Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Iraq: Threats of foreign influence

The return of prominent Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr will have an unpredictable influence on Iraqi politics.

By Robert Grenier


All of which leads us to yet another irony: The fact that a self-proclaimed champion of Iraqi nationalism and enemy of foreign influence should himself be considered by many to offer the clearest example of Iran's insidious and growing domination of Iraqi politics.

The bill of particulars in that indictment include al-Sadr's nearly four-year refuge in Iran, his apparently close religious and scholarly ties to senior clerics close to Iran's senior leadership, the heavy-handed Iranian role in ultimately persuading him to throw his parliamentary support behind his bitter enemy Maliki, and the seeming coordination of his return with the high-profile visit of acting Iranian Foreign Minister Salihi to Iraq.

In fact, there are those who cite Muqtada al-Sadr as exhibit A in what some are beginning to call the "Lebanonisation" of Iraqi politics. The reason that Lebanon itself has been "Lebanonised" is that the various Lebanese factions have consistently reached out for foreign support to gain advantage over their domestic political and sectarian rivals, thus legitimising similar behaviour against themselves.

And indeed, Iraq appears to be moving gradually on a similar track: First by enthusiastically embracing an increasingly baroque division of political power along strictly ethno-sectarian lines, and then by tolerating a political culture in which factions shamelessly seek foreign support of their respective domestic agendas...... Meanwhile, the Shiite factions themselves have competed ever more strongly for Iranian attention and support......

And Iran, for all its high-profile meddling and its extensive religious and cultural ties to Iraq, is only able to command real influence among the Shi'a, who remain a highly fractious lot. The Iranians will no doubt exhaust themselves with no end of factional intrigue, and yet they are highly unlikely to unify Iraq's majority Shiites in a way which will permit them to dominate their neighbour.

As for the turbulent Mr. al-Sadr, it is highly likely that the Iranians, if they don't realise it already, will find in him a client who is impossible to control, and more likely to be a net detriment, rather than an asset, in the pursuit of their national interests in Iraq.

In the end the Iraqis generally, if they are wise, will discover that, whatever marginal advantages they can gain through recourse to their neighbours, the only long-term solutions to their problems will be found in political accommodation with fellow Iraqis.

It remains very much to be seen whether the Pilgrim's progress of Muqtada al-Sadr will contribute constructively to that process."

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