Could a “New Civil War” Erupt in Iraq as U.S. and Iran Fight for Influence in the Country?

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In Iraq, Iran-backed militia members withdrew from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad’s heavily guarded Green Zone on Wednesday after being tear-gassed by American security forces. Their withdrawal ended a tense standoff that began Tuesday when militia members broke through the embassy’s reception area chanting “Death to America” while thousands rallied outside to protest a slew of U.S. airstrikes in Iraq and Syria that killed at least 24 members of the Iranian-backed militia Kata’ib Hezbollah. The U.S. airstrikes came after an American contractor was killed in a rocket attack in Kirkuk, Iraq, Friday. The embassy withdrawal was ordered by militia leaders, who said they agreed to leave after Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi pledged to pursue legislation to force U.S. troops out of Iraq. We speak with Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, a correspondent for The Guardian newspaper.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We begin today’s show in Iraq, where Iran-backed militia members and their supporters withdrew from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad’s heavily guarded Green Zone on Wednesday after being tear-gassed by American security forces. Their withdrawal ended a tense standoff that began Tuesday, when militia members broke through the embassy’s reception area chanting “Death to America,” while thousands rallied outside to protest several U.S. airstrikes in Iraq and Syria that killed at least 24 members of the militia Kata’ib Hezbollah. The U.S. airstrikes came after an American contractor was killed in a rocket attack in Kirkuk, Iraq, on Friday. The embassy withdrawal was ordered by militia leaders, who said they agreed to leave after Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi pledged to pursue legislation to force U.S. troops out of Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delayed his trip to Ukraine, and the Pentagon sent 750 troops to the Middle East in response to the embassy showdown. The United States has around 5,000 troops stationed in Iraq, as well as an undisclosed number of civilian contractors.

For more, we go to Istanbul, where we’re joined by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, a correspondent for The Guardian newspaper.

Ghaith, we welcome you to Democracy Now! Can you explain what just happened in Iraq over these last few days? Explain who the Iranian-backed militia is, what happened at the U.S. Embassy, and now the deal that has been made with the Iraqi prime minister and Parliament to consider tossing out U.S. troops.

GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: Well, good morning, Amy. Amy, see, to understand what happened in the last few days, we have to go a couple of months back, three months in particular, with the beginning of the demonstrations in Baghdad, popular demonstrations against the corrupt political system dominated by these pro-Iranian militias and political parties. For the last three months, these militias and their political parties have been on the back foot, because Iran and these militias have been associated with corruption, with misrule, you know, with the worst kind of service system in this country. So, suddenly, and along these last couple of months, certain things have been happening really away from the media. So, there’s almost attacks, biweekly attacks, on Iraqi-shared Iraq and American bases, the last of which killed a contractor. But two weeks or three weeks earlier, two Iraqi soldiers were seriously hurt. At the same time, you have the kidnapping, detention, disappearance of a lot of the activists who participate in these demonstrations. So these militias have been on the back foot.

And then, suddenly they’ve managed to bait the Americans into this airstrike, which killed 24 Iraqi fighters, because we have to remember that these militias are part of a government structure. So they killed 24 Iraqi fighters on Iraqi soil. And that has been the trigger for these demonstrations. So, suddenly, in the past two, three days, these militias, these powers, political powers, roughly considered Iranian-backed, pro-Iran, have all managed to regain the initiative by portraying themselves, by portraying all what’s happening in the country in the past three months, as a struggle between America on one side and Iran on the other side. I mean, you see the graffiti on the walls of the embassy: “Qassem Soleimani, my leader,” “Iran stays free.” It’s all this anti-American chant, pro-Iran chant. And by association, they’ve managed to portray the demonstrators as all members of this American plot working to destabilize the Iraqi government. So, this airstrike of the last week has been the best gift these ministers could aspire for, because it just transformed the political narrative in Iraq today.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Ghaith, could you give more background on the role that Iran has been playing in Iraq? And explain. You just said that the graffiti on the U.S. Embassy included saying “My leader, Qassem Soleimani.” Could you explain who he is and how you think these U.S. strikes might change the dynamic, both of the protests as well as what these militias will now do, the role they will now play in Iraq?

GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: Again, to go back to these demonstrations, you see a very corrupt political system in Iraq. Now, this political corrupt system, dominated by either religious political parties or militias, all backed by Iran, so, by association, the people in the street are denouncing Iranian interference in Iraq, one, for their support of these militias and, second, for what they perceive as an Iranian interference in Iraqi political affairs, but mainly for the support of these, you know, Shia politicians in Iraq. Now, that theme of anti-Iranian sentiment has been central to the Iraqi demonstrations of the past three months, which have pushed the political parties, dominated — supported by Iran, the militias, to one corner, versus the Iraqi street on the other corner. And that has been the narrative.

