US Influence in Iraq on the Decline

SULAIMANIYA – Iraq’s much-awaited recent power-sharing deal signifies a shift of influence on Iraqi politics away from the U.S. and its regional allies to domestic Iraqi political actors, most notably the Kurds, and eastward to Iran.

In a matter of days, Kurdish-initiated talks did what Washington and Tehran and their regional allies could not do during eight months of intense diplomacy. They convinced the leaders of almost all Iraqi parliamentary blocs to sit around a table for the first time since March elections.

The resulting agreement appears to have ended the country’s political impasse though tentatively. But the country’s largest Sunni-dominated bloc, al-Iraqiya, seems to be still unhappy with the powers it will be given in the new arrangement.

Al-Iraqiya led by the former prime minister Ayad Allawi, came first in the March parliamentary elections with 91 seats but fell far short of the 163-seat majority needed to form a government. The current PM Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law Coalition trailed al-Iraqiya with 89 seats. And Kurds ended up fourth with 57 seats after a coalition of mostly Shia religious parties that gained 70 seats.

While there was some doubt after the elections whether the Kurds can regain their king-maker position, they not only decided who would rule the country, but in a significant shift of role took a step beyond that to become the very glue holding Iraq’s fragmented political landscape together. This runs contrary to the conventional thinking among Iraqi Arab parties and regional countries that often suspect Kurds of harboring separatist agendas, and the view that they do not care about the chaos in the non-Kurdish parts of the country.

“The Kurdish vision for the talks was not tied to the agenda of any regional or foreign power and was not aimed at asserting the hegemony of a particular foreign country on Iraqis,” said Hemin Mirani, head of the Kurdistan Institute for Political Issues (KIPI). KIPI is a think-tank based in Irbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdish region.

“Instead of roaming around the capitals of the regional countries, the Kurdish plan was to sit together inside Iraq and resolve the disputes right here… they had a realistic and balanced approach that did not favor one side against another.”

Amid all this, a stark reminder of Washington’s dwindling leverage in Iraq came from none other than Kurds themselves; they have been often touted as the closest allies of the U.S. in Iraq.

Despite what Kurdish leaders called “tremendous” pressure from the U.S., its regional Arab allies, and Turkey, they did not heed White House calls for Allawi to get the post of president. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden had made personal phone calls to Kurdish leaders to concede the office of presidency to Allawi. But in the end Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani was elected to serve as president for another four-year term.

“With regard to the office of presidency, there were, in fact, two kinds of pressures on us; one coming from the American friends and the other from other parties,” said Massoud Barzani, president of Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region at a meeting with the heads of Kurdish parties Nov. 14. “The gist of Americans’ pressure was that if the post [of president] were given to another party, then the problem might be resolved. But our position was that this would not only end up being detrimental to the Kurds, but also to Iraq.”

Barzani said it was a matter of “right” and “dignity” for the Kurds to occupy the presidency, no matter what their electoral numbers were.

For the post of prime minister, after what is widely seen as Iranian behind-the-scene engineering, Shia groups led by Maliki put together a larger parliamentary bloc than al-Iraqiya and secured the prized office of premiership.

“Iran’s role was stronger and more visible than U.S. role. The Iranians would be happier with the government that will be formed,” Mahmoud Othman, a veteran Kurdish politician and member of parliament told IPS. People are no longer “following America’s line,” he said.

In the immediate aftermath of the war, the U.S. spared no efforts to leave its mark on the shape of the country’s political landscape as it hand-picked the new ruling class. Voters later forced out some of the U.S. choices.

“We are witnessing the decline of U.S. hegemony over Iraq day after day,” said Mirani of KIPI. “The U.S. now understands its weight in Iraq and is acting accordingly.”

But not all analysts agree that the Iranian-backed Maliki’s reelection is a blow to U.S. interests in Iraq. Faisal Istrabadi, director of the Center for the Study of the Middle East at Indiana University, believes that the U.S. favors Maliki as part of its designs to disengage from Iraq, even though this has “reinforced Iran’s role in Iraq.”

The U.S. has currently less than 50,000 troops in Iraq in an advisory and training capacity. It is due to withdraw all its forces by the end of next year.

“The Obama administration is trying to force what it perceives as the easiest path to a new government in Iraq – even if it is pro-Iranian – not because it is in the U.S. national interest, but to enable it to head for the exit more quickly in advance of the president’s reelection campaign,” wrote Istrabadi in an article published on Nov. 17. Istrabadi, a dual Iraqi-U.S. citizen, was one of the principal drafters of Iraq’s provisional constitution in 2004 and its permanent representative to the United Nations.

“In this, Obama is following the example of President George W. Bush, who let the U.S. electoral agenda, rather than American – not to mention Iraqi – national interests, dictate Iraq policy.”

(Inter Press Service)