Saturday, July 31, 2021

A Prime Minister's Visit to Washington, Proposed Changes to the Personal Status Law, and Hisham al-Hashimi's Assassination: What does this trifecta tell us about Iraq's political future?

In his 2002 State of the Union address, George W. Bush coined the famous term, the “Axis of Evil” to characterize 3 countries, Iraq, North Korea and Iran.  Despite the disingenuous nature of the speech, since the United States knew Saddam Husayn’s regime did not possess weapons of mass destruction and wanted to manipulate public opinion to legitimize the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the inclusion of Iran as a despotic rogue state has only become more clear as time has progressed.   


Although Iran appeared it might be moving in a reformist direction with the election of al-Khatami in the 1990s and more recently Hussain Rouhani as presidents, we now see an even more repressive regime under the control of hardliners, such Ebrahim Raisi, the new president whose infamous role as the “hanging judge” of the 1980s resulted in many Iranians dissidents. Among its reprehensible activities, the Tehran regime has engaged in international criminal activities such as kidnapping dissidents aboard and returning them to Tehran for trail and execution. 


Iran’s repression is by no means limited to within its national borders.  Increasingly Iran is imposing its repression on Iraq.  The three issues mentioned above – the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, the effort to change Article 57 of Iraq’s progressive Personal Status Law, and the attempt to solve the killing of Iraq’s top security analyst, Dr. Hisham al-Hashimi – all lead us back to Iran and its increasingly destructive impact on Iraq.  What then links these 3 issues together and how do they demonstrate Iran’s growing interference in Iraqi politics and society. 


In short, these 3 concerns underscore the extent to which Iraq has fallen under Iraqi control.  Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s recent trip to the United States where President Joe Biden and he signed an agreement to withdraw all US combat troops from Iraq by the end of this year is a clear demonstration of Iranian influence in Iraq.  Iran’s proxy militias have attacked Iraqi military bases where US and European Coalition Forces have

In short, these 3 concerns underscore the extent to which Iraq has fallen under Iraqi control.  Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s recent trip to the United States where President Joe Biden and he signed an agreement to withdraw all US combat troops from Iraq by the end of this year is a clear demonstration of Iranian influence in Iraq.  Iran’s proxy militias have attacked Iraqi military bases where US and European Coalition Forces have been stationed in an effort to have them leave the country.  These attacks have been carried out at Iran’s bidding.   


In part, the attacks are designed to put pressure on the US as it negotiates an effort to reinstate the JCPOA agreement of 2015 which was designed to reign in Iran’s efforts to develop a nuclear weapon. However, the attacks are also intended to end the United States’ military presence in Iraq so Iran’s proxy militias gain even greater control of Iraq’s political and economy.  By calling the attacks as part of the “resistance movement,” the militias work to inculcate among their followers that the US is an enemy of Iraq. 


Mustafa al-Kadhimi and Joe Biden after reaching an
agreement to withdraw US combat troops from Iraq
Prime Minister al-Kadhimi’s trip to meet with President Biden was in large measure political theater.  Its purpose was to reduce militia pressure on the Iraqi leader by his obtaining a declaration that US combat troops would in fact be withdrawn (after Iraq requested they return to help the decimated Iraqi army after the Islamic State seized Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and much of the northwest of the country).  However, al-Kadhimi and the Biden administration have created an exemption for US forces who provide training, intelligence and logistical support to the Iraqi army. In practice, this means that the 2500 troops currently in Iraq will most likely continue to help Iraq in its effort to prevent the return of the IS to western and northwestern Iraq. 


Still, the very fact that al-Kadhimi found it necessary to visit the United States demonstrates Iran’s growing influence.  The continued effort to curtail United States military presence hurts Iraq in a least 2 ways.  First, it makes it harder for the Iraqi army to eliminate the many cells which operate in the Sunni Arab majority provinces of al-Anbar, Ninawa, Salahidin and Diyala provinces.  IS terrorist cells have found that the Hamrin Mountains in north central Iraq and the marsh areas near the city of Kirkuk provide favorable terrain for launching attacks on towns and villages and assassinating local and government leaders. 

Second, Iraq’s economy is dependent on oil for over 95% of its foreign currency revenues. As the global demand for fossil fuels subsides during the coming decade, the imperative to diversify the Iraqi economy grows every year.  However, Western businesses are increasing hesitant to invest in an economy which is increasingly beholden to Iran’s proxy militias, especially since they engage in extortion, smuggling, theft and control many government contracts.  Indeed, I refer to Iraq at present as a “militia-mafia” state where business practices aren’t stable and contracts often can’t be enforced.   Crime syndicates and foreign investment don’t mix.


In 1959, Iraq passed one of the MENA region’s progressive personal status law.  Article 57 awards custody of children to the mother following a divorce proceeding that has the right to custody of the family’s children.  Under the proposed law, women would lose this right.  The effort to change the Personal Status Law has sparked outrage and large demonstrations throughout Iraq. 

Iraqi women demonstrating against changing
Article 57 of  Iraq's Personal Status Law
The issues surrounding the change in Article 57 are larger than women’s and family rights.  Many Iraqis see Iran’s hand in the proposed legislation. Specifically, their view is that Iran is attempting to impose its repressive and patriarchal distortion of Islam on Iraq.

