I telephoned the Iraqi politician and he knew the purpose. He asked me about the date of my visit and I said: “After the formation of the government.”
He laughed and said: “I’m afraid you’ll be late. As always, we’ve become victims of a game that’s bigger than us. The formation of the government practically needs a compromise between Brett McGurk (US presidential envoy for the international coalition against ISIS) and Qassem Soleimani (commander of the Quds Force).
It is true that tensions between Tehran and Washington playing out on Iraqi territory are not new. But it's also true that this time they are approaching a bone-crushing battle, in the wake of the crisis caused by the withdrawal of Donald Trump’s administration from the nuclear deal and the US return to imposing painful sanctions on Iran.”
He added: “This is the first time the quest to form a government is so difficult. The post-Saddam era did not rebuild the relations between the components, but exacerbated them. Forget about the public statements of courtesy. The deterioration of Arab-Kurdish relations need no evidence since last year’s referendum and the ensuing disciplinary process. In addition, Shiite-Sunni relations are not at their best.
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One should also not forget disputes within the same components. The Shiite house itself is divided despite the heated Iranian activity. Differences among Arab Sunnis are not concealed by a souvenir picture under one roof. The Kurdish house is already known for its divisions at the crossroads.”
He went on to say: “Since the fall of Saddam, there has been some kind of coexistence between the American and Iranian aggressors on Iraqi soil. Tehran has committed itself to this kind of co-existence to encourage Americans to withdraw first, and then to facilitate a nuclear deal under Barack Obama’s term. The situation is quite different today. The Iranian economy is in a difficult situation. If the Trump administration goes too far in the direction it has announced, it would be possible that Iran would decide to break the balance and curb the US influence. A battle of this kind will have significant costs, even for the internal balances in Iraq and for the country’s location in the regional alignment.”
It is not easy for the ordinary Iraqis to wait for the results of Soleimani’s tours of politicians to distribute warnings, bandages and assurancesGhassan Charbel
Not just Iraq
The politician did not forget to remind me at the end of the phone conversation that Iraq is not alone, and that Lebanon is also trying to form a new government, which could be delayed due to the escalating crisis between Tehran and Washington. In fact, disagreements on the size of ministerial shares are associated with larger policies.
I called another politician. The picture seemed bleaker: He started talking about recent news reports about Iran supplying its pro-Syrian militias in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen with missiles of varying ranges, as well as establishing missile factories in these countries.
“The Russian military presence in Syria prevents Iran to act with absolute freedom,” he noted. “If Tehran chooses to deploy a missile force in Iraq to threaten Israel and the Gulf states, a new chapter of the Iraqi tragedy will begin, especially if Iran decides to assign Houthi roles to the Iraqi Popular Mobilization militias.”
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It is clear that the rules of the game are no longer in Iraqi hands. And that the political class lost the opportunity to save Iraq from external players despite resorting on many occasions to the ballot boxes. The logic of the state is still the weakest player in Iraq, and internal and external ambitions have made the violation of the Constitution a normal and acceptable practice.
Is it conceivable to see Iraq in this situation fifteen years after overthrowing Saddam’s regime? It is painful that Iraqi politicians can no longer hold the former regime responsible for the deterioration of their country’s situation nor the decision of Paul Bremer to dissolve the army.
It is painful that after Saddam’s departure, Iraq witnessed the largest feast of corruption in modern times. Some even believe that it surpasses what Russia experienced after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The story of the lost billions no longer needs documentation. Greediness is no longer a disease, but an epidemic that was not deterred by shy attempts of vaccination.
Political and financial voracity and the disputes over monopoly and domination prevented the restoration of the spirit of the Iraqi structure. Neither the team that considered itself victorious succeeded in rationalizing its victory nor did the team, which considered itself defeated, succeeded in rationalizing its defeat.
A logic prevailed over the country, that of dragging, delaying and betting on foreign tutelage. ISIS’ bloody appearance revealed the government’s lack of immunity. This logic prevented for example compliance with Article 140 on resolving the issue of disputed territories.
Thus, the Arab-Kurdish tango is poisoned. Policies and class-based stalking led to the poisoning of Sunni-Shiite tango. In this climate, the logic of quotas and militias has prevailed again over the logic of the state, the Constitution and the institutions.
The ordinary Iraqi citizen cannot be exempted from liability just as the Lebanese citizen. The people complain from the corrupt, the greedy and the violators of the state, and then go on a factional basis to elect the tragedy-makers whom they complain about. The citizen is a partner of political forces in wasting opportunities.
The Iraqis return to raise the obvious demands, such as electricity, drinking water and basic services, at a time when the avaricious devour the budget of ministries, uncaring. It is a country that swims in a sea of crises and loses its wealth amid battles of arrogance, greed and obedience to external wills.
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It is not easy for the ordinary Iraqis to wait for the results of Qassem Soleimani’s tours of politicians to distribute warnings, bandages and assurances, nor to wait for the results of McGurk’s visits, which also necessitated contacts from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
The coexistence tango’s failure internally threatens a new cycle of deterioration if, in the coming period, we see a final demise of the Iranian-American tango on Iraqi soil.
There is no solution without a state that deserves to be named as such. It is necessary to tango. The requirement of success in dancing is to understand your partner and to synchronize your steps with his steps. Iraqi and Lebanese politicians must follow intensive courses in the art of tango. Greediness will distort the dance and kill the state.
This article was first published in Asharq Al-Awsat.
Ghassan Charbel is the Editor-in-Chief of London-based Al Sharq al-Awsat newspaper. Ghassan’s Twitter handle is @GhasanCharbel.
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