Forty days after Qassem Suleimani’s killing, what’s next for Iraq?

The most urgent question after Suleimani’s assassination is whether Iran’s influence will weaken in Iraq

TOPSHOT - An Iraqi demonstrator carries a portrait of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani during an anti-government demonstration in the southern city of Basra on February 7, 2020. Iraq's top Shiite cleric condemned recent deadly attacks on anti-government demonstrators, chastising security forces for not doing more to prevent violence in protest squares across the country. Eight demonstrators were killed this week in attacks on protest camps by supporters of populist cleric Moqtada Sadr, including in the shrine city of Najaf -- home to Iraq's Shiite religious leadership.  / AFP / Hussein FALEH
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This Wednesday marks 40 days since the killing of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps' Quds Force leader, General Qassem Suleimani in Baghdad. A war between the US and Iran might have been averted but the battle for the future of Iraq will only intensify in the coming months.

General Suleimani was the embodiment of Iranian military expansionism in the Middle East – especially Iraq – and was instrumental in forming and developing several Iraqi militias, primarily loyal to Tehran, under the umbrella of People’s Mobilisation Units. Over the past few years, Iraqi militia leaders would clamber to appear close to Suleimani and flaunt their allegiance to him and the Revolutionary Guards.

The American drone strike that killed Suleimani also killed Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, the founder of Kataib Hezbollah, one of the most powerful of the Iraqi Shiite militias backed by and loyal to Tehran. With both gone, various Iraqi Shiite leaders seek to become the leading man for Iran. Moqtada Al Sadr, who was traditionally known as a “nationalist” leader, now seems keen to fill that vacuum.

In a dramatic turn of events, Mr Al Sadr has turned on the protesters who took to the streets since last October demanding change in Iraq, including ending Iran’s domineering role in the country. In the last two weeks, Mr Al Sadr’s men stormed Tahrir Square, where Iraq’s protesters had been demanding change and calling for a strong nationalist government that would end foreign meddling and corruption. Proving he can take charge and control the streets is Mr Al Sadr’s surest way to get Tehran’s support. In return, he would seek to undercut rivals from Shiite militia groups and most significantly Qais Al Khazali, the leader of Asa'ib Ahl Al Haq who has largely gone underground in the last month, fearing a similar fate to Al Muhandis.

The Iranian envoy to the United Nations Majid Takht Ravanchi has said that his country is not responsible for what the Iraqi militias – its proxies – may do. Mr Takht Ravanchi is continuing with the long-held Iranian policy of showing a “diplomatic” face to the West, while its proxies under the direction of the IRGC conduct militant operations. For example, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif does not handle the Syria, Iraq, Yemen or Lebanon files, as this is left to the IRGC.

Last October, security officials in Baghdad gathered for a meeting with then Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, who is also the commander in chief of the Iraqi forces. Instead of Mr Abdul Mahdi chairing the meeting, Suleimani walked into the room and gave them directives to quell Iraqi protests. More than 600 peaceful protesters were killed over the subsequent four months. Mr Al Sadr’s armed men, known as the “blue caps”, attacked protesters in Baghdad and Najaf, killing eight and wounding dozens.

The protests, which are largely in Baghdad and predominantly Shia-majority provinces, have been post-sectarian, focusing on curbing foreign interference, militia rule and corruption. There is a vocal push back against Iran’s presence in Iraq. The people Iran claimed to represent, young Shiites, are rejecting the very system it has promoted in Iraq. Protests have entered their fifth month, despite violent responses from the militias.

The most urgent question in the aftermath of the assassination of Suleimani is whether Iran's influence will be weaker in Iraq. While Suleimani and Al Muhandis are survived by militia structures and militia leaders loyal to Tehran, their deaths are a significant loss and have undermined the sense of invincibility the Iran-backed militias have enjoyed in Iraq. The credibility of Iran has further been weakened by their botched attempt to cover up their responsibility for the downing of the Ukrainian jetliner in Tehran, which killed 176 people.

Iran’s relations with Iraqi officials and militias are based on a variety of interests – and sometimes ideology. Some, like American-designated terrorist and militia leader Qais Al Khazali, are firm believers in the Iranian doctrine of Wilayat Al Faqeeh.. Others rely on Iranian pressure to ensure they are included in political party lists during elections. Iraqi militias and their patrons in Tehran will do everything they can to re-impose their image of indomitability.

Mr Al Sadr is trying to play a significant role in trying to appear as an “Iraqi nationalist”, yet his men’s attacks on the popular protesters will undermine that narrative.

There are Shiite Islamists who believe that Iraq must follow the path of Iran, embrace religious doctrine and espouse an official hatred toward the US, encapsulated in the chants of “Death to America.” These Iraqi factions are among the ultra-conservative Shiite leaders who wanted to change Iraq’s name from the Republic of Iraq to the Islamic Republic of Iraq in 2003 but lost the argument at the time.

And then there are those in Iraq who are calling for a secular state that respects civic rights, building on the modern history of Iraq. This is a battle particularly of significance for women. Iraq has a tradition of strong women in the public sphere, from having Naziha Al Dulaimi as the first female minister for the Arab world in 1958 to Sabiha Al Sheikh Dawood appointed as the first female judge. Iraq’s young protesters want to see it regain its rightful place as a leader in the region. Mr Al Sadr’s call this week for protesters to be segregated by gender and his criticism of young women on the streets was met by anger by the protesters who mock his call both on the streets and online.

The internal battle between various Iraqi sides is a microcosm of struggle in the region – a battle of competing interests, a battle of those rejecting religion as the political organising force in the state and those who want to impose it. It is equally a battle of citizens wanting to reinforce their nations’ sovereignty and non-state actors wanting to impose foreign agendas.

For four months, young Iraqis have been demonstrating against incompetent and corrupt leaders. They have lost some of their finest, including popular Iraqi journalist Ahmed Abdul Samad and his cameraman Safaa Ghali, who were killed by armed militias in Basra last month after repeatedly uncovering the atrocities of these militias.

They succeeded in getting a new Prime Minister designated, Mohammed Allawi, who at the very least, is not beholden to militias and is not known to be corrupt or controlled by Tehran. But their aspirations are rightly much higher than that.

While the might of Iranian militias, willing to kill, kidnap and torture, is evident, the strength of passionate youth in Iraq can yet tip the balance in the region. The world should not abandon them.

Mina Al-Oraibi is editor-in-chief of The National