An "Iranian message" that was supposedly carried by the leader of the Qods Force of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) before being killed in Baghdad purportedly contained Tehran's "vision" for rapprochement in the region.
Iran's envoy to Iraq was quoted by local media on February 4 that Qassem Soleimani was carrying a message spelling out Iranian stance on counter-terrorism when he was killed last month.
Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandes deputy chief of Iraq's Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) "al-Hashd al-Sha'bi" were killed in a U.S. drone strike at Baghdad airport on January 3.
The Iranian ambassador, Iraj Masjedi, told Iraqi News Agency that "the message included Iran's vision for fighting terrorism, spreading peace and security, love, and achieving stability and security in the region." He added in an interview, "Tehran welcomes Iraq’s role in seeking to resolve outstanding issues between Iran and Saudi Arabia and regional issues."
The so-called "Iranian message" was first alluded to by Iraq's caretaker prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi on January 5 when he told a parliamentary session that he was scheduled to meet with Soleimani on the morning the top Iranian general was killed. He added that Soleimani was to deliver a message from Iran "in response to the Saudi message that we brought to Iran in order to reach important agreements and situations regarding Iraq and the region."
Two days after Abdul Mahdi's statement, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo refuted the claim, saying to reporters at the State Department, "Is there any history that would indicate that it was remotely possible that this kind gentleman, this diplomat of great order, Qassem Soleimani, had traveled to Baghdad for the idea of conducting a peace mission?”
Observers in Baghdad believe that Iran is trying to send a message to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates with the aim of resolving differences to ease the economic pressure on Tehran caused by the U.S. sanctions imposed on the regime. Iraqi Journalist and observer of Iran Mustafa Kadhum said in comments published February 5 on Alhurra website.
"The Revolutionary Guards have always obstructed any attempt by moderates in the Iranian administration to negotiate with the United States or calm the crisis." He added, "Iran is trying to portray Soleimani as a man of peace, not as a man of war." While another Iraqi journalist, Qassem al-Sanjari, believes that "Iran is trying to neutralize Saudi Arabia and the Emirates to get them out of the conflict, knowing that its chances are very weak by the presence of these two countries on the list of enemies."
On his part, Political Science Professor at Baghdad's al-Mustansiriya University, Ali al-Badri, told Alhurra, "Iran can send its foreign minister, the soft hand Jawad Zarif, or any person other than Soleimani or his officer colleagues from the Revolutionary Guard, but its insistence on exporting the idea of (Soleimani's peace) means that it is considering a peace imposed by the force of threat."
While none of the top Iranian IRGC commander's travels in the region had ever been described as of "diplomatic" nature, a leading Iraqi politician said that "Soleimani’s power by the end was so great he behaved like a viceroy on his visits, convening not just allies but forces from across the spectrum."
The unidentified Iraqi politician's statement was contained in a report by Reuters which said on February 3 that a month after a U.S. missile killed him, "Soleimani looms as large over Iraq’s fractured democracy as he ever did alive."
The report added that while Soleimani’s death weakens Iran, "it also leaves a damaging security vacuum in Iraq because the veteran commander held final sway over Tehran’s Iraqi paramilitary forces."
Iraq's highest Shi'ite religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani who repeatedly warned in his weekly sermons against foreign interference in Iraqi affairs sent an unprecedented letter of condolences to Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, one day after the killig of Soleimani.
Al-Sistani endorsed the ongoing protests against the Iran-backed ruling elite which have entered their fifth month on February 1. The demonstrators who initially took to the streets in protest against rampant corruption, unemployment and poor basic services have since October 1 raised the ceiling of demands to include wide rangning reforms and regime change. But while they have forced the resignation of the prime minister on November 30, they have made no change to the pro-Iranian paramilitary groups. Estimated to be 160,000-strong, the PMF groups are built around a core of militias founded, trained, armed and ideologically loyal to Iran.
Anti-Iran sentiment still runs high among the activists encamped in Baghdad’s main protest hub at downtown Tahrir Square and other center-south cities. But while their main slogan since October was "Out, out Iran", protesters started chanting "No to Iran, No to America" after the U.S. strike that killed Soleimani, increasingly expressing anger that Iraq was becoming a battleground for the settling of scores between Washington and Tehran.
Reuters quoted a prominent Iran-aligned Shi’ite party leader, who declined to be identified, as saying, "There is mounting Iraqi determination to reject the increasing Iranian influence and this is what we are seeing in the protests." He added, "The Iranians should review their policies if they want to build good relations with Iraq."