Iran is Losing Influence in Iraq: Is Qassem Soleimani the Right Person?



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Baghdad, by Elijah J. Magnier: @ejmalrai

The Baghdad-Tehran relationship is going through difficult moments. Iran is losing its influence in Mesopotamia. This has nothing to do with replacing the Iran relationship with increased closeness in the US-Iraq or Gulf-Iraq relationships, but everything to do with the way the now famous Iranian General, Qassem Soleimani (head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps – IRGC), is handling the relationship with the Iraqi officials, including those who swear loyalty to the Iranian supreme leader Sayyed Ali Khamenei.

It is quite difficult to explain the Iraqi-Iranian dynamic and the strong bond between the two countries. Writing an article about it will inevitably fail to reflect entirely reality from all its angles. The religious and strategic bonds are omnipresent but strong disagreements emanate from the tactical approach.

Iran creating partners in the Middle East:

The 1979 victory of the Iranian revolution gave back dignity to the Iranians, lost between the British and American ruling through their puppet Mohammad Pahlavi, Shah of Iran. Imam Khomeini arrived at power with his famous words: “no more Taqiyya (dissimulation to preserve one’s own life) from today onward” (La Taqiyy’ata Baada al-Youm). The Shia persecution goes back to the days of ancient Islam, not long after the death of the Prophet Mohammed. Throughout history, Shia cities were constantly raided by extremist Muslims.

Iran looked for ways to support the Shia, who are a minority in the Muslim world, and create “partners”- rather than proxies as the world likes to describe them – in the struggle against the oppressor and to support the oppressed (al-Mustath’afeen). These partners adopt, though they are not forced to, Welayat al-Fakih (the doctrine promoted by Imam Khomeini and later by Khamenei). This is a judicial sovereignty which represents the authority of one jurist (Waly al-Fakih) over the whole public domain, including the state’s political and financial affairs. The Waly al-Fakih acts as a general deputy in the absence of the overshadowed Imam Mahdi (a descendant of the prophet Mohammed). However, the Shia world allows believers to choose their religious leader– usually based in Iran and Iraq – among those most knowledgeable in Islamic doctrine.

Regardless of the US’s gift to Iran, it constitutes the biggest threat:

There is none of the so-called “competition between Qom and Najaf”, the two religious centres of Shi’ism. This is a “sexy” theory many analysts like to raise. Qom and Najaf lead two different schools and their teaching and followers are completely differentiated.

Nevertheless, in Iran, there is serious and legitimate concern about the identity and the policy of those leading Iraq, and whether these will or will not be within the US orbit of influence. This is why the Islamic Republic feels directly involved in what is happening on its borders in neighbouring Iraq.

Throughout the decades Iran has given shelter and finance to Iraqis when these were in exile during the ruthless rule of Saddam Hussein. By removing Saddam in 2003, the US offered a wonderful gift to Iran- almost enough to wipe out the humiliations the Iranians went through due to the US support of the Shah. Saddam represented a serious threat to Iran and was exhausting Iran’s finances until George Bush’s decision to invade Mesopotamia. Despite Bush’s present to Iran, the Islamic Republic considers the US establishment as the biggest threat: the source of all threats.

In fact, even when the US was about to occupy Iraq, the Hezbollah Secretary General Sayed Hassan Nasrallah called upon all Iraqis to support Saddam against the US. Nasrallah’s call was received with indignation and rejection mainly by the Shia of Iraq. Iraqis at that time did not care about who was going to rule Iraq as long as Saddam Hussein was removed.

Iran rushed to stand by Iraq:

Iran, like most countries surrounding Iraq, favoured the ongoing Sunni insurgency against the US troops- until the Leader of the Sunni insurgents, the Emir of al-Qaeda in Iraq then Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, decided to turn his guns against Iraqi leaders and against the army, killing mainly Shia. Zarqawi wanted a sectarian war in order to gather more followers around him from the Sunni world.

Iran moved in to support a Shia insurgency against the US and managed to finance and train many Iraqi groups, trying to mirror Hezbollah in the Lebanon. However, these groups exaggerated their behaviour, and they lacked the discipline and faithfulness of the Lebanese Hezbollah towards meshing their goals with Iran’s strategic policy. It is a question of difference of culture: Iraqis are not, and probably never will be, subordinates accepting orders or simply fulfilling Iran’s policy in Iraq. The best small-scale example is Moqtada al-Sadr (who received unlimited financial and military support from Iran between 2004 and 2010- and then rejected Iran’s control) and the biggest example is the Marjaiya in Najaf who rejected Iran’s policy in Iraq but without necessarily working against the benefits for Shia in general. For the Marjaiya in Najaf, the interests of Iraq represent the priority of priorities.

