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Mourners step over a U.S. flags with pictures of President Trump while waiting for the funeral of Iran's top general Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy commander of Iran-backed militias in Iraq known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, in Baghdad, Iraq, Saturday, Jan. 4, 2020. Thousands of mourners chanting "America is the Great Satan" marched in a funeral procession Saturday through Baghdad for Iran's top general and Iraqi militant leaders, who were killed in a U.S. airstrike. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

Iraq Developments in Shadow of US Expulsion Bill

Alwaght– The West Asia region’s developments have gone a different direction after the assassination of Iran’s top general Qassem Soleimani near Baghdad airport. Reacting to the US assassination of IRGC Quds Force’s commander General Qassem Soleimani and Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) deputy commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, various Iraqi political factions in addition to resistant groups called for the expulsion of the American forces from the country. The parliament approved a bill last week to expel the foreign forces from the country.

Alwaght arranged an interview with Saadollah Zarei, an Iranian expert of West Asia affairs, asking him to elaborate on the aspects of the US withdrawal from Iraq.

Asked about the potential impact of the US withdrawal from Iraq on the regional developments, Mr Zarei said that if there should be a precise analysis of the regional issues, it can be said that the disputes among the regional states are a function of the US status in the region. For example, in the recent tensions between the US and Iran, the regional states changed their stances, though temporarily. The Saudis, Emiratis, and others grew concerned, started to express interest in dialogue and sent delegations to Iran. This shows that their behavior is a function of American behavior. When the US is worried, they are worried and when the US feels powerful, they feel powerful and head to tensions and arrogance.

“This issue is also true in Iraq. If the US is undermined, dialogue among the Iraqis advances and the country gets a normal status, with those with greater population and weight becoming top actors. In such a situation, other groups accept reality. But when the Americans interfere, the political balance is subverted, with the weak actors playing as powerful and the powerful actors decline to a weak position. This causes home pessimism and in such situation some happenings take place in Iraq.”

He continued that now and after 17 years of viewing the US positively, anti-American pessimism is growing strong among the Iraqis, particularly the Shiite majority that has a key role in the developments. The pessimism ran so high that 170 of majorly Shiite lawmakers voted to expel the American troops from the country.

“This was a good start for the Iraqis. After the vote, even the Kurds took supportive stances. This was clear from the Kurdish region Prime Minister Masrour Barzani’s stance who said the Erbil supports Baghdad’s decisions. This anti-American sentiment is rising among the Iraqis who are arranging million-man marches to ask the Americans out. The US cannot continue in an unsafe atmosphere in Iraq. Should the Americans leave the country, we can see safer and more united Iraq.”

Mr Zarei was asked for his view on the US threats of sanctions while Iraq insists on expulsion.  He said that the threats indicate that Washington diplomacy has failed. Despite the fact that the US claims it is strong in Iraq and has military bases and troops and consulates and other institutions there, Washington pursues its problems through secret diplomacy. If the US has real power there, it would not resort to threats. Publicized threats only give away American weakness.

He continued: “Is sanctioning Iraq possible? Is struggling to reign in Iraq not costly for the US? Can the US shoulder the costs of sanctioning Iraq? How can the US press the buyers of the 3.5 million oil barrels per day to halt purchases? The anti-Iraqi ban is impossible because Baghdad could drift into the anti-American camp. The anti-Baghdad threats only reveal the American impasse in Iraq. Talking about the embargo on Iraqi oil shows that the US situation in Iraq is not normal. The Americans may threaten, but they are unable to implement their threats.

Mike Pompeo has recently threatened to cut off defense aids to Baghdad. Alwaght asked about the nature of the American-provided defense aids. Mr Zarei replied that the US had never aided Iraq militarily and Iraq had never needed such aids.”

“Over the past years, the Iraqi oil money has been deposited in an account in the US. The US government has taken one-thirds of this money and the rest has been sent to the Iraqi government. The US activities in Iraq, including military training, equipment, and even facility projects, are paid for from this Iraq’s petrodollars. Thus, the Americans never provided the Iraqi military and government with free equipment and services.”

Touching on a recent plan by some Sunni lawmakers to establish an autonomous Sunni region in Iraq, Mr. Zarei said that if the protests and chaos continue in Iraq, it will definitely expand to the Sunni-majority regions. Persistent and wide-ranging chaos in Iraq builds the ground for any possibility, including secession scenario.

“Here is a question: Will the Iraqi Sunnis separate from Iraq? The answer is no. The experience of 100 years of struggle for split by the Iraqi Kurds reveals its running into a dead end. The Kurds after all these years of struggle do not have the situation they fought for decades. They pushed for separation and even held a referendum but they are now in square one. This is a lesson to the Sunnis who may think about separation, especially now that the central government does not suffer from a major weakness. Another problem is the economy. If they want to separate, they have to predict solutions to the economic challenges as the oil and fertile agricultural lands are majorly in the Shiite-majority areas. I think raising Sunni separation in the current conditions is aimed at taking some concessions from Baghdad, not more.”

Where can the future developments go under a caretaker government? Alwaght asked. Mr Zarei answered that Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s government cannot restore its pre-resignation status because parliament approved his resignation on the recommendation of Ayatollah Sistani, the most prominent cleric in Iraq. For now, Ayatollah Sistani does not seem to have taken back his recommendation for Abdul Mahdi to step down. Moreover, there is no agreement on a new government as the political parties are far from consensus on early elections or a referendum on a candidate. The caretaker government is expected to continue as there is no way back and no way forth.

“Can the caretaker government do big and essential jobs? The question is yes. The caretaker government in Iraq is not similar to that in Lebanon which has very limited powers. Abdul Mahdi’s government can take major moves and decisions including expelling the American forces from the country,” the expert concluded.

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