Hisham Melhem on Foreign Hands in Iraq and the Beirut-Baghdad Protest Connection

Published November 6th, 2019 - 11:21 GMT
Hisham Melhem /Al Bawaba
Hisham Melhem /Al Bawaba

As Iran struggles under the 'maximum pressure' campaign of U.S. economic sanctions, it has found an economic lifeline inside Iraq and a staging platform from which to project regional influence.

However there are signs that in its desperation, Tehran may have overplayed its hand; deep protests continue across Iraq, particularly in Iraqi Shia areas rather than the Sunni-majority areas to the West. The Internet has been shut down, with reports of a deadly and severe crackdowns in rural areas.

The position of Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi who remains on good terms with the USA, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait remains vulnerable. At the same time a power-struggle within the Iraqi army between pro-Iranian Shia milita and conventional forces has reached the highest levels of government.

For perspective and context, DC Insider speaks with Hisham Melhem, former Washington bureau chief of Al Arabiya.
 


How would you describe the level and nature of Iran's influence inside Iraq?

“Iran is involved in every facet of life in Iraq- social, political, cultural, you name it- and that influence is suffocating. Yes, granted Iran is a neighbor. Yes, granted Iraq’s longest border is with Iran but nobody can or should expect that sort of suffocating influence. They want Iraq to become a market for Iranian products, they want all sovereign decisions in Iraq to be made in collaboration with or after consultation with Iranians.

It’s time for the Iraqis to tell the Iranians that they want a neighborly relationship, but one based on reciprocity and respect.

Whatever happened to Iraq’s sovereignty? All of these demonstrations in Iraq tell you something about how far the Iranians have gone in Iraq. It’s time for the Iraqis to tell the Iranians that they want a neighborly relationship, but one based on reciprocity and respect.”

This week has been particularly chaotic in Iraq as President Barham Saleh announced that Abdul Mahdi would be stepping down. General Suleimani has ensured that Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi will not be resigning, while Saleh indicated that he is willing to do so. He has yet to resign and there doesn’t seem to be any promise, especially with conflicting information being conveyed from Suleimani, will Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi be resigning and if so, when?

“I can tell you that the expectation in official Washington is that he will resign - would have to resign - because like in Lebanon, the Iraqi government failed miserably in enacting any kind of reform that most Iraqis would like to see. So you have serious structural problems, incredible waste of resources, tremendous corruption and the will of the people is not being listened to.

Here you have a country that is producing more than four million barrels of oil a day and it is essentially a pauper country in terms of social services, medical services, etc.

Here you have a country that is producing more than four million barrels of oil a day and it is essentially a pauper country in terms of social services, medical services, etc.

Thus, you have the anger of the demonstrators directed at this failure on the part of the entire ruling classes of Iraq, not only the government.  This puts Iraq and Lebanon in a similar position, in which the anger is directed at a foreign power- Iran- in the case of both Iraq, and Lebanon.”

So essentially, the ruling class is to blame?

“When you look at all of the uprisings in the Arab world in the last decade, all of them were directed at the failure of the ruling classes. Only in the case of Iraq and Lebanon, there was another dimension that did not exist in the cases of Egypt, Libya, Yemen, or Tunisia which is the foreign hand… In Lebanon and Iraq, part of the problem is the nefarious destructive influence of foreign power which really has suffocated both Iraq and Lebanon when it comes to the ability of these two countries to determine their own future.

You have a power that is preventing you from determining your future and so I can tell you that folks here in Washington are watching very carefully what’s happening in Iraq, they don’t like where the government is going, and I think that they are beginning to realize that Iran does not want to see the government in Iraq go, just as Iran does not want to see the political structure in Lebanon change too.”

Along with Salih’s comments, he went on to say that they would be calling for “early elections” and needs to find a replacement for Abdul Mahdi. How early is “early” and shouldn’t President Saleh be appointing Abdul Mahdi’s successor?

“Two things about the Iraqi elections, and again, the Lebanese elections… The elections in Iraq are not changing anything and they are not likely to change anything. You have the same powers and you have the same sectarian ethnic divisions. The same powers are being elected and reelected with nothing happening and this is a big problem. I really don’t see any solution with new elections because we’re going to end up with the same power structures in the new parliament.

You have the same powers and you have the same sectarian ethnic divisions. The same powers are being elected and reelected with nothing happening and this is a big problem.

The exact same thing goes for Lebanon. You have a problem here that is beyond having another election, beyond naming a new prime minister to form a new government… You have to convince the people that there is a new game in town and I really don’t see anybody. by way of successor to Abdul-Mahdi in Baghdad or Hariri in Lebanon. If the new prime minister designate is going to be from the same political class, of the same tried and failed political class.”

With the government imposing internet bans during the protests, in blatant deliberation to block the world from witnessing the mayhem occurring, how much of the protest situation is the world not seeing? 

“This is the worst decision ever made so far. The message to the world and to the Iraqis is that we’re going to create darkness and under this darkness, we’re going to suppress the will of the Iraqi people. This the worst decision imaginable. You can do it up to a point, but you are not going to prevent the world from seeing what’s happening in Iraq. Everybody’s on social media - this is definitely the situation in Beirut.

I’ve been complaining about the lack of coverage of demonstrations in Iraq and Lebanon by western media, particularly American media because the Americans invested a lot in Iraq and we ended up with this kind of political structure. However, one reason people were compensating for the lack of western coverage was through social media."

Social media may have its negatives, but its pros definitely outweigh its cons in regards to spreading global awareness. What role has social media been playing during the protests in both Iraq and Lebanon?

“The Iraqis were telling the stories of their struggles through social media, just as the Lebanese were doing a beautiful job in explaining to the world, and to the Arabs, why they are demonstrating in the streets and why they are paying the price. I think one of the reasons that the Lebanese have made it so far is through social media...

I think one of the reasons that the Lebanese have made it so far is through social media...

They have been using it in terms of organizing the uprisings and explaining/narrating their story to the rest of the world. When the Iraqi government shuts down the internet to kill social media, that’s like building a wall around Iraq and telling the world to mind their own business as they crack down on the demonstrators.”

Could the anger towards Iran, which led to the attack on the Iranian consulate in Karbala on Sunday, be a prelude to something much larger in regards to bilateral relations between Iraq and Iran?

“Attacking a consulate or an embassy is horrific, unacceptable. It should be condemned by everyone, including those who are very critical of Iran, like myself. People should express their views and feelings about Iran… That’s all legitimate and fine, but attacking consulates or embassies is unacceptable.

That being said, the symbolism of the Iranian consulate being attacked in the heart of Karbala should tell the Iranians something…

That being said, the symbolism of the Iranian consulate being attacked in the heart of Karbala should tell the Iranians something… The Iraqis are demonstrating against Iran and those Iraqis who are seen as Iranian proxies. That should tell the Iranians that they’ve went too far. This whole business of Shiite solidarity doesn’t mean a thing. These people are Iraqis, they are not demonstrating as Shiite, they are demonstrating as Iraqis. You could be the most pious Shiite in the world, and still denounce Iran’s nefarious influence in Iraq.”

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Al Bawaba News.


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