With eye on Iran, US steps up presence in Iraq

(Proposed 1600 km long Basra-Aqaba oil & gas pipeline)

The US’ plan to withdraw troops from Syria has electrified the Iraqi political and diplomatic landscape. The Saudi establishment daily Asarq Al-Awsat has reported from Baghdad, quoting a prominent Iraqi analyst that the American troops who are being redeployed to Iraq from Syria will be divided between the Erbil, Sinjar base, North Rummaneh camp base and Ain al-Assad base in addition to the northern area in Ar-Rutba district.

Significantly, last Wednesday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had made a surprise visit to Baghdad and Erbil as part of a regional tour of nine countries on a mission which had three objectives: one, to reassure allies about the US’ continued commitment to the region; two, to reaffirm the fight against the ISIS; and, three, to rally the regional states behind the containment strategy against Iran.

The Saudi media report said, “Iraqi political and parliamentary parties have been working to collect the necessary number of signatures needed to prepare a bill that obligates the Iraqi government to expel foreign troops from the country.” Prominent Iraqi politicians have alleged that the government in Baghdad is not transparent about the growing military presence in Iraq.

The deputy head of the National Axis bloc Mohammed al-Karbouli, who is also member of the Iraqi parliament’s Security and Defense Committee, told Asharq Al-Awsat, “It is best to tell the people what is really happening instead of following the policy of hiding facts because that would only aggravate the situation.” According to Karbouli, US forces are being redeployed in the southern Kurdistan region between the existing bases K1 and K2 respectively in south Kirkuk and north Salaheddine (which is Sunni-dominated.)

(Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi welcomes Jordan’s King Abdullah II, Baghdad, Jan. 14, 2019.)

Clearly, the US hopes to wean the new Iraqi leadership away from the orbit of Iranian influence. The visit of King Abdullah of Jordan to Baghdad on Monday, his first visit to Iraq since 2008, fits into this paradigm. Abdullah received a red carpet welcome at Baghdad airport where he was greeted by President Barham Salih. Salih welcomed the visit as strengthening “joint interests and security.”

Later, Salih said in a statement, ““Baghdad and Amman will be the basis for strengthening relations between Arab brothers and starting a serious and constructive dialogue to end the crises in the region.”

Iraq and Jordan are discussing a 1600 km oil and gas pipeline connecting Basra with the port of Aqaba in the Red Sea, which will be an alternative route for the Rumaila oil fields in southern Iraq. The capacity of the pipeline could reach up to 1 million bpd with part of the oil to be sent to Jordan’s expanding refinery at Zarqa in the south of the country. The geopolitics of the Basra-Aqaba pipeline project needs no explanation. Iraq will be meeting the oil needs of Jordan, which has a troubled relationship with Iran and is widely regarded as a vassal state of the US and Saudi Arabia.

Curiously, Baghdad had another visitor on Monday – French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. To be sure, eyebrows will be raised over the announcement by Le Drian that France is committing 1 billion euros (US$1.15 billion) for Iraq’s reconstruction after the war against the ISIS. It is a reasonable assumption that France, which is also under compulsion to withdraw its military contingent in Syria, must be seeking a presence in Iraq.

Against the above backdrop, it comes as no surprise that Tehran is also shifting gear in its political dialogue with Baghdad. Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif is currently on a 5-day extended visit to Iraq. The mission aims to reinvigorate Iran’s wide network of Iraqi interlocutors that goes far beyond government-to-government contacts. Zarif’s itinerary includes, apart from Baghdad, where he arrived on Sunday, Erbil, Sulaymaniyah, Najaf and Karbala.

(Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif meets Iraqi patriarch Masoud Barzai, Erbil, Jan 15, 2019)

Kurdish Zarif’s tour of Iraq is a spectacular display of Tehran’s influence in Iraq cutting across regions and ethnic and sectarian divides and its privileged bondage with the Iraqi religious establishment. Zarif announced today that President Hassan Rouhani will pay his first visit to Iraq next month.

Indeed, unlike in Syria where Iran acts in alliance with Damascus and Moscow, when it comes to Iraq, Tehran is operating all by itself to counter the growing American pressure. Russia’s capacity to influence events in Baghdad or the Iraqi policies as such is a pale shadow of what it used to be in the Soviet era. On the contrary, unlike in Syria where the US was at a handicap vis-à-vis the Russian-Iranian alliance, it has the wherewithal of an alliance of its own as it presses ahead in Iraq.

In recent years, Washington quietly encouraged the re-induction of Iraq into the Arab family. Saudi Arabia has resumed diplomatic presence in Baghdad with consulates in Kurdistan and Shi’ite southern region. (In Iraqi Kurdistan, Israeli intelligence also has longstanding contacts.) In the period ahead, the newly launched NATO Mission in Iraq also broadens the ambit of the overall US military presence in Iraq.

Most important, from the American perspective, the newly installed Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi is the ultimate compromise candidate who is open to Iraq diversifying its external relations optimally. All in all, Iraq – not Syria – is shaping up as the main theatre of the US-Iranian struggle for regional influence.