Beirut By Elijah J. Magnier: @ejmalrai
When the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says “The Iraqi and Lebanese people want their country back. They are discovering that the Iranian regime’s top export is corruption”, he is directly accusing the respective governments in Iraq and Lebanon of being pro-Iranian and therefore supporting the revolution. The US involvement in the Iraqi and Lebanese streets and its wish to see governments removed has not gone unnoticed by the highest Shia authority in the world, the Iranian Najaf-based Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who enjoys significant influence in Iraq and the rest of the Islamic world. “There are internal and external parties who have played a prominent (negative) role in the past decades in Iraq, which has been severely harmed and who have subjected Iraqis to oppression and abuse. They may seek today to exploit the ongoing protests”, Sayyed Sistani said via his representative Sheikh Abdel Mahdi al-Karbala’ei during Friday prayers.
These strong words echo exactly what the Secretary-General of Hezbollah in Lebanon, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, warned about the source of the protests in his country. Both authorities, Sayyed Sistani and Sayyed Nasrallah, were careful not to explicitly accuse the US of being in control of the streets. Protestors in Iraq and Lebanon have legitimate demands, contesting long-standing corruption in their respective countries. There is no doubt about the grievances and exasperation of the population with a political system dominated by only a handful of leaders. The US is trying to sneak-in through the legitimate demands of the protestors.
However, the situation in Iraq and Lebanon is taking a dangerous turn where the possibility of a total collapse, particularly in Lebanon, is not remote.
It has nothing to do with Iran and its allies in Lebanon and Iraq. The Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Sistani, known to be against any Iranian or US interference in Iraqi affairs, has protected al-Hashd al-Shaabi, harshly accused by the west, in particular the US, and also by Saudi Arabia of being an Iranian arm in Iraq: “Our pride in the armed forces and those who joined them in the fight against ISIS and defended Iraq give a great credit to everyone, especially those who are stationed to this day on the borders and at sensitive sites”. Hashd al-Shaabi is deployed along the borders between Iraq and Syria, in the desert of al-Anbar, and in all sensitive and remote areas in Iraqi territory where ISIS is still operating.
In both Iraq and Lebanon, Hashd al-Shaabi and Hezbollah abandoned the street and asked their supporters to follow. Both entities are aware of the trap being set for those forces directly involved, and the consequences of such an involvement domestically and internationally. Both parties believe the US is ready to incite Europe, the UN and the international community to intervene in Lebanon and Iraq in order to widen the crisis, hijack the protests, and repeat the Libyan-Syrian scenario of war.
Mainstream media are concentrating on the thousands of demonstrators in Lebanon and Iraq, ignoring the millions at home or off the streets. These abstainers support the justified demands of protestors, the fight against corruption, and calls for changing political leadership. But they oppose the destruction of their countries, a destination to which the course of events seems to be leading Lebanon in particular. Many of these are incapable of acquiring the minimum necessities of life unless they work daily. Others see their businesses succumbing following the closure of all national institutions.
The monetary system in Lebanon is very near collapse and banks are refraining from meeting the rush of demands for a withdrawal of savings by the population. The last stronghold of Lebanon, the banks, is shaking and the governor of the Central Bank Riad Salame has decided to ride the US horse to save himself rather than saving the country. He is diverting the responsibility for his own failed financial planning and his personal support of key political and personalities notable for corruption in Lebanon. He accused Hezbollah of being behind people’s criticism of his monetary policy.
There are no serious anti-Iran sentiments prevailing in Iraq and Lebanon, any more than anti-US or anti-Saudi opinions. In Iraq, it was Moqtada al-Sadr, the political leader who controls 53 MPs, the largest political party in the Parliament, the highest number of Ministers, general directors, ambassadors and other key positions in the government, who led the anti-Iran slogans because of his personal vendetta with Iran. Iraqi people are sentimental and readily critical of any domestic or overseas statements. However, Iran supported Erbil and Baghdad against ISIS when the US invaded the country. The US is responsible for the killing of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and not long ago delayed its intervention to watch how far ISIS could reach beyond the occupation of a quarter of Mesopotamia. The partition plan for the country was on the US table but failed due to Iran’s quick intervention, the training provided by Hezbollah, and above all the determination and the sacrifice of the Iraqi population and security forces.
