For next step in Iran re­sponse, watch Iraq

Boston Herald - - Herald Opinion - By TRUDY RUBIN Trudy Rubin is a syn­di­cated colum­nist.

This is a mo­ment — in the wake of the Soleimani killing and the mild Ira­nian re­sponse — when ev­ery­one needs to take a deep breath.

Ira­nian of­fi­cials are clearly shocked and de­bat­ing their op­tions. They will have to fac­tor in the fall­out af­ter Iran ad­mit­ted it mis­tak­enly downed a Ukrainian air­liner.

Whether or not it was nec­es­sary or wise to kill Gen. Qassem Soleimani, his death won’t pro­duce World War III. The Ira­nian re­sponse will be asym­met­ric and oc­cur over time.

Tehran’s goal is to drive the United States out of the Mideast, us­ing the proxy Shi­ite mili­tias that Soleimani fos­tered around the re­gion. The im­me­di­ate fo­cus of their ef­forts is Bagh­dad.

“What we have is a pause, not vic­tory,” said vet­eran U.S. diplo­mat and former am­bas­sador to Iraq Ryan Crocker. “For the next step, watch Iraq.”

So let us watch. The 2003 in­va­sion opened the door to Ira­nian in­flu­ence there af­ter the U.S. over­threw the Sunni dic­ta­tor Sad­dam Hus­sein.

Iran shares a 900-mile bor­der with Iraq, in which a ma­jor­ity of Arabs are Shi­ite, as are most Per­sians.

The Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion naively be­lieved that all Shi­ite Iraqis would wel­come the U.S. with open arms be­cause Sad­dam had op­pressed them. But when I trav­eled to the holi­est Shi­ite shrine city, Na­jaf in south­ern Iraq, in May 2003, re­li­gious lead­ers told me the Amer­i­cans owed them big time. The first Pres­i­dent Bush, they com­plained bit­terly, had called for them to rise against Sad­dam dur­ing the 1991 Gulf War, then let Sad­dam slaugh­ter them when they did so.

“The Amer­i­cans should sta­bi­lize Iraq and leave,” se­nior cler­ics said.

They did nei­ther, in­stead help­ing to cre­ate a sec­tar­ian po­lit­i­cal sys­tem, with Shi­ite, Sunni and Kur­dish po­lit­i­cal par­ties that cor­ruptly di­vide the oil spoils and fail to meet the coun­try’s ba­sic needs.

Soleimani helped Tehran ce­ment con­trol over key Shi­ite po­lit­i­cal par­ties and move­ments. Af­ter ISIS swept into north­ern Iraq in 2014, the Ira­nian gen­eral also shaped Shi­ite mili­tias into a pow­er­ful fighting force against it. Tehran still hopes to sub­sume the reg­u­lar Iraqi army un­der the con­trol of Shi­ite mili­tias that are loyal to Iran.

Af­ter Soleimani’s death, pro-Ira­nian par­ties in par­lia­ment voted for the 5,000 or so re­main­ing U.S. troops to leave. But it’s not at all clear that most Iraqis want them out.

“The par­lia­ment’s de­ci­sion was non­bind­ing,” I was told by phone from Er­bil, in Iraqi Kur­dis­tan, by Hosh­yar Ze­bari, Iraq’s longest­serv­ing for­eign min­is­ter (2003-14) and a leader in its Kur­dish re­gion.

Equally im­por­tant, Kur­dish and Sunni par­ties did not vote, nor are all Shia par­lia­men­tar­i­ans on board.

“Any such move has to be done with a na­tional con­sen­sus, which isn’t there,” said Ze­bari.

To un­der­stand why Iraqis are di­vided on this, one need only look at the mas­sive street protests that had been tak­ing place in Bagh­dad and else­where be­fore Soleimani’s death against Ira­nian dom­i­na­tion of their coun­try.

These young demon­stra­tors — of whom about 450 have been killed by Shi­ite mili­ti­a­men, prob­a­bly on Soleimani’s or­ders — were also de­mand­ing an end to cor­rupt sec­tar­ian par­ties. This is the most pow­er­ful move­ment for change since the U.S. in­vaded Iraq.

“The key mes­sage,” Ze­bari con­tin­ued, “is that the U.S. should not leave. If they evac­u­ate, there would be a vac­uum, chaos, a failed state. It would ex­pose all U.S. al­lies to the threat of ter­ror­ism, and re­gional in­ter­fer­ence.”

In other words, Ira­nian in­flu­ence would grow around the re­gion de­spite Soleimani’s death.

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