Iraqis have not forgotten the support of the Iranians in 2014 when the “Islamic State” and other Sunni groups were occupying the northern city of Mosul and with it almost a third of Iraq. Qassem Soleimani was sent to Baghdad and Erbil to supply leaders with weapons and advisors while the US, by delaying its response, was allowing ISIS to reach the doors of Baghdad.

When the Marjaiya in Najaf called for the formation of the “Popular Mobilisation Units” (PMU), Soleimani made sure he presented himself as the leader and instigator of the PMUs.

For decades, Soleimani was unknown in Lebanon but in Iraq, visible from day one:

Iran’s policy was to promote Soleimani, to send a message to the US establishment that “Iran is everywhere”. In fact, Soleimani wanted to embrace the words of an Islamic Abbasid Emir, Haroun al-Rasheed, who told the cloud when observing its movement from the balcony of his palace in Baghdad: “Go and drop your rain anywhere you want because it will always fall on my property” (to indicate his overwhelming control of territory).

As a close observer of the Hezbollah movement, on the ground, since its creation to date, I confirm that the visits of Qassem Soleimani were kept very secret in Lebanon throughout all those years, until today. Only a very few people within a very close inner circle would learn about Soleimani’s presence in Lebanon. For over 20 years, the name of Soleimani was almost unknown within the same Hezbollah medium and lower ranks. But from the first day the Iranian General landed in Iraq (in 2005), every single Iraqi politician knew about his visit and meetings to the point that even people in the street were well informed about Soleimani’s whereabouts and visits: this is the nature of the Iraqi people, who dislike secrecy.

Soleimani accused of working against the unity of Iraq:

But because Iran decided to take an overt stand against US policy in Iraq and Syria, Soleimani was the chosen figure. However, many Iraqi leaders believe that Soleimani went beyond his mission- or at least was working against the unity of Iraq. The old and new examples are far too numerous to be ignored:

  • The re-election of Nuri al-Maliki for a second term: it was orchestrated by Iran despite the rejection of the Marjaiya and most Shia groups leaders. These quite rightly didn’t trust Maliki’s promises to share power and therefore tried to isolate the re-elected Prime Minister. In addition, they participated in a worldwide campaign against al-Maliki to show the world he was behind “every single catastrophe” in Iraq. The only reason why Iran has supported al-Maliki is that he was the only trustworthy leader, at that time, able to stand against the US establishment and ask the US forces to leave Iraq.
  • The election of Haidar Abadi as a Prime Minister: Soleimani, up to the last minute, did everything in his power to prevent Abadi from becoming the new PM of Iraq. By doing so, he provoked the animosity of the Iraqi Prime Minister, who declared him persona non-grata for some time. Other mediators brought the two persons back together, although without succeeding in permanently removing the tension between Abadi and Soleimani.
  • The photos of Soleimani all over Iraq and Syria: a clear message to the Americans that annoyed a lot the Iraqi officials, mainly Abadi. Soleimani insinuated to the world that he was behind all Iraqi victories. In fact, the victory of Iraq against ISIS is mainly due to the Iraqi forces, including the PMU who are part of the Iraqi population, and not due to Soleimani’s intervention. The last “Soleimani drop” that overflowed Abadi’s vase was the battle for Kirkuk where media propaganda gave the glory to Soleimani, marginalising Abadi. The Prime Minister responded by saying: “that one, who comes from Planet Mars or I don’t know from where is attributing to himself the victory of Iraqi forces in Kirkuk: this is unacceptable”.


All that is one series of events: but it is the latest development that created a split among the Shia, including in the camp attributed to Soleimani. Everything started when the Iranian General decided that Haidar Abadi is indeed the right person to be given the leadership of Iraq and “deserves to have a renewed mandate”. Abadi was not unhappy, on the contrary: he wants to remain as a Prime Minister. But Soleimani played his “Iraqi cards” too fast- too early and even generated the anger of his own people, the Iraqi groups with close ties to Iran.

The Iranian general had asked Hadi al-Ameri, the Badr leader and one of the most known figures in Iraq, to “pledge loyalty” to Abadi, several months before the election. All PMU leaders and other Shia group leaders were upset about Soleimani’s move and how he not only twisted Ameri’s arm – but has:

a) given a premature advantage to Abadi over all other Shia groups;

b) twisted Ameri’s arm, as we have said, to join Abadi in one electoral list where the risk of the PMU being diluted within Abadi’s list is very probable, whereas the PMU should have run the elections solo;

c) dissuaded main allies like the very angry Sayyed Ammar al-Hakim and others from forming a joint list after the election’s results;

d) sent a real arrow against Nuri al-Maliki, Iran’s main ally and the one who has carried the flag of the PMU for the last years.

e) pushed Moqtada al-Sadr to align himself (in a very clever move) with the communists to increase his chances at the forthcoming parliamentary elections.