But then there is another narrative that goes in the Middle East, which is this bigger Iran-versus-America conflict, which, as an Iraqi and as many Iraqis fear, is we fear that Iraq will become the next battleground between Iran and the United States. Where will they fight? The Americans and the Iranians will not fight in Tehran or in New York; they will fight in Basra or in Baghdad or in other places in the Middle East.

So, Qassem Soleimani, the considered godfather of all these militias in Iraq — exaggerated one, of course, but this is what — you know, this is what people talk about. But mostly the militias, members of the Popular Mobilization Units, have been pushed to the corner, trying, A, to defend their biggest ally, Iran, but also trying to justify their role in Iraqi politics.

Now, many of the people, many of the kids demonstrating in the streets, they are also Shia. They also served in these militias. But then, when the war against ISIS finished, those kids came back to see that the bosses, the warlords of these militias, have enriched themselves, while the majority-Shia south is still poor. That dynamic, that shifted the dynamic of demonstrations from before. It is Shia kids demonstrating against Shia militias. So, it is the most important thing that’s happened in Iraq in the past 30, 40 years, these demonstrations.

Now, for the past three months, also these militias have been trying to say, “Oh, this is all an American plot.” And this is where we are today. We are in a situation where the demonstrators in Baghdad have to justify, to explain that they are not part of an American plot targeting Iran or the role of these militias.

AMY GOODMAN: So, explain now what’s happening with the caretaker Iraqi prime minister, who has already said he’s leaving. But the U.S. troops moving in and tear-gassing, some media outlets have described it, and that’s why the militias pulled out. But others said they had already decided to pull out, once, they say, they got the agreement of the Iraqi prime minister to push in the parliament to pass a bill, that has been there for some time, but this has added strength, to pass a bill to toss the U.S. troops out.

GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: These are all theatrics. I mean, the people who participated in the attack on the embassy were senior security adviser, head of parliamentary bloc. Between them, those pro-Iranian militias and parties, they have more than 160 members of the parliament. They could have called for the removal of U.S. forces, not today, not with this airstrike, long before. So, all of this theatrics is to try to vent some anger in the street. I mean, the Iraqi government, the Iraqi prime minister, unfortunately, know very well that the Iraqi Army, the Iraqi security forces cannot stand, 16 years after the toppling of Saddam Hussein, on their own without American support, which is a disgrace, with all the billions of dollars spent on them, because of the corruption, mismanagement, you call it.

Today in Iraq we have two militaries, some say three. We have a sort of official government army, police force, special forces, whatever. And on the other side, you have all these militias incorporated also officially in the structure of that, but one that has loyalty basically to Iran and certain parts of the political system in Iraq. And the other, in theory, has loyalty to the Iraqi state. Now, the first one, the official Iraqi Army, is very weak, is corrupt. Only a certain element of it can stand on its own, versus a very powerful militia. So, this is the complicated situation in Iraq. This is the layers of complication. It’s not only demonstrators against a corrupt government. It’s also demonstrators against very strong militias, and within the larger American-Iranian conflict.

So, to go back to your question, yes, they will table a motion that will call for the removal of all American troops out of Iraq. But will that be achieved? Can they actually achieve that? I mean, it’s Maliki, Nouri al-Maliki, the former prime minister, who signed the agreement with the Americans. So, can they just remove all the Americans? Can the Iraqi government stand on its own without American air force and air support? It will be very interesting to see. But again, the theatrics of it all, the cinematography of attacking the embassy, of raising pro-Iranian militia flags on the walls of the embassy, of writing “Qassem Suleimani” on the embassy — the theatrics of it all has dominated the scene in Iraq of the past week and, again, shifted the narrative from demonstrators against a corrupt government into Iran-versus-America conflict.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And could you explain, Ghaith, what you think the effect has been of the Trump administration withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, and the effects of this maximum-pressure sanctions that have been placed on Iran by the Trump administration, and how that’s altered what Iran is doing in Iraq?

GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: Simply put, disastrous, Amy, disastrous in every single aspect on the Iraqi politics and Iraqis. I mean, we have to remember, Iranian influences and Iranian-backed militia did not exist in 2003, pre-American invasion of Iraq. The Iranians, when they were labeled as part of the Axis of Evil, took the natural steps of any nation, which is to defend their country beyond their borders. So they decided to build and arm these militias in Iraq as a buffer zone, as a way to influence Iraqi politics and defend themselves against whatever American adventure, as they call it. And that was the situation. The Americans left, and Iran became stronger and stronger in Iraq.

Now, when the Americans canceled that agreement with Iran, my and other Iraqis’ biggest fear was not the state of American-Iranian relationship, but my country, Iraq, because that is the battle zone. So, when you apply maximum pressure on Iran, where would Iran vent that pressure? Where would Iran defend themselves, but in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and other countries along this soft belly of the United States? This is where the Iranians can hit. This is where the Americans have their military bases in Iraq. One military commander appeared on TV like, I think, last year or a couple of years ago and said, “Every American in the country, every American soldier in the country, we consider as our hostage.” This is where the Iranians will defend. And this was our fear when the Americans decided to do maximum pressure on Iran without any alternative, without any realistic alternative. What do you want to do? Topple the Iranian government? You keep saying no, but at the same time you put pressure, and that pressure is reflecting really horribly in Iraqi politics —

AMY GOODMAN: So —

GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: — and in Iraqi situation, in general. So, this is — sorry, one other thing. The actual fear in the country now, in Baghdad, is another round of civil war. Only this one will be a Shia-Shia civil war. And that will — you know, it will be disastrous.

AMY GOODMAN: And this 2020 — we’ve just entered this new year — is the presidential election. And President Trump asked — President Trump promised in 2016 — right? — he was going to withdraw troops from places like Iraq and Syria and Afghanistan. What does this mean? Does this put him in a very serious bind if he wants to pursue what he’s doing in Iraq, going back to him saying years ago, as president, that he was going to keep Iraq — U.S. troops in Iraq to monitor Iran, which infuriated everyone there?

GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: I mean, I, personally, as an Iraqi, I would love to see the back of the American troops today, tomorrow, yesterday, 10 years ago. The fact that you want to say, “We will leave the Middle East,” lovely. Just leave. Thank you so much.

But at the same time, you increase troop level in Iraq, and you say, “We have our troops there to monitor Iran.” As you said, suddenly you put Iraq in a situation: It’s either with America or with Iran. Iran is our neighbor. Iran has the longest borders with us. Iran, we’ve been fighting a lot with the Iranians for decades, if not centuries. We don’t want to go to another war with Iran. We don’t want to be the launching pad, the launching base for another American adventure in the Middle East. And yet, at the same time, the agreement, the forces agreement with the United States, states that the American forces are in Iraq to secure Iraqi airspace, secure Iraqi government against attack. So, that shift in the narrative, that using Iraq as a launch pad, of course would make Iranian allies in the region jittery, accuse the Americans of plotting against them and something, and, again, using that American argument to counter the demonstration in the streets. This is what these militias have been doing all along, even before these strikes. So now you have the strikes. Now you have this rhetoric, this Trump rhetoric.

You know, can I say this small joke? You know, every single demonstrator I’ve talked to in the squares in Baghdad, they pray, they tell me, they wish, they pray, that Trump would never utter a tweet regarding Iraqi politics, because they don’t want to be part of this Iran-versus-America narrative. It is Iraqi demonstrations against the Iraqi political system. The militias want to make it as if it’s targeting Iran. And now the Americans are using these demonstrations for their own, you know, whatever, pressure on Iran. This is the delicate situation in Iraq. And again, it’s a country awash with weapons, with militias, with military forces, and a new civil war can spark within hours, if not days.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Ghaith, you were just in Baghdad before Christmas, when these widespread protests were ongoing. But now, given the U.S. airstrikes — very quickly, before we conclude — are protesters concerned now that those, their demonstrations, will be viewed as pro-American because they have been anti-Iranian?

GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: Yes. I mean, this is the biggest concern for the demonstrators. The biggest concern is that they will be labeled as pro-Americans or stooges in an American plot against Iran. But at the same time, the youth, the people in the streets, the rioters, all have been very vocal, from day one, to say that “We are not part of any American plot.” They denounce these American airstrikes. And they’re trying to push back the momentum or the narrative, and towards electing a new prime minister and reforming the Constitution and the election law, which has been their demand from day one.

AMY GOODMAN: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, we want to thank you so much for being with us, correspondent for The Guardian newspaper, speaking to us from Turkey.

When we come back, we turn to Syria, where a quarter of a million people have fled the Russian-backed Syrian offensive in Idlib. Stay with us.

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