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For the sake of its people, Iraq must remain neutral in US-Iran standoff

  • Tallha Abdulrazaq
  • 13 Jan 2020

Iraq is far too fragile to find itself on a collision course with the US, for the sake of Iran.

Anti government protesters carry a poster with Arabic that reads "leave us live in peace," during the ongoing protests in Tahrir square, Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, Jan. 10, 2020. ( AP )

In the aftermath of the US drone strike that took out infamous Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) General Qasem Soleimani, Tehran’s allies in Baghdad have been making noise about forcing the United States to depart from Iraq once and for all.

In an extraordinary session of parliament last Sunday, Iraqi lawmakers carrying placards of Soleimani as well as Deputy Chief of the Shia militia Hashd al Shaabi Abu Mahdi al Muhandis — who was also killed by the US strike — backed a government motion calling for the expulsion of American forces.

This decision could have catastrophic decisions for Iraq, not least of which because the country may once again position itself against the world’s foremost superpower, something that did not work out so well the first time around.

No sovereignty or power to kick the US out

The parliamentary vote was attended only by Shia MPs and boycotted by everyone else, showing that neither Kurdish or Sunni political forces supported the decision and therefore there was no national consensus.

Speaker Mohammed al Halbusi was the only Sunni present, and urged fellow parliamentarians to postpone the vote otherwise it would be seen as a “vote of the Shia” that did not represent the other major ethno-sectarian demographics.

Despite being one of Iran’s main establishment men in Iraq, Halbusi spoke the truth. Without a national consensus, any unilateral decision by one ethnic or sectarian group over another to serve the interests of a third-party power would lead Iraq into a spiral of division and violence even worse than it already suffers.

Also, Iraqi politicians appear to be willfully ignoring the sheer weight and power of the United States. Quite ironically, it is this same political class that was empowered by the Americans that is now seeking to oust it from Iraq to please Iran.

Once the Americans successfully won the war on behalf of this newly-minted political elite and had overthrown the former regime of Saddam Hussein, they immediately proceeded to set up some checks and balances to ensure Iraqis played ball with the United States for the foreseeable future. Amongst these was the financial mechanisms by which Iraq would be allowed to do business with the rest of the world.

Due to the catastrophic sanctions regime that wrecked the Iraqi economy between 1990 and 2003, Iraq did not have an economic system to speak of. Despite being one of the wealthiest countries in the world in terms of its oil reserves, Iraqis found themselves amongst the poorest and most destitute people in the Middle East.

The new Iraqi regime signed agreements with their American benefactors that would allow Washington to open bank accounts for the Iraqi state in the US Federal Reserve. One of these accounts became known as the Development Fund for Iraq (DFI) and enjoyed certain protections from the US administration that prevented creditors from cashing in on Iraqi debt, which is currently around the $70 billion mark.

Iraqi oil sales largely fund the DFI, and monies contained in the DFI pay out the salaries of civil servants, infrastructure programmes, and defence procurement.

Should Iraq burn bridges with the US, President Donald Trump has already threatened to strike back with a sanctions regime that would make the ones on Iran look like a walk in the park. He will undoubtedly be aware that his administration controls Iraq’s purse strings, and part of the sanctions regime the US will likely slap Baghdad with — should its belligerence towards the American presence continue — is to cut all public sector salaries.

Iraq cannot withstand new sanctions

Considering the Iraqi public sector is about half the labour force, the effects on the Iraqi population will be catastrophic. This will, of course, revive painful memories of medicine and food shortages leading to the deaths of half a million Iraqi children by 1996 with likely many hundreds of thousands more by the time of the invasion in 2003.

During that sanctions regime imposed upon the Iraqis by a US-led and UN-sanctioned effort, Iraq’s natural resources and wealth were exploited by international and mainly Western powers. The controversial oil-for-food programme was established which was essentially supposed to operate as part of a barter system, allowing Iraq to trade its substantial oil wealth for essential supplies such as food and medicine.

In reality, the system was highly corrupt and helped the then-Baathist authorities to profit illegally and also corrupt UN officials to exploit the situation and give Iraqis shoddy supplies.

In other words, sanctions ended up insulating Saddam Hussein’s regime while wreaking havoc on the Iraqi population, leading to malnourishment, lack of medical provision, and the deaths of countless Iraqi civilians. Should Iraq decide to throw its lot in with Iran overtly, it will show the world that Iraq has definitively lost all sovereignty, and will make the country a target for a vengeful Trump who seemingly prefers to impose sanctions as his primary tool of power projection.

It is therefore not in Iraq’s national interests to cut ties with the United States and to put itself against Washington for the sake of placating and pleasing Iran. Iraq is in no position to be going up against its primary financier and lacks the infrastructure, international credit rating, and human resources to stand on its own two feet let alone go toe-to-toe with the US.

If politicians in Baghdad care even a little bit about the Iraqi people, they will walk back from this disastrous decision and try to be neutral between both Tehran and Washington. This is not about being pro-US and anti-Iran or vice versa, but it is about being pro-Iraq and putting the interests of the Iraqi people first.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

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