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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

In the US-led Iraq War, Iran was the big winner

Dalia Mazin Sedeeq Al-Hatim and Hussain Sarmad Kadhim Al-Bayati at their wedding reception in Baghdad, Feb. 18, 2023.

By Vivian Yee and Alissa J. Rubin

If visitors to Baghdad knew nothing of Iraqi politics, they could be forgiven for thinking that the trim-bearded, green-uniformed man whose larger-than-life photo is everywhere in the Iraqi capital was Iraq’s president.

Along the boulevard that tracks the Tigris River and inside the Green Zone, the seat of Iraq’s government, the likeness of Gen. Qasem Soleimani towers above roundabouts and stands astride medians. The last person to be so glorified was Saddam Hussein, the dictator deposed and killed in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq that began almost exactly 20 years ago.

But Soleimani was Iranian, not Iraqi.

The commander of the Quds Force, the external arm of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard, he achieved near-mythic status in Iraq as an influential force who helped bind Iraq and Iran together after the invasion. It was thanks in large part to Soleimani, whom the United States assassinated in Iraq in 2020, that Iran came to extend its influence into almost every aspect of Iraqi security and politics.

That, in turn, gave Iran outsize influence over the region and beyond. Iran’s rise exposed the unintended consequences of Washington’s strategy in Iraq, analysts and former U.S. officials say, and damaged the United States’ relationship with its regional allies.

The invasion “was the original sin,” said Emile Hokayem, a senior fellow for Middle East security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a British think tank. “It helped Iran bolster its position by being a predator in Iraq. It’s where Iran perfected the use of violence and militias to obtain its goals. It eroded the U.S.’ image. It led to fragmentation in the region.”

The U.S. State Department declined to comment on the impact of the war in Iraq.

“On Iraq specifically, our focus is on the 20 years ahead; less about looking backward,” the department said in an email response to questions. “Our partnership today has evolved far beyond security, to a 360-degree relationship that delivers results for the Iraqi people.”

All of that was enabled by the political changes that the U.S. invasion of Iraq on March 20, 2003, set in motion. Later on, the 2014 takeover of a large area of northern Iraq by the Islamic State terrorist group prompted Iraq to turn to Iran as well as the United States for help, cementing Iran’s grip.

As destabilizing as the Iranian involvement has been for many Iraqis, it has been at least as unsettling for much of the rest of the region.

Iraq and Iran are the two largest Middle Eastern countries with a Shiite Muslim majority, and Shiites emerged from the Iraq War empowered across the region — often unnerving their ancient sectarian rivals, the Sunni Muslims, who dominate most other Arab countries.

Under the Iraqi dictatorship, the Sunni minority had formed the base of Saddam’s power; once he was killed, Iran set up loyal militias inside Iraq. It also went on to dismay Saudi Arabia and the other Persian Gulf monarchies and Israel by supporting proxies and partners, such as the Houthi militia in Yemen, that brought violence right to their doorsteps.

Before 2003, it would have been hard to imagine Saudi Arabia, a pillar of the United States’ Middle East policy for decades and a leading Sunni power, showing open anger toward American leaders over their conduct in the region. But the Saudi king at the time did just that in a January 2006 meeting with the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, telling him that the way Washington saw things going in Baghdad reflected “wishful thinking,” according to a State Department cable released by WikiLeaks in 2010.

By the time of that meeting, Iraqis had approved a new constitution and held parliamentary elections that swept Shiite parties to power, and Sunni-Shiite sectarian tensions had escalated.

Saudi King Abdullah told the ambassador that before Saddam’s ouster, his kingdom — Iran’s longtime rival for influence in the Middle East — could count on Iraq as another Sunni power keeping Iran in check.

Now, he said, Iraq had been handed to Iran like “a gift on a golden platter.”

When the United States toppled Saddam, it neutralized Iran’s foremost enemy without Iran having to lift a finger. Afterward, the Americans diminished Sunni power in Iraq by dismantling the country’s army and purging the Sunni-dominated governing elite.

Iran saw opportunity.

“What they were looking for and have been looking for isn’t Iranian control,” Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, said of Iran. “It’s Iraqi instability.”

After the 2003 invasion, Iranians streamed into Baghdad and Iraq’s Shiite-dominated south: construction engineers to rebuild Iraqi cities, political consultants to train Shiite activists before the Iraqi elections, media professionals to establish Shiite-owned television channels.

Iranian pilgrims who had been barred in the Saddam era from visiting Iraq’s Shiite shrines now hurried across the border to the Shiite holy cities of Karbala and Najaf, where Iranian companies invested in acres of hotels and restaurants for the millions of worshippers, many of them Iranian, who visit the shrines each year.

A good number of the Iraqi leaders who emerged after 2003 also had ties to Iran. The Shiite and Kurdish opposition politicians who had taken refuge there years before returned to Iraq after the invasion. Some of Iraq’s largest Shiite parties had backing and technical support from Iran, putting politicians from those parties in Iran’s debt when they won seats.

The Americans “somehow didn’t make the connection with Iran explicitly and understand that it’s not the Shiites you are giving the upper hand to, it’s the Shiites backed by Iran,” Marwan Muasher, who was then Jordan’s foreign minister, said last week.

These days, no Iraqi prime minister can take office without at least the tacit approval of both the United States and Iran, an arrangement that often produces prime ministers torn between Washington and Tehran. Iraqis with connections to Iran hold posts throughout the government.

The cost of Iranian influence to Iraqi development and stability has been high.

Cut off from the world economy by sanctions, Iran has found an economic lifeline in Iraq, which buys at least $7 billion in Iranian exports a year while selling only about $250 million of goods in return. The fine print on many medicines shows that they are Iranian made, and large quantities of Iranian construction materials come stacked on truck convoys across the border every day.

Many Iraqi farmers and businesspeople complain that Iran has suffocated Iraqi manufacturing and farming by dumping large quantities of produce and cheap goods in Iraq.

Although Shiites in Iraq’s political elite tolerated Iran’s activities and respected Soleimani, resentment of Iran among other Iraqis helped set off mass anti-government demonstrations in 2019 in which protesters demanded an end to Iran’s interference in Iraqi affairs.

Beyond Iraq, Iran has used every conflict in the region to extend its reach.

It inserted fighters into Syria after the 2011 Arab Spring revolt, aiming to prop up Syrian President Bashar Assad. It supported the Houthis in Yemen’s civil war against a Saudi-led coalition, establishing Iranian influence on the southern Saudi border. And it further cemented its position in Iraq and Syria by recruiting and training Shiite fighters against the Islamic State group.

“Every opportunity that there was in the region, the dominoes fell in Iran’s favor,” said Vali Nasr, a professor of international affairs and Middle East studies at Johns Hopkins University. Exploiting Iraq’s weakness, he added, gradually turned into “a powerful foreign policy tool for Iran on the regional level.”

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