Intel: What Iraq is doing to avoid being caught in tug of war between US and Iran

al-monitor Barham Salih, Iraq's newly elected president, walks with Iraq's new Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi at the parliament headquarters, in Baghdad, Iraq, Oct. 2, 2018.  Photo by REUTERS/Khalid al Mousily.

Oct 3, 2018

The Iraqi embassy in Washington is working overtime to avoid getting caught up in the feud between the United States and Iran.

Speaking to reporters at the embassy mere hours after Baghdad announced the election of a new president and appointment of a new prime minister, the spokesman for Iraq’s Foreign Ministry took umbrage at Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s decision to close the US consulate in Basra. The US is blaming Iran-backed militias for rocket attacks near the compound last month.

“I’m not aware of the source of the information that Secretary Pompeo had regarding the Iranian role in the threats against the US consulate in Basra,” Mahjoub told Al-Monitor. “The United States might have wanted to send messages to regional powers after this withdrawal and we don’t want to see these messages sent via Iraq.”

Why it matters: Baghdad cannot afford to cut ties with its powerful neighbor and trading partner despite pressure from the Donald Trump administration and hardliners in Congress.

While Pompeo has congratulated President Barham Salih, Prime Minister-designate Adel Abdul Mahdi has already come under scrutiny from at least one Iran hardliner in Congress.

“The clear winner is Iran,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., tweeted today, noting that Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps leader Qasem Soleimani “personally brokered this deal.”

“I find it very awkward that the comments started so fast,” Mahjoub told Al-Monitor. “I don’t recognize how the reactions already started about a government that hasn’t been formed yet.”

US vs Iran: Mahjoub stressed that the area is secure and that the Iranians have reopened their Basra consulate even after the original building was burned down by rioters. He also noted that last week Iraq asked the State Department to “reconsider” their decision to shutter the Basra consulate.

An Iraqi delegation was also in Washington last week to press the Trump administration for a sanctions exemption that would allow Baghdad to continue energy imports from Iran after the US resumes sanctions next month. Mahjoub said two-thirds of Iraqi electricity comes from Iranian natural gas imports. Recent protests and unrest in Basra have been fueled in large part by electricity shortages.

What’s next? The official US response to Mahdi, a compromise candidate between Shiite nationalist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Sairoon alliance and the Iran-backed Fatah coalition, remains to be seen. Meanwhile, Iran hardliners in Congress are pushing the Trump administration to sanction the Iran-backed militia Asaib Ahl al-Haq, which won 15 seats in the last election and has a shot at a junior cabinet position.

Know more: Read Al-Monitor’s scoop on the negotiations in Lebanon that led to Mahdi’s appointment. And read congressional correspondent Bryant Harris’ coverage of congressional efforts to sanction Iran-backed Iraqi parliamentarians.

Bryant Harris

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