Child Rearing: Will the Proposed Change to Iraq's Personal Status Law be Implemented? 

 Iran’s goal is to indoctrinate Iraq’s male populace into the ultra-patriarchal ideology of the so-called “Islamic Republic.”  This strategy is especially directed at poor and uneducated Iraqi youth. Not only is it an attempt to spread Iran’s repressive ideology, but it also helps divert attention from the widespread unemployment and poverty in Iraq.  Giving males more power over women and their families works to offset attention from their deteriorating material conditions.  


Under the strong influence of tribalism, which has reasserted itself since the 1980s, and intensified after 2003, Iraqis have not been susceptible to radical Islamism, especially in its sectarian form.   Instead, large numbers of Iraqis are more loyal to tribal customs (al-‘urf), themselves very patriarchal, than to Islamic norms.  Tribal norms continue to predominate in rural areas and poor neighborhoods of urban quarters.  

However, marriage between Shi’a and Sunni Arabs has always been widespread. Even though there was a downturn during the sectarian conflict in Baghdad between 2004 and 2008, marriage rates between the two sects have risen again. Few Iraqis have embraced radical Islam, and it has neither been encouraged by Sunni clerics, nor Shi’a clergy who subscribe to the idea that religion and politics should be separated.  Thus, the effort to mobilize a deviant form of Islam to curtail women’s rights does not emanate from Iraqi society but rather from Islamist parliamentarians in Iraq’s Chamber of Deputies who are  pro-Iranian and seek to do Iran’s bidding. 


The amendment proposed by a number of deputies includes reducing the age of custody of a divorced mother for her children (currently the age of custody can reach the age of 15, while in the new proposal it lasts only until seven years of age). Further, to retain custody of her children, a woman may marry again.  However, this requirement does not apply to the father if he marries a second woman and seeks to obtain custody of the children.  In the event of the father's death, the proposed amendment to Article 57 makes the paternal grandfather more entitled to custody than the children’s’ mother. 

Iraqi girl asks that Article 57 not be changed
Viewing the upcoming elections, and unwilling to tackle Iraq’s pressing problems, such as lack of electricity which is killing Iraqis who lack access to air conditioning in sweltering heat, lack of jobs as Iraq’s poverty rate climbs, and the failure of the state to address the growing water shortages which are damaging Iraqi agriculture, Islamists are exploiting a spurious issue to run for parliament and please Iran in the process.  



In addition to the widespread protests over changing Iraq’s Personal Status Law to Iraq women’s disadvantage, another rejection of politicized region is evident in Iraq’s ongoing October Revolution (Thawrat Tishreen).  The protest movement, which began in October 2019, has been entirely peaceful by the demonstrators.  However, government security forces, particularly those from the Ministry of the Interior, and Iran’s proxy militias have attacked the protestors.  To date, over 600 have been killed, more than 20,000 wounded, and many kidnapped and tortured before being released while others seized have disappeared. 

The highly respected Iraqi security analyst killed by its proxy
militia in Iraq on orders from Iran
I have written extensively on the October Revolution for The New Middle East.  However, the murder of Dr. Hisham al-Hashimi, a highly respected Iraqi security analyst, by members of one of Iran’s proxy militias, points to another disturbing area of Iranian influence in Iraq.  While the government of Prime Minister al-Kadhimi recently arrested a lieutenant in the Ministry of Interior and supposedly obtained his confession to killing al-Hashimi, it is still unclear who ordered the assassination and which organization is responsible for the killing.  There have been rumors that the killer is associated with the pro-Iranian, Kata’ib Hizballah, but little information has been released by al-Kadhimi’s office on the details of the killing.

The Killing of Qasem Suleimani and the October Revolution  


The killing of youth leaders of Thawrat Tishreen and many other prominent democracy activists have yet to lead to a single conviction.  After the arrest of Qasim Muslih, a member of a pro-Iranian militia, was arrested for the killing of a prominent activist in Karbala’, Ihab al-Wazni, the government was forced to release him when the judiciary declared “it lacked evidence to hold him in custody.”  These events point to the impunity with which Iran’s proxy militias operate in Iraq and that the militias are more powerful militarily than the Iraqi army. 

مقتل سليماني وثورة تشرين في العراق: ما الذي عجز المحللون الغربيون ان يوصلونه لك وما الذي تحتاج ان تعرفه


The idea of Iraq moving towards greater democracy is belied by Iran’s increasing control over its politics, security forces and economy.  Its proxy militias play a key role in insuring that this control persists. The "hands off" Biden administration policy towards Iraq and neighboring Syria suggests that Iran’s ability to create and dominate Iraq, Syria, and through Hizballah, Lebanon, means that its repression will continue to plague neighboring states.

Hisham al-Hashimi: He fought the Da'ish and the Militias and was murdered by the bullets of treachery   


Iran’s new hardline president has already indicated that he will not make any concessions to the United States which foreshadows a failure by the US and Europe to reinstate the JCPOA. Repression of the Iranian people, always used against dissidents, seems likely to become worse under Ebrahim Raisi. Only a robust response by the Biden administration towards Iranian repression at home and in Iraq can help prevent Iran from further efforts to export its tyranny to Iraq and the Arab Mashriq.