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Iran Forming New Alliances In Iraq As Al-Sadr Realigns His Policy Toward Tehran

Former Qods Force's Qassem Soleimani (R), Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (L) and Iraqi Shia cleric, politician and militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr in Tehran, Sept. 10, 2019 - FILE
Former Qods Force's Qassem Soleimani (R), Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (L) and Iraqi Shia cleric, politician and militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr in Tehran, Sept. 10, 2019 - FILE

Iranian media have characterized the anti-U.S. demonstrations in Baghdad on Friday January 24 as a "million-strong” show of opposition to Washington and an affirmation of Iran’s policies. Some Iranian agencies even went out of their way posting pictures of an earlier demonstration in Karbala to prove the point.

Thousands of Iraqis took part in the demonstrations, demanding an end to U.S. military presence in Iraq.

The demonstrations were called by Muqtada al-Sadr, a cleric close to Iran, whose loyalty to the Iranian leadership has had fluctuations over time while he has been manoeuvring to garner support from the Iraqi public during the past years.

According to Fararu news website on January 22, Iran has also showed a renewed interest in Sadr. "The rise in Iran's interest in Al-Sadr was evident in his recent meeting with the leaders of Iraq's armed groups in Qom in Iran. On January 13, Muqtada al-Sadr held a meeting with some of the leaders of the Iraqi Hashd al-Sha'bi militia in Qom with the objective of putting an end to military presence in Iraq," the website said.

Fararu wrote that while in Qom, "Sadr announced the establishment of a group named International Resistance and, called for a million-strong march in Iraq to demand the expulsion of U.S. forces." This is apparently the demonstration that took place on January 24.

However, as observed by the IRGC-linked website Javan Online, Muqtada al-Sadr re-aligned his political positions with the Islamic Republic particularly after a December 7 drone attack on his office in An Najaf.

The attack on Sadr's office, took place shortly after the last of a series of attacks on Iranian diplomatic missions in Iraq.

The Iranian Diplomacy, a website close to Iran's Foreign Ministry wrote in early December, " Iraqi protesters have attacked and set fire to the Iranian Consulate in An Najaf for the third time in the evening of 3 December. The first attack on the Iranian Consulate in An Najaf by Iraqi protesters took place on 27 November when they torched the Consulate. They attacked and set fire to the Consulate on 1 December for a second time."

"Meanwhile on 4 November the Iranian Consulate in Karbala was attacked and on 7 September a similar attack was launched on the Iranian Consulate in Basra," the website wrote. Whatever the link between those attacks and strike on Al-Sadr's office, the result seems to have brought Sadr closer to the Islamic Republic.

In one of the latest developments in Ira's relations with Muqtada al-Sadr, "Following the assassination of General Qasem Soleimani and Hashd al-Sha'bi deputy head Abu-Mahdi al-Muhandis in early January, Iran is following a new plan to strengthen its influence in Iraq in collaboration with Lebanon's Hezbollah," Fararu wrote, adding that Sadr will be one of the pillars of this new arrangement.

The report says, "The reason for the change in Iran's policy about its relations with some Iraqi groups were the developments in Iraq during the past months, particularly the events that took place following the assassination of General Qassem Soleimani. During this period, some political figures who were close to Iran or were Iran's allies, including Nuri al-Maliki, Hadi Ameri and Massoud Barzani were not able to play an effective role in guiding or controlling developments in Iraq."

They were also not able to play an effective part in the crisis about electing a new Prime Minister after Abd- al-Mahdi's resignation. "Not only these figures and some other groups were not able to shape the developments, but they also were another factor leading to the continuation of the protests," the report said.

An Iraqi source quoted by Fararu, Al-Alam al-Jadid newspaper, says Iran has formed a think tank consisting of officials linked to the IRGC, the Foreign Ministry, The Ministry of Intelligence and the Lebanese Hezbollah to design a new policy in Iraq.

The newspaper wrote that "The reason for setting aside traditional allies such as Nuri al-Maliki, Hadi Ameri and Massoud Barzani and extending more support for Muqtada al-Sadr was those their inability to neutralize anti-government and anti-Iran protests, which began in early October. Iran’s allies were also unable to ratify a law to end the monopoly of U.S. [military] flights in Iraqi skies, and their failure to get an authorization for the flight of Iranian aircraft in Iraq."

It appears that Iran has turned to Muqtada al-Sadr in its new approach in Iraq, because it thinks he is the only one who can do what others failed to do, i.e., weakening the United States' influence. The Iraqi newspaper added that Sadr enjoys more popularity in comparison with other Iraqi politicians and is able to control armed groups in Iraq.

Meanwhile, Sadr has been playing a delicate and seemingly intelligent act of walking a tightrope in the political sphere. According to Fararu, despite a strong presence by his party in the Iraqi Parliament and leverage in forming governments, he does not accept any official position in the political system, although, no government can be ever formed without his input.

However, in any alliance with Sadr, Iran cannot ignore his zigzag manoeuvres. He played an influential part in forming the Abd al-Mahdi administration and had a major part in his government. But as soon the anti-government protests started, he called for the downfall of the government even louder than the protesters in the streets.