The absence of former Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani is beginning to be felt in Iraq. The two meetings that US President Donald Trump had with the leader of Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government, Nechirvan Barzani, and Iraqi President Barham Salih in Switzerland on January 22 on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum are symptomatic of Washington’s agenda to press ahead with the rollback of Iranian influence in Iraq.
Barzani is becoming a key interlocutor for Washington in the new circumstances in which he will have a major role to play in the consolidation of the autonomy of the Kurdish regions in northern Syria. Indeed, from Washington’s perspective, Iraqi Kurdistan remains an oasis of stability and could provide an anchor for open-ended US military presence in the region. Extraction of the oil from eastern Syria is also feasible via Iraqi Kurdistan.
With Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi remaining in a caretaker position for now, Baghdad is dysfunctional and is in no position to impose authority over the northern Kurdistan region. Besides, Salih, an ethnic Kurd himself, is known to be only too keen to make himself useful to the Americans in the prevailing power vacuum.
Given the overall disarray among the Shiite parties and the United States’ dealings with many of them, there is no focal point at present in Shiite opinion about who can channel the latent anti-American sentiments. This is where Soleimani’s absence is most keenly felt. He had cast his net wide, cutting across regions and ethnic groups, and enjoyed the trust and confidence of his Iraqi partners. The broken bridges will take time to mend, if indeed they can be mended.
On January 24 a “million-strong march” took place in Baghdad. The call for the march came from cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who is a nationalist but has recently aligned himself more closely with Iran. The rally threatened to subsume and marginalize the US-backed protests of recent months, which aimed at undermining Iran’s influence in Iraq.
The big question is about the future of the paramilitary previously commanded by the powerful Shia militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis (who was killed in the same US strike targeting Soleimani). Known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), it is a 100,000-strong force welding together some 50 disparate militias, mostly Shiite fighters but not all, within which, in reality, Iran-aligned groups likely constitute a minority. These competing factions of the PMF have a history of conflict with one another and owed fealty to a range of allegiances.
Muhandis was the master craftsman who created the PMF, under the direct watch of Soleimani. Iran will find it impossible to re-create the leadership these two titanic figures gave to the resistance front in Iraq. Will the PMF remain a powerful political faction or become a victim of predatory forces in the uncertain times ahead? In the absence of an effective central command, contentious succession battles may even erupt between Iran-aligned groups within the PMF and Sadr’s bloc.
In the chaotic situation that is developing in Iraq, it seems impossible for Iraqi politics to return to the status quo. This also seems to be the hidden US agenda. The US-backed protesters have rejected new prime-ministerial candidates and are demanding an end to the corrupt political system divided along sectarian lines. It infinitely complicates the selection of a new prime minister. The logjam suits the US since the political system dominated by notoriously corrupt parties is tied to Iran, although it was the creation of Washington during the period of the occupation.
There is a growing risk that the meltdown of the Iraqi state could also lead to a replay of history. It is similar to the chaotic conditions that led to the Ramadan Revolution in February 1963 (the military coup by the Ba’ath Party’s Iraqi wing), which was allegedly supported by the US Central Intelligence Agency. Trump would undoubtedly be pleased with such an outcome.
MK Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat. This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute, which provided it to Asia Times.