By Benny Avni
Source: New York Post
With Baghdad’s politics back in chaos, America needs to up the battle against Iran’s influence over Iraq.
Last week angry protesters torched the Iranian consulate in Basra, the southern city in the heart of Iraq’s oil country. The protesters, mostly young Shiites, were angry over increasingly contaminated water. Related illnesses have recently hospitalized 30,000 people.
Yet Basra’s water problem is but a symptom of Iraq’s succession of hapless governments.
Iran and Turkey have built dams on the Tigris River, Basra’s main water source, and also diverted water to aid their own farmers. Meanwhile, Baghdad and local governments have failed to maintain, let alone renew, water infrastructure (or adequately fulfill any other civil task, for that matter.)
Mostly, anger is directed at those who run things, and Iran controls Iraqi militias and top politicians — especially in Basra, where posters of Ayatollah Khomeini hang everywhere. So the Iranian consulate was a natural target for protests.
A tense calm returned Monday, and Prime Minister Haider al Abadi even dared visit Basra. Abadi’s hold on power is tenuous amid a political standoff after the May 12 election, in which a faction led by Moqtada Sadr, the former anti-American firebrand turned a calculating politician, won the largest number of votes.
Sadr, who isn’t vying for the leadership himself, initially backed Abadi — an alliance that looked like a promising coalition against the politicians in Iran’s pocket. Sadr recently removed his support from Abadi, but Iraqi sources tell me that, after Abadi’s Basra visit, the coalition may well reunite, perhaps riding a wave of anti-Iran frustration.
Beyond anger over the Iranian-backed Basra politicians who’ve run things forever, there’s fear that Tehran is speeding up plans to turn Iraq into a forward base against its regional enemies.
Late last month, Reuters reported that Iran has moved missiles to Iraqi soil and offered to manufacture missiles there as well. That raised alarm bells in Riyadh and Jerusalem, the likely intended Iranian targets, but also across Iraq.
Iraqi Arabs are no fans of their Persian neighbors. With Imam Ali and other ancient Shiite icons buried in Iraq, they consider themselves the originators of Shia, the branch of Islam that Iran claims to lead.
“Since 2003, we never had a breath of fresh air, as Iran turned Iraq into its colony,” says Iraqi-American Entifadh Qanbar, president of the Washington-based Future Foundation.
Sadr, Iraq’s most significant Shiite politician, is well aware of such feelings. Then again, he’s said to believe Iran was behind the assassination of his father, the much-revered Shiite scholar Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr — and to fear that a similar fate will one day be his own. So he swings between cooperating with Tehran and opposing it.
Many Iraqis share his fear of Iran, but anger may overcome it. The consulate torching shows young Iraqi Shiites have had it with their neighbor. And US moves (walking out on the nuke deal, renewing sanctions) help convince Iraqis, and the rest of the Mideast, that Iran’s fortunes are changing.
A US envoy in Iraq, Brett McGurk (an Obama holdover), denounced the embassy torching, retweeting a State Department statement saying America “condemns violence against diplomats.” Such sentiments are at best meaningless and, worse, may even hurt the cause of demonstrating to Iraqis that Iran is no longer rising as the region’s hegemon.
Washington may want to help revamp Basra’s water system, but Iran and its pawns will do their best to undermine such efforts. Tehran’s guiding hand was unmistakably behind last week’s firing of rockets at US posts in Basra. The Islamic Republic fears losing influence.
The best way to help Iraqis thrive, then, is to further weaken Iran. It’ll help Basra’s Shiite politicians cut ties to the mother ship, and listen to their constituents instead.
More broadly, the region needs to know that the Iran-favoring Obama years are over. They’ve eroded America’s influence in the Mideast and beyond and hurt our claim to global leadership.
If you break it, you own it, Colin Powell once said. America is bad at owning foreign countries, but we can aid Iraqis by helping them escape from under their neighbors’ thumb.