Actually, al-Maliki responded (within a very close inner circle) that he was betrayed by Iran and, indeed, that Soleimani was acting against the Islamic Republic’s interests. “Sayyed Ali Khamenei asked the Iraqis to protect the PMU and the unity of the Shia against ISIS and all dangers. Soleimani is acting against the will of Khamenei himself and against the interests of the Shia. His ego is killing him and ill-advising Iranian policy in Iraq”, al-Maliki told a person very close to him.


Indeed, Soleimani took al-Ameri by the hand to Prime Minister Abadi and forced him to sign and seal the unity. Upon his return from the forced signature, Ameri told his people to choose by themselves. The general decision was to disregard Soleimani’s will: a very unusual and perilous move by those who have been defined as “Iran’s proxies” for years, armed and financed by Iran. It was clear that Soleimani had lost some of his prestige and that Iraqis will have the courage to reject his demands in the future. It is also very clear that Soleimani, looking after his image to challenge the US, hasn’t yet learned enough about the Iraqi mentality and culture.

Actually, Soleimani, who is supposed to be “in charge” of Iraq, didn’t even understand after so many years of dealing with Iraqis, the mentality of the Marjaiya in Najaf, led by the Iranian Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Sistani. Soleimani ignores Sistani’s language (even if both speak Farsi) and how to follow Khamenei’s instructions to support Sistani’s decision all the way, whatever these may be.

The Iran-Iraq misunderstanding:

In Iraq today, there are subtleties the Iranian leadership surprisingly ignores. Few Iranian pilgrim groups on the road of Karbala during the Arbaeen complained about the “mediocre service” Iraqi families and tribes (known as Mawakeb) have been offering (food and beverages). Some of these believed Iran to be financing the supply of food, therefore pilgrims from Iran should be looked after a bit better.


The reality is that every single one of these Iraqi groups aligned on the road to Karbala put money to one side from savings of their small business or donations and worked all year to offer their time, money, health and savings to serve the pilgrims (who walk for days carrying nothing) of Imam Hussein, regardless of which country these are from. Iraqis set up thousands of tents and mobile kitchens delighted to serve the pilgrims to soften the tiredness of the long walk.


I was once confronted – not far from “Khan al-Nuss” – with a crying 9-year old child on the road of Karbalaa (the walk is known as piyade’). He told me that his father asked him not to return home to sleep unless he brings with him a visitor of Imam Hussein to offer hospitality and a bed for the night. The Iraqis massage one’s feet, offer food that they cooked all night, wash pilgrims clothes, provide water and tea (Shay Abu Ali), and go beyond their own comfort zone and out of their own pocket. They ask for nothing in return. It is not surprising that the comments of some Iranian pilgrims were found to be hurtful, hence creating a level of animosity between the two nations.


It is not one event but many events added together in various circumstances which indicate that Soleimani is now looked at as the wrong person to be dealing with the Iraqi politicians. His closest man, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandes, risked many times being relieved of his functions by Abadi due to Suleimani’s repetitive statements, considered a direct challenge to Iraqi official authority. Muhandes declared on many occasions his loyalty to Iran, an unwise move by an Iraqi official since the PMU is part of the Iraqi security apparatus. He said recently that “the PMU is ready to cross into Syria” but omitted to add “only when Prime Minister Abadi gives the orders”. Muhandes forgets that it is the Grand Ayatollah Sistani who called for the formation of the PMU of which he is the vice head and that loyalty towards Iraq does not have to be asked for but should be part of every single Iraqi’s integrity so as to protect the country.

Al-Maliki a favourite candidate?

Today, many Iraqi Shia groups – including some Sunni and Kurdish group leaders I spoke to – are thinking of promoting al-Maliki, they prefer him rather than Abadi as the future new Prime Minister. They consider Abadi is not clear in his policies and would reveal nothing about his plans and the way he would handle his future political alliance. A Sunni group leader told me “Maliki would tell you in your face “you are a dog and son of a dog” without any compliments or preliminaries. At least one knows where he stands with al-Maliki. While Abadi will tell you nothing, even following hours and days of meetings”.

A common position among Iraqis is growing these days: the awareness that the relationship with Iran is strategic. It is a neighbouring country and its national security is important to Iraq. Nevertheless, Iraq will not be ruled by Soleimani, but only by Iraqis loyal to their country. It is time for Iran to rethink how to deal with, not only the sovereignty of Iraq but the Shia generally – before Iran loses all its friends.


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