In happier times, Washington and Tehran might well have zeroed in on Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi as their consensus candidate for the post of Iraq’s prime minister.
Why not? He was opposed to Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship – although, unlike most Shiite politicians who fled from Saddam’s tyranny, he never lived in Iran but chose the United Kingdom. However, unlike his famous – notorious – cousin Ayad Allawi, who also lived in exile in the UK and was handpicked by the US to head the first government during its occupation from 2004-2005, Mohammed Allawi didn’t work for Western intelligence.
Even detractors dare not claim that he was ever on Tehran’s payroll. In fact, he wasn’t – unlike another famous relative of his, Ahmed Chalabi, an Iraqi politician. Although part of the Shia aristocracy, he was sensible enough as an aspiring Iraqi politician to have a good rapport with Iran.
Mohammed Allawi is said to be deeply religious and yet is secular-minded. He twice resigned from former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki’s cabinet in protest against the latter’s “sectarian agenda and political interference.” There is no conceivable reason the US cannot be happy that Iran has failed at this crucial juncture in regional politics to insert a “yes man” as the head of the new government in Baghdad.
But by prioritizing Iraq’s stability more than anything else, Tehran welcomed Mohammed Allawi’s appointment. On the contrary, even after President Barham Salih gave him the appointment letter on February 1, Washington is still holding back. American think-tankers wired into the US establishment have run down Mohammed Allawi as a mere frontman of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Sairoon Alliance and its rival, the Fatah Alliance led by Hadi al-Amiri. They anticipate that he is doomed to fail.
The heart of the matter is that there is much angst in the American mind that Mohammed Allawi, once confirmed as prime minister by the Iraqi parliament, may not only restructure US-Iraqi relations, but eventually take the wind out of the so-called protests that Washington and its regional allies have conjured up since October in the Iraqi body politic as an extra-constitutional center.
US influence dimmed: Today, the United States’ capacity to influence the Iraqi political elite – a vast unwieldy network of politicians, Shia political parties, security forces, militias and religious figures that make up Iraq’s muhasasa (sectarian power-sharing) political system – stands much diminished. Clawing its way back up the greasy pole is difficult. Thus the protest movement, which is now entering its fourth month, has come to be the principal instrument for Washington (and its Saudi and Emirati allies) to surreptitiously advance the broader geopolitical confrontation with Iran that is being played out within Iraq.
The Iraqi protest movement bears striking similarity to Hong Kong’s, which also brought the local government to its knees. In Iraq too, it is a remarkably yo-ung movement made up almost entirely of adolescents or youths below the age of 25 and has also seen significant female participation.
The movement in Hong Kong has an inchoate program that keeps mutating – ranging from electoral reforms to eradication of corruption – amid the artistic graffiti, rap videos, and citizen journalism as modes of political activism and civic engagement.
The Iraqi protest movement, too, has no unified leadership, and yet through its abstract calls for the removal of the current political elite it has worked to insert itself as a factor in the decision-making over the nomination of the prime minister. Some hidden forces are evidently pulling the strings from behind, as in Hong Kong. The outgoing Iraqi prime minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi complained bitterly in parliament on January 5 that in two telephone conversations US President Donald Trump had threatened him with precisely such protests, to overthrow him, if he didn’t comply with US demands. Trump allegedly threatened to position US Marine snipers “atop the highest buildings” to target and kill protesters and security forces alike in an attempt to pressure the prime minister.
Therefore, it is hugely significant that the Iraqi protesters have rejected Mohammed Allawi’s appointment. Iraq is now at a political impasse. In essence, Washington will do everything in its power to prevent the new government from settling in. In Hong Kong, the turmoil began subsiding once the US-China trade deal was signed. In Iraq, everything depends on the renegotiation of the terms of engagement with the US. The amorphous nature of the protest movement means that it may meet with sudden death as well.
The Trump administration hopes to salvage relations with Baghdad and smother the Iraqi demand for American troop withdrawal. The top US commander in the Middle East, General Frank McKenzie, visited Baghdad on Tuesday to get the ball rolling. In a longer perspective, the US hopes that the Sadrists – a movement led by Muqtada al-Sadr – could be exploited as a powerful driver of placing the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Force (PMF) structure under real control of the government.
But there’s a caveat. As senior fellow at the Washington Institute Michael Knights puts it, “Muqtada also believes he has a role to play as a ‘guide’ focused on ‘social justice.’… While unlikely to be a ruler in the mold of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Muqtada is also unlikely to be a ‘quietist’ cleric in the style of [Ali al-] Sistani. Something in-between is more likely, raising parallels with Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah. This is not a comparison that should reassure [Washington].” In fact, on Tuesday, Sadr supporters took control of the iconic Tahrir Square building in Baghdad and evicted the protesters ensconced there.
The bottom line is that although the level of emotion in the Sadrist discourse about American forces in Iraq is no more acute than it used to be a decade ago, it remains a deeply held conviction of the movement, from Muqtada himself to the militant cadres, that the presence of foreign military forces should not become a pro forma reality of Iraqi life.