Bahraini opposition in Iraq stirs crisis between Baghdad, Manama

The opening of an office of the Bahraini opposition in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad has caused a crisis between Iraq and Bahrain.

al-monitor A female protester waves Bahrain's flag as she takes part in a protest marking the 4th anniversary of the 14th February uprising to demand democratic reforms in the village of Sanabis, west of Manama, February 14, 2015.  Photo by REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed.
Mustafa Saadoun

Mustafa Saadoun


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GCC Relations

Jan 14, 2019

A meeting was held in Baghdad Dec. 22, 2018, to announce the opening of a Bahraini opposition office. The February 14 Youth Coalition is a Bahraini political movement that emerged on social media in 2014. The movement called on Bahrainis to protest and hold sit-ins against the Bahraini government in light of the absence of rights and freedoms. Bahrain classified the movement as a terrorist group.

An official at the February 14 Youth Coalition who spoke to Al-Monitor on the condition of anonymity believes the Bahraini opposition opened a branch in Iraq’s capital city, Baghdad, because it enjoys many privileges there. This includes more freedoms and significant positive interaction with the Bahraini opposition. “Baghdad represents our second homeland as a revolutionary and political opposition,” the official said.

The crisis between Baghdad and Manama can be traced back to head of the State of Law Coalition Nouri al-Maliki. He accused Manama of resorting to Fedayeen Hussein (a paramilitary organization loyal to the Baathist government of Saddam Hussein) to suppress the legitimate protests of Bahrainis. He also accused the Bahraini government of marginalization and discrimination against Bahraini Shiites.

Immediately after Maliki’s statements, Bahrain summoned Nihad Rajab Askar, deputy charge d'affaires of the Embassy of the Republic of Iraq, to the kingdom of Bahrain and voiced the Bahraini government's resentment.

The crisis between the two countries did not remain limited to Maliki’s statements. Iraqi Shiite religious figures and authorities also appeared to be supporting prominent Bahraini opposition leader Issa al-Qassem, who lives in Najaf now.

The Bahraini government responded to these recent developments. Waheed Mubarak Sayyar, the undersecretary of Regional and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Affairs, said, “Maliki's statements represent a blatant interference in the internal affairs of the kingdom.” He added that Maliki’s attitude is a sign of “alignment with those who seek to spread chaos, violence and terrorism, and exhibit hatred not only to Bahrain but to all Arab states.”

Bahraini columnist Farid Ahmed Hassan lashed out at Maliki’s statements in al-Watan Bahraini newspaper on Dec. 27, 2018. He noted that the flag of Iraq was placed at the podium where Maliki delivered his offensive speech against Bahrain at the meeting the previous week, which was organized by the February 14 Youth Coalition. Hassan said this means reactions should not be limited to summoning the charge d'affaires of Iraq.

Bahrain classified the February 14 Youth Coalition as a terrorist group, and the rest of the GCC countries dealt with it according to this classification. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) got involved in the crisis with Baghdad, and Emirati Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash criticized the opening of an office for the February 14 Youth Coalition in Baghdad. In a tweet on Dec. 29, he said this move has set a “serious precedent in interfering in internal affairs.”

Despite Bahrain’s official position and the summoning of Askar, the Iraqi Foreign Ministry has yet to take a stance. This indicates that Iraq wants to distance itself from this issue, but at the same time, this makes it easier for Baghdad to express its foreign positions through influential Iraqi political parties.

Iraq could be under pressure from Bahrain, Saudi Arabia or the UAE to close the office opened by the Bahraini opposition, especially in light of lukewarm Iraqi relations with Bahrain.

Yahya al-Kubais, an adviser at the Iraqi Center for Strategic Studies, predicted that these developments would push Manama to further break away from Iraq. “The Iraqi government has not sponsored the opening of a Bahraini opposition office or officially hosted Issa al-Qassem. There is, however, complicity with the Shiite political party who did so. If it wanted, the state could have prevented the opening of the office and denied an entry visa to Qassem to visit Najaf.”

Five days after the opening of the office, Qassem arrived in the Iraqi city of Najaf from London. Bahraini authorities had stripped him of his Bahraini nationality. Qassem is expected to spend the rest of his life in the holy Shiite city.

However, oddly enough, the office of Iraq's most senior Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, posted a new photo of him hosting Qassem. The move was seen as a message of solidarity and an expression of the position of Najaf's authority toward the Shia of Bahrain and the protest movement there. But these steps appear to be offset by Bahrain's fear of Qassem using Najaf’s forums to target the regime in Bahrain.

The armed Shiite factions expressed their positions on Qassem’s visit to Najaf. The most striking position, however, was that of Qais al-Khazali, secretary-general of the League of the Righteous. “From all of our heart, we welcome you in your country, Iraq. May you return to your beloved Bahrain triumphant,” he told Qassem on Twitter.

“The opening of an opposition office in Baghdad contradicts the Iraqi Constitution, which is one of the principles of Iraqi foreign policy after 2003,” Adel Badawi, a professor of political science at Baghdad University, told Al-Monitor. “Iraq has ousted the Iranian opposition group Mujahedeen-e-Khalq based on this constitution.”

He added, “This move will not only lead to Iraqi-Bahraini tension, but to an Iraqi-Gulf tension, which will disrupt the relations that just started cooling down. Iraq needs to reevaluate not only its foreign policy but also the steps taken by its internal parties and their implications on Iraq's foreign orientations.”

The Iraqi political parties’ foreign positions do not mirror the position of the Iraqi state. These stances rather stem from individual sectarian, religious and nationalistic policies and convictions.

Thus, Iraq is set to face similar challenges in the future unless all of its foreign positions are based on Iraq’s national best interest and not a partisan interest. Hosting Bahraini dissidents may also be a new hurdle affecting the foreign relations of Iraq, which is looking forward to boosting its Arab ties.

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