Iraq, Sudani, and the War on Gaza
by Rend Al-Rahim
In the space of just over two weeks, Israel’s war on Gaza has upended Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shai` al-Sudani’s year-long careful balancing of Iraq’s foreign relations and his efforts to maintain stability in Iraq.
The images from Gaza have outraged Iraqis, as they did others in the region. Following the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel and the beginning of the Israeli response to it, Sudani expressed in a meeting of his government Iraq’s steadfast support of the Palestinian cause, giving a full-throated endorsement of Palestinian rights and statehood. In the ensuing days, he increased his diplomatic outreach, holding phone calls with the King Abdullah II of Jordan and President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, the Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, and Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi, among other regional leaders. Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein attended a meeting in Jeddah for the Organization for Islamic Cooperation to discuss Palestine. The prime minister also issued a call for a meeting of the Arab League to coordinate positions. In addition to the humanitarian needs of Gazans, another principal concerns for Sudani during these diplomatic contacts was to avoid escalation of the war and its expansion to other areas in the region.
Unanimous Support for Palestinians
Other prominent Iraqi politicians made statements of support, including President Abdul Latif Rashid, leader of the Sadr Movement cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who issued a call for protests, and the Badr Organization leader Hadi al-Amiri. Significantly, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani issued a statement supporting Palestinian rights, decrying the Israeli occupation, and condemning the destruction of Gaza. Interestingly, unlike his statement in 2014 in response to the assault by the so-called Islamic State, Sistani did not call for a general mobilization to confront Israel.
Sudani’s support for Palestinians responded to a dark national mood, but his statements and diplomatic moves were not sufficient for the Shia militias allied with Iran, who escalated their rhetoric beyond mere condemnation of Israel. Popular anger also put the spotlight on Muqtada Sadr who, on October 9, called for demonstrations following Friday prayers, and on October 13, his adherents gathered in the thousands in Tahrir Square in Baghdad, chanting slogans against Israel and the United States. Not to be outdone, Shia militia groups were more strident, issuing condemnations and threats to the United States and Israel, and carrying out repeated attacks on US bases in Iraq, such as that in Ain al-Asad, Harir airbase, and Baghdad Airport. Hadi Al-Amiri, the head of the Badr Organization, threatened the United States and pledged that the liberation of Palestine will be launched from Iraq. Similar warnings came from Kataib Hezbollah, Asa`ib Ahl al-Haq, al-Nujaba, and other powerful Shia militias.
The bombing of the Ahli Hospital in Gaza on October 17 further inflamed national sentiment and galvanized Shia militia groups into action. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in Tahrir Square the following day and on Friday October 20 denounced the United States and Israel and carried pictures of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei, slain commander of Iran’s Quds Force Qassem Suleimani, and leader of Lebanese Hezbollah Hassan Nasrallah. Iran heads what is commonly known as the “axis of resistance,” a group of pro-Iran regimes and militia groups in the Middle East, including Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas, Yemen’s Houthis, and Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces. Officers from Iran’s Quds force met with militia leaders in Iraq to coordinate actions in the event of escalation.
Sunni and Kurdish leaders were more muted in their responses to the Gaza crisis. Sunni clerics, Speaker of the Iraqi House of Representatives Mohammed Al-Halbousi, and other Sunni leaders voiced their support for Palestinians. The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) was more guarded. Through its spokesperson, the KRG in Erbil called for a unified Iraqi stance and stated that the Kurdish position cannot be different from that of the Iraqi government. This may arise from the greater dependence of the Kurds on American good will, and therefore a reluctance to antagonize the United States. Moreover, Shia leaders, and particularly those associated with militias, have often accused the Kurdish leadership of sympathy and cooperation with Israel which was one of the rare countries that supported the 2017 referendum for Kurdish independence, and that was severely condemned by the Iraqi government.
Sudani’s Stressful Position
Turmoil in Iraq creates multiple headaches for Prime Minister Sudani, especially that provincial elections are due on December 18, less than two months from now. Iraqi militia groups have been invigorated by the events in Gaza and have found new legitimacy, a new raison d’être. While Sudani did not attempt to disarm the militias during the past twelve months, he has at least been able to curb their activities and claim stability with sufficient peaceful space in Iraq to encourage foreign investment and economic growth. Now it will be much more difficult to put the militia genie back into the bottle. With newly empowered hard line Shia groups holding the high ground, Iraq is likely to return to instability, discouraging investment and jeopardizing the prime minister’s economic plans. Worse, it is likely that Sudani will henceforth be far more at the mercy of armed Shia factions after his success in obtaining their grudging acceptance and support in the past twelve months. Now they are far more likely to question and constrain his decisions and actions. Moreover, the political ascendancy of Shia armed groups will equally intimidate the Sunnis and threaten Kurdish interests, further derailing Sudani’s efforts to build good relations across the country that would be conducive to stable politics.
What is certain is that the renewed strength of hardliners in Iraq will translate into increased Iranian interference in the country’s internal affairs and foreign policy choices. Iran’s regional calculations will determine the scope and modality of belligerence by its Iraqi allies, leading to greater pressure on the prime minister. His stated intent to maintain an even-handed foreign policy will be in danger of collapsing. In January 2023, Sudani told the Wall Street Journal that Iraq could have good relations with both the United States and Iran, and that foreign forces (specifically American) were still needed. He has also repeatedly endorsed the Strategic Framework Agreement with the United States. Should Iran and its armed Iraqi partisans exert more influence, such a balancing act will be difficult to uphold, and Sudani will risk the good will he has built with the West.
There are rising demands on Sudani to amend the Framework Agreement to allow for the removal of all foreign troops from Iraqi soil. In tandem, the prime minister was in Moscow for a meeting with President Putin. Although the meeting was arranged before the Gaza war, it acquires significance now, and was applauded by the militia groups. Within the immediate neighborhood, the bridges so assiduously built by Sudani and his predecessor, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, with Arab countries such as Egypt, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates, will be threatened, since the relation these countries have with Israel is tantamount to treason according to the Shia groups. Likewise, economic cooperation and investments by these countries, sought by Sudani’s government, are likely to suffer.
Prime Minister Sudani faces dangerous times. How the coming weeks unfold depends on Iran’s intentions, over which he has no control. But he is an astute politician. At the Cairo Peace Summit on October 21, the prime minister gave an emotional address in support of Palestinian rights, called for a ceasefire and for the establishment of a fund to aid Gaza. Sudani went into high gear because he has much to lose, being dependent for his job, at least in part, on the approval of the Iran-friendly Shia militias. The Cairo speech likely emanated from conviction, but it also served for internal consumption in Iraq.
In a significant response, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki praised the statement and urged all to stand by Sudani and not engage in unilateral actions that could cause internal and external instability. This is a step in the right direction, but it does not mean that Sudani and his policies are out of the danger zone. Indeed, he faces a tough choice: he can either cave in to the militias and allow them to destroy what he has achieved in the last year, or he can take a firm stand against their unfettered rising power, and possibly risk his job and the anger of Iran.
The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of World and New World Journal, its staff, or its Board of Directors.
This paper was originally published by Arab Center Washington DC. Republished with permission. © Arab Center Washington DC, October 2023.