Iraq between Washington and Tehran

Iraq between Washington and Tehran

Iraqi President Barham Salih during separate meetings with US and Iranian ambassadors urged Washington and Tehran to reduce tensions in the Gulf region by initiating a constructive dialogue and taking measures to maintain security. The Financial Times in the article Iraq’s desperate struggle to stay out of Iran-US feud writes, that in Iraq, which shares a 1,400km border with Iran and majority Shia Muslim populations, there was concern that it could become the flashpoint. After all, Iraq hosts more than 5,000 American soldiers, while a plethora of local Shia paramilitary groups are loyal to Tehran.

Iraqi leaders could not face the prospect ofa new war after years of conflict long predating the 2003 US invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. The oil-rich country was just getting its breath back after a four-year military campaign to defeat Isis, supported by both the US and Iran. But fresh outbreak of violence, warns Mr Salih, would shatter the country’s hopes of rebuilding its society.

Some observers worry that the battle-hardened Iraqi Shia paramilitaries who have received training, arms and funding from Iran could provide the spark for any conflict. Washington considered the threat, to US personnel and installations inside Iraq, so severe that it closed its consulate in Basra. 

According to some analysts, that Iran-backed militant groups stopped Isis (banned in Russia) reaching Baghdad. But since 2018, their swelling political and economic power has been seen as a challenge to the weak Iraqi state. Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, said last year that Iran-backed Shia militias “jeopardise Iraq’s sovereignty”.

Iraqi fears over being sucked into a proxy war were not eased when Mr Trump boasted, months before the aborted attack, that America could use military bases in Iraq to spy on Iran. “The dilemma for Iraq is that the US is an important ally,” says Mr Salih, choosing his words carefully. “Iran is an important neighbour.”

In 2007 Iraq was the world’s second most fragile state, according to the US-based NGO Fund for Peace, which measures everything from social cohesion to economic equality to assess countries’ vulnerabilities. Today it ranks 13th.  “Iraqis deserve far better,” says Mr Salih. “But there is no denying the situation . . . is improving.” He wants to focus on domestic problems — Iraq’s fast-growing population needs 12,000 new schools, for example — and making Iraq a regional hub for “economic collaboration and integration” rather than a proxy battleground for others.