Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Iraqi PM Mustafa al-Kadhimi walk during a welcome ceremony in Tehran, Iran, July 21, 2020. (Reuters)

By Joe Oliver

August 12, 2020

Iran has launched a predictable pressure campaign on Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi ahead of his upcoming visit to the United States on August 20.

To exert as much pressure on the premier as possible, Tehran is mobilising its allies in Iraq as well as militia leaders and Shia parties.

During a speech at a religious event, leader of the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq militia Qais Khazali pledged to work to expel American forces from Iraq, saying that “American weapons must be removed from Iraqi cities” if militias were to respond to a call to empty weapons’ warehouses.

In bringing up the issue, Khazali has shined a light on a problematic file that Iran’s followers in Iraq have often used to embarrass Iraqi authorities.

The goal is to embarrass the government of Kadhimi, who needs American support more than ever in light of the country’s health crisis and the financial and economic difficulties.

Baghdad is unable to clearly demand the withdrawal of US forces from the country without sacrificing its vital interests with Washington.

Using the same file to put pressure on the prime minister and restrict the agenda of his visit to the United States, Riyad al-Masoudi, a leader in the Sadrist movement and a member of parliament with the Saeron coalition sponsored by Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, asked Kadhimi to be “decisive and resolute when it comes to demanding the withdrawal foreign forces from Iraq.”

In an interview with Al-Sumaria news website, Masoudi also raised formal issues related to Kadhimi’s visit, saying, “What is surprising in the upcoming visit of Kadhimi to Washington is that it is not an official visit according to diplomatic norms.”

He went on to express his belief that “Washington is the one who sets the agenda that will be limited to very specific topics.”

Masoudi added, “As a supervisory body, we ask Kadhimi to use the visit to tackle the issue of the presence of foreign forces on our lands,” considering that “the negotiating team in the first stage” (in the strategic dialogue that began last June between Baghdad and Washington) did not succeed in raising the issue of “Iraqi sovereignty and the presence of foreign forces in Iraqi bases.”

“The American side is apparently not interested in the issue of withdrawing its forces from Iraq,” he said.

The MP pointed to “strange proposals from the American administration that indicate Washington will use all means to defend its presence in Iraq.”

“Therefore, the prime minister should be decisive and resolute when it comes to such pressing files so as to reach comprehensible results with specific dates,” he said.

Recent statements from Khazali, who leads a pro-Iranian militia and holds 15 seats in the Iraqi parliament, came one day after Baghdad and Washington announced the date of Kadhimi’s visit to the United States to discuss a number of important files and launch a new round of strategic dialogue between the two countries.

“We support the control of the smuggled weapons and the freeing of cities from weapons,” which “could cause, in an intentional or unintended way, harm to civilian lives,” Khazali said.

However, he asked: “Are American weapons legal and used under government’s command? Weren’t these weapons used to kill our sons from the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF)?”

Weren’t these American weapons used to strike the airport and assassinate the leaders of the resistance?” he added, in reference to the US raid early this year that killed Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani and field commander of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) militia Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

Khazali previously echoed Iranian claims that Soleimani was personally involved in the assassination of Soleimani and Muhandis.

Kadhimi was head of Iraq’s Intelligence Service at the time of the US operation.

Khazali also asked: “Aren’t US forces keeping and storing weapons inside the capital, Baghdad? Are these weapon regimented? Are US weapons used to defend the Iraqis? “

Khazali asserted that” We are against the existence of any weapon depots inside cities, and we hold the government and security agencies responsible for removing them.”

Despite his attempt to draw similarities between Iranian militias’ warehouses and those of American forces’, Khazali did not provide any information about the amount, type or methods in which US weapons are allegedly stored in Iraqi cities.

Khazali’s comments come amid reports that a range of militia weaponry are being kept inside Iraqi cities, with a chaotic system of storage, transport, and reuse operations.

US weapons, however, are known to be kept in military camps under the control of Iraqi forces.

Khazali’s link between militia weapons and US weapons reveals the superficiality of the reasoning that Iran’s followers are adopting in Iraq.

In recent days, Iraqis have launched a massive social media campaign calling for the removal of the PMF’s weapons warehouses from their cities following the Beirut port explosion.

In an attempt to exert pressure on Kadhimi ahead of his visit to Washington, Khazali said, “It is not correct for Iraq to remain hostage to foreign willpower, and it is not acceptable to maintain the suffering of people from electricity shortages,” in an explicit accusation that the US is responsible for Iraq’s electricity sector crisis.

Iran’s followers in Iraq have frequently blamed Washington for obstructing projects aimed at improving the country’s electric power supply since 2003 that are not assigned to its companies.

Khazali said “experts confirm that dealing with the electricity crisis needs the intervention of international companies, including the German company Siemens” and called for “a national sovereign decision in which the decision-maker is freed from American pressure.”

Energy experts, however, contradict Khazali, instead arguing that electricity shortages in Iraq have forced the country to rely on imports from Iran, which means that Tehran is the real beneficiary of the status quo.

There have even been reports that Iraqi electricity projects have been obstructed over the past ten years by pro-Iran militias, including the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq militia led by Khazali himself.

These militias are accused of blackmailing foreign companies operating in the energy field and kidnapping their employees to use as bargaining chips, prompting many foreign companies to leave the country.

Khazali likely opposes the presence of American companies in Iraq because he knows they will resist all forms of blackmail.

Iraqi politicians expect Iranian pressure on Kadhimi to continue before and during his visit to the United States, which may result in mutual understandings that improve Washington and Baghdad’s relationship.

The Arab Weekly

About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.