US military strikes in Iraq stir regional hornet’s nest

By James M. Dorsey 2 January 2019

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The
United States stirred a hornet’s nest that stretches far beyond Iraq when it
this weekend attacked an Iranian-backed militia.

The
fallout of the US strikes was immediate in Iraq with pro-Iranian militiamen besieging
the US embassy in Baghdad
in scenes
reminiscent of the run-up in 1979 to the 444-day occupation of the American
diplomatic mission in Tehran
.

The
strikes threw into question the future of the US military presence in Iraq, 17
years after US-led forces toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein.

They
came at a moment that mass anti-government demonstrations
are demanding a radical overhaul of Iraq’s
political system.

If
protesters focussed their demand for a withdrawal of all foreign forces
primarily on Iranian influence prior to the US strikes, they now focus equally
on the presence of US forces.

Of
equal, if not more far-reaching consequence, is the fact that the strikes
potentially bolster efforts to counter moves by Saudi Arabia to position itself
as an Islamic hegemon based on its financial muscle and appeal as the custodian
of Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina.

The
backing of the efforts by allies and states with whom the United States
maintains, sometimes increasingly complex relationships, including Malaysia,
Turkey and Qatar, complicates issues for the Trump administration.

The
efforts involve both joint initiatives that last month culminated in an Islamic summit in Kuala Lumpur
outside of the confines of the Riyadh-based,
Saudi-controlled Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) that groups 57
Muslim majority states.

Ultimately,
the summit dashed hopes that an anti-Saudi block would challenge the kingdom by
taking on major problems confronting the Muslim world, including China’s
crackdown on Turkic Muslims in its troubled, north-western province of
Xinjiang; repression of Rohingya in Myanmar that has prompted hundreds of
thousands to seek refuge in neighbouring Bangladesh; and civil wars in Syria
and Yemen.

Despite
its billing, the summit avoided such sensitive issues. Nonetheless, it
signalled strong currents in the Muslim world that seek to counter the
influence of America’s closest allies in the Middle East.

Part
of the Kuala Lumpur summit’s problem was that rivalries in the Muslim world
transcend political and geopolitical fault lines in an environment of a few
cash-rich and a majority of economically and financially troubled states.

Countries
like Saudi Arabia; the United Arab Emirates, the kingdom’s closest ally;
Turkey; and Iran are, moreover, competing with one another globally using
religious soft power by investing in the building of mosques and religious entities
in countries as far-flung and seemingly
marginal as Cuba
and New Zealand and the funding of key Muslim institutions.

The rivalries are also fought
geopolitically in Libya, the Eastern Mediterranean gas race and the Horn of
Africa where rivals back opposing sides.

The
US military strikes, widely viewed as a violation of Iraqi sovereignty,
potentially handed a whip to Saudi Arabia’s detractors at a moment that the
summit spotlighted the divisions in the Muslim world and participation in the
gathering was determined in part by the kingdom’s ability to wield its financial
muscle to prevent states from attending.

Russia and Iran were quick to condemn the US strikes. So far, others
have remained silent.

That
could, however, change with Iraqi public demands for a withdrawal of all
foreign forces and pro-Iranian militias ending their siege of the US embassy in
Baghdad on condition that parliament adopts a timeline for the
withdrawal
.

Pro-Iranian
militias are counting on the fact that they are Iraqis with close ties to the
Iraqi security establishment, which they expect will exclude them from the
moves to withdraw foreign forces that would primarily target the United States.

For
its part, the Trump administration is likely counting on Saudi and UAE
financial muscle to prevent the Iraqi crisis sparking a groundswell of anti-US
sentiment elsewhere in the Muslim world.

Saudi
financial muscle persuaded Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan, believed to be
one of the instigators of the Kuala Lumpur summit, from attending the
gathering.

Saudi
Arabia reportedly threatened to withdraw some US$ 10
billion plus in investments and financial aid
to Pakistan if Mr. Khan participated.

Saudi
opposition to the gathering coupled with Chinese concerns that it would target
the crackdown in Xinjiang influenced Indonesian president Joko Widodo’s
decision not to participate.

Indonesian
vice-president Amin Ma’ruf, a leading figure in Nahdlatul Ulema, the world’s
largest Muslim organization, cited medical reasons for not attending.

A
forced US withdrawal from Iraq, even if countries like Saudi Arabia are able to
limit the fallout in the Muslim world, would significantly bolster anti-US
forces and hand them a victory on par with the defeat of the Soviet Union in
Afghanistan in the 1980s.

The
anti-Soviet insurgents, despite being backed by the United States and Saudi
Arabia, ultimately turned their backs on their benefactors.

A
forced US withdrawal from Iraq would likely not spark the jihadist movement
that emerged from Afghanistan, but it would put considerable wind in the sails
of those seeking to counter US and Saudi influence in the region.

“Everyone
is breathing a sigh of relief. A situation that could have easily escalated out
of control was handled with tactical restraint, and everyone was able to walk
away,” said Maj. Charlie Dietz, a spokesman for the US military in Baghdad, after
protesters withdrew from the US embassy.

The
problem is the relief is temporary at best. Seventeen years of engagement in
Iraq and US$1 trillion later, the United States risks the kind of humiliation
it suffered with the 1979 occupation of its Tehran embassy.

Only
this time, it may occur against the backdrop of a United States that has
suffered a loss of credibility and whose power is perceived to be waning,
irrespective of whether by design or default.



Source: South Asia Journal
Click to read article at Source US military strikes in Iraq stir regional hornet’s nest

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