by Eldar Mamedov
With the Iraqi army launching a long-expected offensive to liberate Mosul from the so-called Islamic State (ISIS or IS), Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari was in Brussels for a session of the EU-Iraq Cooperation Council. He also addressed the foreign affairs committee of the European Parliament on October 19. This was a very timely appearance considering the world attention on the situation in Mosul. Just this week, for instance, the EP is gearing up for a debate and a resolution on the issue at its plenary session.
Outrage at the crimes of IS has generated broad support for the Iraqi offensive. Al-Jaafari, meanwhile, did his best to dispel a number of prejudices and misconceptions about Iraq.
First is the ubiquitous myth that Shiite sectarianism and pro-Iranian orientation are the main drivers of Baghdad’s policies. Because “Shiite” parties rule Iraq, it is assumed to be Tehran´s satellite and hostile to Sunnis. As such, the offensive of the Iraqi army—supported by the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), commonly called in the West “Shia militias”—inevitably puts at risk the majority Sunni population of Mosul.
As Iraqi diplomats have pointed out, this assumption is wrong on several accounts. First, despite the shared Shiite Muslim faith of the majority of population in Iraq and Iran, Baghdad is not Tehran’s satellite. Iran-Iraq relations are fraught with complications. Since Iraq was the only country to directly invade Iran in the last 100 years, the strategic rationale for Iran to maintain a friendly, or at least, non-hostile, regime in Baghdad is self-evident. The tremendous investment in blood and treasure Iran has made to shore up Bashar al-Assad in Syria would pale in comparison to what it would be prepared to do to secure favorable conditions in Iraq.
From Baghdad’s perspective, Iran is an important neighbor that shares with Iraq close historical, economic, cultural, and religious bonds. It would, however, be wrong to disregard the Iraqi nationalism that prevails even among Iraqi Shiites and sets them apart from Iran.
Iran’s arch-rival Saudi Arabia has recently re-opened its embassy in Baghdad—for the first time since the US invasion in 2003 removed Saddam Hussein from power—with a clear goal of weaning Iraq from Iranian influence. According to well-informed diplomatic sources on the ground, the Saudis have put out feelers to two very different Iraqi Shiite forces willing to check Tehran’s influence. These are the Najaf religious hierarchy—with Ayatollah Ali Sistani at its helm who opposes the Iranian concept of velayat-e fakih (the rule of Islamic jurist)—and the nationalist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Although the Saudis will not likely succeed given their own sectarian anti-Shiite, and not just anti-Iranian, policies, the mere fact that they feel emboldened to make such entreaties already testifies to the falsehood of an equivalence between Shiites and Iranians. Indeed, supporters of al-Sadr are known to resent what they see as excessive Iranian meddling in Iraqi affairs.
Although such tensions are perhaps inevitable between neighbors with asymmetrical power, with Iran currently the much more capable state than Iraq, the West should not look for ways to split Iraq from Iran. To the contrary, friendly relations between Tehran and Baghdad are an element of stability in a combustible part of the world.
A related issue is the allegedly Shiite sectarian character of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces. A number of voices have raised concerns about the potential harm the PMF may cause the mostly Sunni inhabitants of Mosul. Indeed, some of these forces have been accused of war crimes in the past. If these forces join the operation in Mosul, they should be extremely careful not to commit any atrocities against the Sunni civilians in order, among other things, not to fuel the IS narrative that it is “defending the Sunnis.”
The IS claim of defending the Sunnis has no basis in the reality. Al-Jaafari is right to say that the Sunnis did not ask IS to defend them. Salafist circles and others in the region and the West have propagated this narrative to legitimize the policy of containing Iran’s “nefarious influence” in Iraq, which it presumably exercises through “Shiite militias.” In reality though, as Iraqi scholar Ali Allawi shows in The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace, arguably the best book on post-Saddam Iraq, the Salafist ascendancy in parts of the Sunni community in Iraq, with its virulent anti-Shiism, long predates the emergence of the PMF.
Strictly speaking, the Popular Mobilization Forces have never been exclusively Shiite. There are Christian brigades embedded in the PMF and even around 16,000 non-Salafist Sunni fighters. One witness recalled meeting a man called Omar—a quintessentially Sunni name never to be found among Shiites—fighting with the Imam Hussein brigade, named in honor of a foremost Shiite saint. There is no Shiite onslaught on Sunnis. There is an IS and broader Wahhabi/Salafist onslaught on Shiites, Sunnis, Christians, Yazidis, and all other religious groups that form, in al-Jaafari’s words, the Iraqi mosaic.
Euro MPs are also concerned about the escalation of tensions between Turkey and Iraq provoked by Turkey’s reckless ambition to secure geopolitical gains in Mosul after the expulsion of IS. Despite Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s threats to intervene in Mosul, regardless of the position of the government in Baghdad and thus clearly in violation of international law and the sovereignty of Iraq, al-Jaafari did his best to sound conciliatory. He claimed to be the first foreign minister to call his Turkish counterpart to express support for the legitimate government of Turkey after the failed coup attempt on July 15 and emphasized “respect” in relations with Ankara. These comments reflect Bagdad’s desire to solve the standoff by diplomatic means. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi insists that Turkey has no permission for its presence in Mosul, and the Iraqi parliament has adopted a resolution on the matter. But as yet, there is no military mobilization against the Turkish interference, although one fatwa from Ayatollah Sistani would be enough to put Ankara in a very delicate position.
US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, while in Ankara on October 21, said that Turkey might have a role in the Mosul operation, but that it should be subject to Iraq’s approval. The EU, despite its dependence on Turkey to stem the refugee flow, will be equally firm in its demands for the respect of international law and Iraq’s sovereignty—just as it was in the case of Ukraine.
After all, as al-Jaafari stressed several times in his address to Euro MPs, IS is a common enemy of Europeans, Iraqis, Iranians, Turks, and all other peoples of the region. Mosul has to be liberated first. Only then can all the other issues and concerns of regional players be addressed—at the negotiations table not by unilaterally creating facts on the ground.
This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the European Parliament. Photo: Ibrahim al-Jaafari