Is Iran losing its influence in Iraq?

Colin Freeman
The death of General Qassem Soleimani by a US drone strike in January caused outrage in Iran  - Aziz Taher/Reuters

Just like Sweden's Nobel Prize, the judging panel is made up of luminaries tasked with honouring outstanding achievement.

The criteria, though, for winning Iran's new Qassem Soleimani Global Award will be rather different to its Scandinavian counterpart.

Unveiled last month in memory of the hardline military chief killed by the US in Iraq, the award will champion acts of "resistance" by Tehran’s proxies across the Middle East.

Yet if events since Mr Solaimani's death are anything to go by, the panel - which includes Iran's foreign minister - may struggle to find worthy recipients.

When Mr Solaimani was killed by a US drone strike during a visit to Baghdad in January, Iran vowed "severe revenge" against the US through its proxy militias in Iraq. The pro-Iranian bloc in Iraq's parliament also demanded the withdrawal of the 5,000 US and coalition troops in Iraq to help fight Islamic State.

Nearly six months on, though, the foreign troops are still stationed across Iraq and look set to stay for some time. And apart from a rocket attack on a coalition base in March that killed a British soldier and two Americans, Iran-backed Shia militias have yet to make good their threats to avenge Solaimani's death in spectacular fashion.

At a glance | General Qassim Soleimani

Moreover, Iraq has just appointed its most pro-Western prime minister in years. Mustafa al-Khadimi was sworn in earlier this month, replacing Adel Abdul Mahdi, who stepped down last November in the wake of huge anti-government protests.

For the past four years, Mr al-Khadimi has run Iraq's intelligence service, where he worked closely with the coalition in the fight against Isis. He previously spent years in Britain as a journalist and human rights campaigner, having fled Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s rule.

"He is both a liberal and non-sectarian," said Sarkawt Sams, a Kurdish MP who once worked as a journalist with Mr al-Khadimi. "He doesn't want to make trouble with Iran, he’s just pro-Iraq. He also realises that we cannot survive right now without US support."

A crunch point looms in mid-June, when the US and Iraq are expected to hold a "strategic dialogue" conference to set out their future relationship. Far from bowing to demands to withdraw all troops, America and the wider coalition is likely to lobby for a continued - albeit smaller - presence to ensure that the Islamic State does not resurge.

"There is scope for an agreement on a more focused and probably smaller troop presence in Iraq to counter Daesh (Islamic State) in the future," one Western official told The Telegraph.

Mr al-Khadimi's appointment reflects the fact that the Iranian military chief who replaced Mr Solaimani has struggled to wield the same influence in Iraq as his predecessor did.

Iran and the West | Comment and analysis

Esmail Ghani, a senior commander in Iran's Revolutionary Guards, visited Baghdad in late March, in a bid to exercise sway over the choice of the new prime minister. But as a non-Arabic speaker who lacks both Mr Solaimani's warrior charisma and personal connections, the reception was lukewarm. Some senior Shia leaders declined to meet him.

"Solaimani had enormous influence over different Iraqi politicians, and Ghaani has struggled to fill those shoes," said the Western official. "He has not had the same influence, for example, over the formation of the new government."

Nonetheless, given the strength of the pro-Iranian bloc in the Iraqi government, Mr al-Khadimi was still a surprising choice. Mr Sams beleives that some in the bloc have cooled to Tehran since the anti-government protests, which were partly a nationalist outcry against Iranian influence.

"The pressure from the street has been huge - it is anti-Iranian even if it is not explicitly pro-US," added Mr Sams, who received death threats from militias for refusing to vote for the troop pull-out. "Iran is finding that it doesn't have that many truly loyal friends in Iraq."

Mr al-Khadimi, who is regarded as a media-savvy technocrat, has already made his mark. Among his first acts was to order the release of some of the hundreds of people arrested during the protests, which had ground Baghdad and many other cities to a standstill.

He has also promised a more rigorous probe into the gun attacks mounted on some of the protests last year, in which around 600 people were killed. Pro-Iranian militia groups and Iraqi security forces were widely blamed, but an inquiry by the previous prime minister concluded only that they were "unidentified gunmen".

New Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi is more pro-western than Iran would like - IRAQI PRIME MINISTER MEDIA OFFICE/REUTERS

“It remains to be seen if al-Khadimi can deliver on these promises," cautioned Aymen Salman, a Baghdad protester. "So far, no protesters have been freed , and if he arrests those who did the shootings, he may run up against powerful political interests."

In an early boost for Mr al-Khadimi, some more moderate elements of the Peoples' Mobilisation Units - the Iran-backed Shia militias mobilised in 2014 to help fight Isis - have already opted to come under full government control. The move is thought to be an effort to distance themselves from more extreme pro-Iranian units, such as Khataib Hezbollah, suspected of the March attack on the coalition base.

In return for backing Mr al-Khadimi, Washington is likely to lean heavily on him to do more to assert Baghdad's independence from Tehran.

"The US will want assurances that Iran-backed groups are put firmly in their place," said Robert Tollast, of Middle East analysis firm NAMEA. "That will mean cooperating with the US to enforce targeted sanctions against Iran's financial interests in Iraq, and if Iran oversteps in Iraq militarily, could extend to security cooperation against Iran's Iraqi proxies."

Should Mr al-Khadimi face push-back from Iraq's pro-Iranian block, Washington could withdraw its multi-billion dollar financial support to the Iraqi government. It is currently facing fiscal meltdown because of the collapse in world oil prices caused by the coronavirus.

However, having spent much of his time in Britain, Mr al-Khadimi has no real Iraqi power base of his own, which means he is could easily be ousted. Iran, says Mr Tollast, remains "deeply entrenched" in Iraq, through militia proxies on the government payroll and sympathetic politicians and business networks. "We can't expect an absolute winner in terms of US-Iranian competition," he added.

Steering a successful course between America and Iran's rival interests could make al-Khadimi a watershed leader for Iraq. Given the odds against him, though, many would rate his chances of success only slightly higher than his chances of winning the Qassem Solaimani Global Award.