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Saudi Arabia wades into Shi’ite politics in Iraq

By M K Bhadrakumar | Indian Punchline | August 1, 2017

The dramatic appearance of the Iraqi Shi’ite firebrand politician Muqtada Al-Sadr in Jeddah on Sunday and his meeting with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman opens an exciting page in the Saudi-Iranian regional rivalries. The theatre is shifting to Iraq.

Briefly, what is unfolding is a determined Saudi attempt to reset the power calculus in post-ISIS Iraq by moulding a new political alignment that principally aims at undermining the pre-eminent influence that Iran has enjoyed over its neighbour in the past decade or so following the Shi’ite empowerment in the downstream of the US invasion of 2003.

Iran’s main platform on the Iraqi political landscape has been the umbrella Shi’ite coalition known as the Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq (ISCI), which Tehran had created as far back as 1982, originally as a Shi’ite resistance movement against Saddam Hussein and most recently since the middle of the last decade following Saddam’s overthrow as a united front to contest the democratic elections in Iraq with an agenda to preserve the Shi’ite leadership of the government.

To cut a long story short, ISCI is unravelling due to latent rivalries between various constituent groups. (Shi’ite politics has been traditionally very fractious, including in Iran.) Now, the split is also on account of a strong undercurrent of resentment over Iran’s dominance over Iraqi politics. (For the benefit of the uninitiated, again, the potency of Iraqi nationalism – a legacy of the Saddam era, paradoxically – subsuming the ethnic and sectarian divides in the country should never be underestimated.)

Importantly, the new generation of the powerful Hakim family led by Ammar Al-Hakim has moved out of the ISCI and has shifted allegiance from Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei to Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani. Equally, Muqtada al-Sadr who has stepped out of Iran’s orbit has assumed a nationalistic, non-sectarian platform in the recent years. Again, within the ruling Islamic Dawa Party, which is the main constituent of the ISCI, there is an internal power struggle between the incumbent PM Haidar Al-Abadi and the former PM Nouri al-Maliki. (Currently, Maliki is a favourite of Iran; interestingly, Al-Abadi recently visited Saudi Arabia during which an announcement was made that the two countries have formed a ‘coordination council’ to bolster strategic relations aimed at healing troubled ties with ‘other Arab states’.)

Enter Saudi Arabia. Quite obviously, Saudis see a window of opportunity to go for Iran’s jugular veins by breaking up the ISCI irretrievably and instead propping up a new composite non-sectarian coalition involving the Shi’ite factions who resent Iran’s hegemony. No doubt, it is an audacious attempt to bring together – you’ve guessed it – Muqtada al-Sadr, Ammar Al-Hakim and Al-Abadi – on the same page.

The Crown Prince MBS is the mastermind behind this audacious Saudi move to manipulate the Shi’ite politics in Iraq. Arguably, the Saudi game plan has some positive streaks in it insofar as it envisages a non-sectarian realignment in Iraqi politics by encouraging a regrouping of the Shi’ite factions that give primacy to Iraqi nationalism over the identity politics they pursued up until recently. In turn, MBS would probably persuade these Shi’ite factions to work with the Iraqi Sunni factions and the Kurds. (By the way, Saudis recently opened a consulate in Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan in northern Iraq.)

Cynics would say that Saudis are having a devious agenda to: a) break up Shi’ite unity in Iraq; b) empower the Sunni groups as a ruling elite; and, c) create a schism between ‘Arab Shias’ and ‘Persian Shias’. The jury is out. Time only will tell how these shenanigans play out. To be sure, MBS’s initiative to manipulate Iraqi politics must be enjoying the support of the US and Israel, since it ultimately aims at isolating Iran and mitigates to an extent Iran’s spectacular ‘victory’ in the Syrian conflict.

Will Iran throw in the towel and walk away? Certainly not. Iran’s trump card is the battle-hardened Shi’ite militia known as the Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi, which is estimated to number over 120000 and is a Hezbollah-like army that is disciplined, fired up ideologically, and weaned in the politics of ‘resistance’. By the way, Qassem Soleimani, the charismatic commander of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, was quoted as saying last week: “Daesh (ISIS) was stopped by the entry of Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi into the Iraqi army. The Iraqi army was transformed into a Hezbollah army.”

Now, that is a statement of fact. And, the ground reality is that today, in the chaotic war conditions in Iraq, power ultimately flows through the barrel of the gun. Stalin would have asked MBS as to how many divisions Al-Haikm, Al-Sadr and Al-Abadi together have under their command? Will the number come to even one half of the strength of Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi, the Iraqi Hezbollah, which Iran trained and equipped? Unlikely. Could they have taken on the ISIS and defeated it? No way.

July 31, 2017 Posted by | Wars for Israel | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment