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Iraq is heading toward civil war; Washington must not take advantage - By Hussain Abdul-Hussain, Syndication Bureau



Ten months after Iraq’s pro-Iran bloc was soundly defeated in Iraqi parliamentary elections, and less than a week after Shiite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr announced his retirement from political life, a stalemate between Shiites who oppose Tehran and those who support it seems to be leading the country toward civil war.
Yet this is only half the story. There is a pattern that connects US policy on Iran and civil wars in the Middle East. Whenever Washington offers Arab countries up as prizes to Iran for the freezing of uranium enrichment, those same Arab countries — usually with significant Shiite populations — plunge into conflict. This happened in Lebanon in 2008, in Iraq and Yemen in 2014, and is happening again in Iraq.
Previous civil wars in the Middle East were preceded by allegations in Washington that respecting Iranian interests in the region was key to peace. Today, those same arguments are being made by the same American leaders, only this time they occupy the White House.
In 2012, US forces had just withdrawn from Iraq. At the time, Secretary of State Antony Blinken was serving as the national security advisor to then-vice president Joe Biden. Blinken oversaw the Obama administration’s Iraq portfolio, making him the top White House official on Iraq. In a March 2012 speech, Blinken argued that “Iraq and Iran will inevitably be more intertwined than we, and many of its neighbors, would like”. While he acknowledged that the majority of its leaders were resistant to outside influence, including from Iran, crucially, he did not say the US would help them resist.
Tehran interpreted that statement as Washington green-lighting its dominance of Iraq. Coming amid a campaign by then-Iraqi prime minister Nouri Al Maliki to purge Sunnis from power, it also coincided with the rise of Daesh and eventual takeover of the northwest in 2014. An inter-Iraqi war ensued, with America leading a global coalition against Daesh.
In both Iraq and Iran, the majority is Shiite, which has prompted Tehran to try to use Shiism to override the national divide, subdue Iraqis, and make them pledge allegiance to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
But not so fast. Most Iraqi Shiites have proven to be patriotic, regardless of their religious affiliation, and as such, have opposed Tehran’s dominance at home. These Iraqis expressed their sentiment when they roundly defeated Iranian incumbent lawmakers in parliamentary elections in October, leading the pro-Tehran parliamentary bloc to shrink to 15 members from 75.
Losing its majority, the pro-Iran coalition tried to torpedo election results but failed. It then hoped to kill a parliamentary quorum, but an anti-Iran majority formed, and in January, anti-Tehran Speaker Mohammad Al-Halbousi was reelected.
A civil war in Iraq might not go Iran’s way and could even drag on, threatening Iraq and possibly shutting down its export of 4 million barrels of oil a day, thus shaking the global economy that is already starved of energy because of the Russian war in Ukraine.
Then, just when the anti-Iran majority was about to elect a president and designate a prime minister, the Iran bloc convinced the Iraqi supreme court to ignore democratic rules and declare that a supermajority of two-thirds was required for a quorum to elect a president and form a Cabinet. In parliamentary systems, like in Britain, only a simple majority is required to govern. Supermajorities are for big decisions, such as constitutional amendments.
As Iraq’s stalemate persisted, the Iranian bloc caught another break with the clumsiness and inexperience of its opponents. Hoping to make a splash and force the hand of the Iran bloc, Sadr instructed his bloc of 73 lawmakers, the biggest in parliament, to resign. But instead of things shaking out Sadr’s way, the pro-Iran coalition anointed its losing candidates as replacements, obtaining a majority. Tehran’s allies then changed position — from insisting that anything short of a national unity Cabinet would lead to civil war, to speeding up the process of electing a president and forming a Cabinet regardless of minority blocs.
To stop Iran’s march toward absolute power in Iraq, Sadr was left with one tool: taking to the streets. On Monday, he announced his “final withdrawal” from politics, which prompted deadly protests by supporters. But by using this card, Sadr inadvertently played Tehran’s game of having non-state actors rule using brute force, as in Lebanon and Yemen.
Unlike in Lebanon and Yemen, however, Iran’s partisans have no monopoly over the Shiites. A civil war in Iraq might not go Iran’s way and could even drag on, threatening Iraq and possibly shutting down its export of 4 million barrels of oil a day, thus shaking the global economy that is already starved of energy because of the Russian war in Ukraine.
But then, as a reward for Iran agreeing to the revival of a skewed nuclear deal, Washington might again offer Iraq as a prize to sweeten the pot for Tehran. One way America could do this is by starving Sadr’s militias and Iraq’s government forces of arms, while allowing Tehran’s militias to receive all the support they need to win the war.
Iraq is about to plunge into a civil war that could spill beyond its borders. Such a war will shake the region and the world economy. Washington is well advised to think of an unfolding Iraqi civil war as a threat to its national interests and global peace — not as a reward that can entice Iran into signing a nuclear deal.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. Twitter: @hahussain. Syndication Bureau.

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