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meeting of minds? iran and us envoys in baghdad on a shared mission

Mustafa Habib
Iran sent General Qasim Soleimani, one of its most secretive, most influential envoys, to Iraq this week to help resolve political conflicts before elections next month. At the same time, US envoy Brett McGurk was…
20.03.2014  |  Baghdad

As the Iraqi elections draw ever closer, it is becoming more and more obvious that Iraqi politicians cannot resolve the serious conflicts they have between them on their own. So now external influencers are getting more involved.

In the middle of this week Iraq had a visit from Qasim Soleimani, the commander of the Qods force, a special military unit of the Iranian army that often works beyond the Iranian borders and which was recently described by New Yorker magazine as “the sharp instrument of Iranian foreign policy, roughly analogous to a combined CIA and Special Forces”.

Soleimani, who has played a diplomatic role in Iraq in the past, apparently came to mediate between Iraq’s Shiite Muslim politicians, who were formerly allied but who are now split. Soleimani is responsible for Iranian foreign policy in Iraq and he also allegedly supervises Iraq’s Shiite Muslim militias.

However unlike most other foreign diplomatic visits, Soleimani’s was not announced; in fact, it was shrouded in secrecy, quite possibly because Iran is regularly criticised for interfering in Iraqi politics, by pundits inside and outside Iraq.

Sources from inside the Shiite Muslim political scene said that Soleimani conducted a series of meetings with senior politicians and expressed disappointment that there was so much disagreement between the three biggest Shiite Muslim parties: Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Dawa party, the Sadrist movement led by cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who actually announced his resignation from politics recently and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a mostly Shiite Muslim party headed by younger cleric Ammar al-Hakim.

Although they were part of the coalition that brought al-Maliki to power, more recently both al-Hakim and al-Sadr have been openly critical of the Prime Minister. And they have even formed political alliances in certain circumstances for their mutual benefit and against al-Maliki. The three former allies have also all decided to compete separately in the upcoming federal elections, scheduled for April 30.

The most deep rooted antipathy is probably that between al-Sadr and al-Maliki. Al-Sadr tends to be a more impulsive actor and he has accused al-Maliki of acting like a dictator; MPs affiliated with the Sadrist movement, the Ahrar party, have said they will do everything in their power to prevent al-Maliki having a third term as prime minister. Meantime al-Maliki says al-Sadr doesn’t understand politics.

The antipathy between al-Hakim and al-Maliki is not quite as nasty – al-Hakim is generally more diplomatic and tends to criticise al-Maliki in a less direct way. However this relationship has deteriorated further over recent weeks as al-Maliki and his allies have continued trying to make a play for the governor’s job in the southern province of Basra. This job is currently held by Majid al-Nasrawi, a member of al-Hakim’s Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq.

As a result of those actions, al-Hakim recently sent al-Maliki a more strongly worded message than usual, telling him that if he continues on this path, he will lose any future political support from al-Hakim and his party.

Meanwhile Iran’s Soleimani has strong ties to all three groups. The aim of his visit was obviously to try and resolve some of the tensions between the three because for Iran, a Shiite Muslim nation with strong influence and interests in Iraq, it would obviously be better to have their allies in power, in a Shiite Muslim coalition – as they have been in the last two federal elections.

During Soleimani’s visit, the secretive emissary also addressed other major problems in Iraq – sources say he apparently also suggested some solutions to ongoing oil distribution problems with Iraqi Kurdistan and the months-long armed conflict in Anbar, as he felt these issues should all be resolved before the elections.

Around the same time that Soleimani was visiting Shiite Muslim politicians, the US’ Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq, Brett McGurk, was also engaged in diplomacy. McGurk was in Iraq for several weeks, he attended an anti-terrorism conference and he also met with a number of high ranking officials, including al-Maliki, the Speaker of the Iraqi Parliament, Osama al-Nujaifi, one of Iraq’s most senior Sunni Muslim politicians, Iraqi Vice President Khodair al-Khuzaei, another Shiite Muslim politician, the Iraqi Kurdish head of the Independent High Electoral Commission, Sarbast Mustafa Rasheed Amedi and the President of the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, Massoud Barzani. He even met with Rafie al-Issawi, another prominent Sunni Muslim politician from Anbar who government forces tried to arrest last year and who is well known as al-Maliki’s sworn enemy.

His mission was apparently to resolve outstanding issues between all the parties – Sunni, Shiite and Iraqi Kurdish. However unlike Soleimani’s meetings, those held by McGurk, who was once a relatively well-regarded nominee for the post of US ambassador to Iraq, were public.

According to information told to NIQASH by senior political sources, McGurk actually came up with an acceptable plan for the resolution of the crisis in Anbar, where government forces have been engaged in running battles with Sunni Muslim militias for several months now. If some sort of solution is not reached soon, the conflict in Anbar would likely endanger the upcoming federal elections.

Apparently McGurk’s plan involves the withdrawal of the Iraqi army from the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah. In return the armed tribal groups would lay down their weapons. The alleged agreement also involves the formation of new security forces in Anbar consisting only of Sunni Muslims living in the province. The members of these forces would be trained in Anbar and once they’re sufficiently qualified and equipped, they would become responsible for maintaining order in the cities. The Iraqi army would withdraw and be responsible for security at the Syrian border. McGurk urged the Iraqi government to stick to its word on any such deal.

The US envoy’s attempts at reconciliation were not just limited to Anbar; McGurk apparently also tried to untangle the difficult situation around oil exports and oil revenues that has caused much tension between Baghdad and Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan.

“McGurk participated in negotiations between officials from the Iraqi government and Iraqi Kurdistan,” MP Mohsen al-Sadoun, a member of the parliamentary legal committee, told NIQASH. “But the negotiations didn’t really achieve any great results as yet. However,” the politician added, “the discussions are ongoing.”

The US representative was far more qualified to undertake the kind of mediation required in Anbar than Iran’s envoy, Soleimani. The US has good relations with both Sunni and Shiite Muslims in the country whereas Iran cannot have much influence on the country’s Sunni Muslims.

Having two important allies undertaking a diplomatic mission in Iraq around the same time got local observers guessing too. Both McGurk and Soleimani were there for similar reasons, they say: to resolve political crises and ensure that Iraq’s federal elections are held on time and as peacefully as possible. Which is why political gossips are also speculating as to whether the two men may have met behind closed doors in Baghdad; the diplomatic rapprochement between Tehran and Washington at the moment means that such a meeting of minds in Baghdad might well have been possible.