The US and Iran are both involved in shaping the political leadership in Iraq and Lebanon. The US dictates its will to Lebanon and Iraq, while Iran merely tries to make sure the governments are not hostile but do not impose on Lebanon and Iraq sanctions, nor does it command its banks or select what Lebanon can or cannot do in defending the country from Israel’s aggression, violation of its waters, space and territories.
Iran has succeeded in creating a robust chain pf powerful friends in the Middle East while the US has failed.
In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad became one of the most solid allies of Iran. In Iraq, Tehran has managed to push to power three main top allies, the Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi, the Speaker Mohammad al-Halbusi, and President Barham Saleh. The Iraqi government can count on al-Hashd al-Shaabi as an ideological security force ready to protect the state, and to prevent any possible coup d’état planned by high ranking officers. Hashd has managed to foil top-ranking Iraqi officers’ plans in this regard, officers with strong direct link to the US embassy in Baghdad. But the situation in Iraq took a critical turn for Prime Minister Abdel Mahdi when protestors took to the streets and asked for accountability against deeply installed corruption of all politicians. As in Lebanon, people are rallying for a just cause due to lack of basic infrastructure, electricity, clean water and job opportunities. Lebanon and Iraq look much alike and their populations have the same demands. But to claim that the Iraqis are fed up and fuelled by Iran’s influence is an indication that observers have understood very little about Iraq and are expressing their wishful thinking rather than the reality.
Having lived in Iraq (Lebanon and Syria) for many years – and still travelling quite often to the country – it is not difficult to realise that the Iraqi population is waking up to the incredible level of corruption. Like Lebanon, tens of billions of dollars were stolen from Iraq since the US occupation in 2003 and throughout the rule of all governments and politicians, without exception.
When I asked once Sayyed Sistani why the Marjaiya doesn’t stand against the selected Prime Minister and choose another more suitable candidate, he answered: “Do you have a name to suggest? These are our people. From where do we get a perfect candidate?”
Yes, Iran – like the US – attempted to bring together a coalition of the strongest political parties to select a non-hostile (towards Iran) Prime Minister. This is exactly what the US envoy to Iraq has been trying to do since 2003. The Americans have failed, since the fall of Iyad Allawi, to bring to power their man, until Adel Abdel Mahdi arrived and was a choice suitable for both Iran and Iraq.
In fact, Abdel Mahdi is a professional technocrat willing to introduce reforms in the country but has no political support behind him to allow him to choose between corrupted politicians. He was elected due to the support of the biggest political parties, mainly the block under Moqtada al-Sadr and the block under Hadi al-Ameri.
But Iraq Prime Minister Abdel Mahdi, like the Lebanese government, has initiated a reform plan to make changes. If the governments are not allowed to implement these reforms under the watchful eyes of the protestors, the countries will collapse.
These are not pessimistic words but a realistic approach to possible events. In Lebanon, the Lebanese Army stocks its main weapon and ammunition warehouses in Dbaiye, an area not far from the US ally’s reach in case of unrest. The majority Christian Aounists – who believed the Lebanese Army was their protector – discovered that they could be dropped from one day to the next. The attitude of the commander in chief of the Army was very disappointing to President Michel Aoun and his supporters. Indeed, it may take – according to well-informed sources – a handful of determine thugs to trigger a potential massacre in a small location in the Christian area to keep all pro-Hezbollah Christians at home and give the upper hand to those willing to engage in a civil war. Not an impossible scenario in the case of the total anarchy that is waving on the horizon.
In Iraq, the situation is much better than in Lebanon. A reformed government is about to take power and Prime Minister Abdel Mahdi is working on it with little resistance from the various political parties. In Lebanon, Prime Minister Saad Hariri is far from forming a new government. Hariri told Hezbollah’s envoy in a private meeting that his resignation is due to the foreign minister Gebran Bassil’s presence and influence in the cabinet. When meeting with President Aoun, Hariri told him he doesn’t want a government with Hezbollah ministers. This “game” is showing little transparency and raising questions among Hariri’s political opponents, who would like to see him leading the new government- although they cannot meet his impossible demands. The Prime Minister ad interim has no power to exclude the largest political parties in the Parliament, especially when he is far from holding even half of the MP’s support.
It is correct to say that the countries where Iran has strong allies are shaking, but their entire population has nothing to do with Iran or US issues. The US administration has adopted war as its hobby, while the Middle Eastern population has had enough of war. The awareness of the protestors seems very limited to reach any further than their own domestic demands. Who will prevail? The coming weeks have never been more crucial for Iraq and Lebanon.