on the Iran-funded Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, an all-Shiite party established by his uncle and father back in 1980. Hakim set up a new “independent” party called the National Wisdom Movement that denounces the “militarization of Iraqi society,” conveniently ignoring the fact that, for decades, his family operated a deadly militia that fought alongside the Iranians during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War and commanded death squads on the streets of Baghdad post-2003.

Hakim claims that his new party is not a vehicle for Iranian influence in Iraq, saying that it welcomes membership from Iraqi Sunnis, Christians, and ethnic Kurds. The influential Saudi daily, al-Hayat, sees this as a clear break from Iranian influence, hailing Hakim’s audacity and claiming that he is now seen as “moderate and acceptable” throughout the wider Arab and Muslim worlds.

In late July, a third heavyweight, Vice-President Nuri al-Malki, also hinted that he too was distancing himself from the Iranians, even though during his tenure as prime minister in 2006-2014, he was one of Iran’s staunchest allies in the Arab World. Almost single-handedly, Malki steered Iraq fully into the Iranian orbit, using his Dawa Party to infiltrate the Iraqi civil service and armed forces with Shiite affiliates. Under his premiership, Shiite militias executed Saddam Hussein and, six years later, entered the Syrian battlefield, fighting alongside Hizbullah.

Whether these overtures are sincere or synchronized and fake remains to be seen from how distant these three figures start becoming from Iran

However, Malki recently wrapped up a visit to St Petersburg – where he met Foreign Minister Serge Lavrov and President Vladimir Putin – by asking the Russians to play a greater role in Iraqi affairs. If that happens, it would be at the expense of Iranian influence. Some are speculating that Malki is upset with Iran for failing to protect him when he was ousted and replaced by the current premier Haidar Abadi, accused of failing to protect Iraqi towns and cities when they were overrun by the Islamic State in the summer of 2014. Now Malki is saying that he wants to achieve a “balanced policy,” one that “doesn’t allow a foreign political entity” to exert tutelage over Iraq — another veiled reference, it seems, to the Iranians.

Malki discussed revisiting an outstanding US$4.2 billion arms deal with Moscow that has been put on hold due to massive corruption and profiteering in the Iraqi Ministry of Defense. He asked to buy T-90 battle tanks from the Russians, a contract that could potentially reach US$1 billion.  

Whether these overtures are sincere or synchronized and fake remains to be seen from how distant these three figures start becoming from Iran. The fact that all of them have been on Iranian payroll since the 1980s and 90s makes it difficult to take their new positioning seriously. Indeed, they would all be political nobodies had it not been for solid Iranian political backing: Iran financed their rise to power, arming militias to protect them and cement their rule on the streets of Baghdad. In return, they willingly played the bridge for Iranian influence, helping to transform the country into an Iranian satellite from 2003 onwards.

Their defection, therefore, is more of a re-branding stunt than an actual rebirth, and aimed at polishing their image in non-Shiite circles. Hakim lost his parliamentary majority during the elections of 2010 because ordinary Iraqis wrote him off as an Iranian stooge, while Malki was hissed at on the streets of Baghdad in 2011 because of his submissiveness to Iranian hegemony. Instead of inventing new leaders, Tehran may have decided to give the existing ones a face-lift with an eye on upcoming Iraqi parliamentary elections in April 2018. 

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