When it comes to internal Iraqi politics, there is an alluring tendency to analyze events in terms of foreign forces at work in the country. For example, the Independent's Beirut-based columnist Robert Fisk disparages the Iraqi government as a "satrap of Iran," while on the other side, Daniel Pipes refers to officials like Jalal Talabani and Hoshyar Zebari as "America's kept politicians." Is either of these views correct? It can be tempting -- and in some ways useful -- to explain political turmoil within Iraq in terms of interference by neighboring countries and other foreign powers, and I admit to having done just that in "Iraq and the Middle Eastern Cold War," which examined how Iran and Saudi Arabia have been increasingly jostling for influence in Iraq since the beginning of the drawdown of U.S. troops in August of last year.
The hypotheses of both Fisk and Pipes, however, present problems. The Supreme Islamic Council – probably Iran's staunchest ally in Iraq -- only won 20 seats out of 325 in Iraq's parliament during the elections of March 2010. This result represents a significant drop in power and influence since the 2005 elections, when it emerged as the largest single political bloc. A key factor behind this development has been a perception among the Iraqi people -- including substantial parts of the Shi'a community -- that it is an agent working for Tehran, an allegation exploited by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in the 2008 provincial elections. Back then, al-Maliki urged Iraqis to vote only for candidates "who are loyal to Iraq" (al-Zaman, January 25, 2009). Such a tactic worked successfully in securing far more votes for his State of Law bloc than for the Supreme Islamic Council.
More recently, Iraqi security forces have commenced a military offensive with 2000 soldiers and police officers to launch a crackdown -- primarily in the southern province of Maysan -- on Iranian-backed Shi'i militias such as the "Hezbollah Brigades," which have been responsible for an ongoing surge in attacks on U.S. troops. With fourteen American soldiers killed in June, the U.S. armed forces have witnessed their bloodiest month in Iraq in three years. It would appear that the Iranian-backed militias are trying to claim credit for an impending pullout of U.S. troops as the Iraqi government continues to debate whether it should extend the 31 December 2011 withdrawal deadline stipulated by the Status of Forces Agreement.
Besides the offensive in Maysan -- soon to be extended to Basra -- the Iraqi security forces have increased their efforts to arrest militants and carry out patrols to prevent rocket and mortar attacks on American bases. This initiative has helped allay fears that al-Maliki would not act against the pro-Iranian militants, as some have ties with the Sadrists who run certain government ministries. The Sadrist governor of Maysan, Hakim al-Zamili, has criticized the administration in Baghdad for the offensive in Baghdad, arguing that the focus should be on Tanzim Qaidat al-Jihad fi Bilad Al-Rafidayn (al-Qa'ida in Iraq). If the Iraqi government were really a satrap of Iran, it would surely be trying to devise excuses for not acting against the Hezbollah Brigades, and urging the Americans to hasten their withdrawal of troops from the country.
Some prefer to point to the actions of the Iraqi security forces against the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK—an Iranian exile group opposed to the Islamic Republic and based at Camp Ashraf, which is around 120 km west of the Iranian border) as evidence for strong Iranian influence on the Iraqi government, but in reality, the picture is much more complex. Undoubtedly, Iran desires a crackdown on the MEK, yet if Iran's grip were as powerful as Fisk claims, the MEK would have been completely removed from Camp Ashraf years ago. Yet the MEK still has its base there: Iraq's politicians are divided as to what should be the Iraqi government's stance towards the MEK. Although many Shi'a and Kurdish politicians want to remove the MEK, their reason for doing so is not to placate Iran. Rather, the desire to get rid of the MEK is rooted in the fact that the group is strongly disliked by many Iraqis for its alleged role in the Baathist suppression of the Shi'i and Kurdish uprisings during and after the First Gulf War. Other Iraqi political elites are either apathetic or prefer to leave the MEK alone. Figures in Ayad Allawi's opposition bloc, for instance, have asked the UN Security Council to protect the Iranian exiles in Camp Ashraf.
Also, trying to understand Iraq's internal dynamics in terms of the division between the "resistance" bloc led by Iran and Turkey and the "status-quo" bloc led by Saudi Arabia ultimately does not work. In particular, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Syria have always backed Ayad Allawi for the position of Prime Minister, whereas Iran and the United States supported al-Maliki in his eventually successful efforts to run for a second term as PM. Turkey's main concern has been to assert its own interests in Iraq, rather than accomplish shared objectives with Iran. Most notably, Turkey has constructed many dams along the Euphrates, reducing the river's water level in Iraq, thereby causing great problems for Iraqis dwelling near this vital water source. By building these dams, Turkey unfortunately has the potential to create future "oil-for-water" trade schemes with Iraq.
In a similar vein, while it is true that some Iraqi political figures such as Jalal Talabani have welcomed the pointlessly gargantuan U.S. embassy complex in Baghdad, there is no good evidence to support the accusation that Iraq's politicians are on Washington's payroll. Although the American embassy creates an unnecessary impression of a raw assertion of U.S. power, how does one explain why there has not yet been an agreement to extend the U.S. troop-presence as senior American military officials would like to see, assuming that Iraq's government consists of kept politicians? Further, it should be noted how the present Iraqi government has been formed. It has not been forged on Washington's terms. Instead, the compromise was settled by Massoud Barazani, who convened a meeting in Arbil last December of the factions that had hitherto been unable to reach an agreement since the March elections. Above all, the compromise has stressed notions of "national partnership" or "power sharing," such that political positions have been awarded on a strictly personal basis: Jalal Talabani is to remain president of Iraq for a second term; Nouri al-Maliki secured a place as prime minister, also for a second term. In the meantime, ministerial portfolios were given to respective partners of the two men -- but an office known as the "Supreme Council for Strategic Policies" was created, designed to placate Ayad Allawi and the al-Iraqiya bloc.
Make no mistake: the emphasis is on the personal level, as analysts such as Joel Wing of the blog Musings on Iraq* have pointed out. Political developments need to be understood in light of the personal power struggles and rivalries -- some of which go back decades -- within the ruling elite. This tendency explains why problems such as corruption and poor provision of public services have become so deeply entrenched within Iraqi society. Preoccupied with their own desires for political power, government officials have been reluctant to tackle the broader socio-economic challenges facing the nation. This indifference has, in turn, sparked off the protests that began at the very end of January and have generally received a lack of coverage in the Western media.
The Iraqi government is, therefore, neither a satrap of Iran nor a puppet for the United States, despite significant diplomatic and economic ties to Tehran and Washington. In short, it is evident that Baghdad is now doing whatever it wants, and we should not expect foreign pressures to change this course anytime soon.
* For the record, Joel Wing is one of the most informed commentators on developments in Iraq. His indefatigable ability to gather reports and news sources on the latest happenings -- as well as his willingness to answer queries -- has been of great value in pieces I have written here and here. Check out his blog.