Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Archive for December 20th, 2009

Reactions to the Occupation of Fakka: A Barometer of Pro-Iranian Sentiment in Iraq?

Posted by Reidar Visser on Sunday, 20 December 2009 15:33

OK, so it was Friday, and a day off for most Iraqi journalists. For many hours we had to rely solely on Western newswires for information about the astonishing occupation by Iranian soldiers of an oilfield called al-Fakka on the Iraqi side of the border with Iran in the Maysan governorate. And in the end, also Iraqi news agencies did begin publishing the reports, even if half a day had lapsed before they really got going.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this little episode – and one of the few things that is possible to analyse without getting bogged down in speculation and conjectures – is precisely the reaction, or lack of it, by Iraqi media. Not so much what writers affiliated with Iraqi nationalists and secularists say – they were predictably scathing about both the Iranian occupation and the rather limited, belated and at times confusing official response by Baghdad. No, the interesting thing is what media close to the leading Shiite Islamist parties said.

On the one hand, the Buratha new agency, supportive of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and in particular close to Jalal al-Din al-Saghir, one of its more radical preachers, for a long time (i.e. well into Saturday) said absolutely nothing. Then it had a story to the effect that Jalal al-Din al-Saghir said the rumours of the occupation were lacking “corroboration”, before adding a report that the Iranians were denying having ever entered the disputed area. Today, around midday, it reported on how the Iraqi and Iranian foreign ministers had been in touch regarding the “misunderstandings” concerning Fakka. A similar lack of concern was expressed at the Nahrainnet website, which is frequently mislabelled a “Sadrist” website but in reality seems more like an Iranian-inspired pan-Shiite website that seeks to bring ISCI and Sadrists together over issues like support for the Huthis in Yemen (conversely the more genuine Sadrist website Al-Amara had a more critical angle on the occupation; the Iraq News website close to Ismail al-Waili, the brother of the ex-governor of Basra with past ties to Fadila, condemned it).

Things looked a bit different at the State of Law website, which is sympathetic to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Here, too, there was a long delay. However, towards the evening on Saturday it did publish a report in which the Iraqi foreign ministry confirmed that the Iranians had seized Fakka. Not only that, the website editors juxtaposed this item to a copy of the report from Buratha in which Jalal al-Din al-Saghir seemed to deny the incursion.

State of Law website coverage of the Fakka episode on Saturday [click to view in full]

Meanwhile, the US ambassador in Baghdad, Christopher Hill, sounded bullish about the emerging Iraqi official reaction: “It does speak to the overall view here that they are not going to be pushed around by Iran.” This seemed like an echo of his predecessor, Ryan Crocker, who never tired of telling us that the anti-Iranian stance of Iraqi Shiites during the war in the 1980s constitutes a veritable guarantee against excessive Iranian interference – never mind that Crocker focused his Iraq diplomacy precisely on those Shiites and Kurds that fought on the Iranian side, like Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim and Masud Barzani. But these days Maliki and not the Hakim family seems to represent the focus of attention for the optimists in Washington, and given the slightly more critical perspective on the Iranian operations on the State of Law website, maybe Hill was right?

Maliki’s press release disowning the State of Law website, reproduced on the pro-ISCI Buratha website

Not so fast. Saturday also saw another important press release from Nuri al-Maliki. In a brief note, signed 19 December in his capacity as chief of the State of Law list, Maliki disassociated himself entirely from the State of Law website, saying it was run from “outside Iraq”, and specifically dismissing articles that had been critical of ISCI’s leader Ammar al-Hakim. It is not the first example of friction between Maliki and the State of Law website, but the most serious so far. Previously, the website has come under criticism from circles within the Daawa party for running articles critical of Iran, ISCI, Hakim and not least its ISCI competitor, the Buratha website. Some of this material has since been removed, but the decision of Maliki to disown the website just at the height of the Fakka episode speaks volumes about the delicateness of his relations with Iran as well as the somewhat exaggerated nature of the Western narrative that construes him as some kind of bulwark against Iranian influences. True, that kind of Iraqi nationalist attitude certainly exists among many Iraqi Shiites – this is an important fact that many Westerners and Sunni Arab state leaders have serious problems in acknowledging. But at the same time, it would be wrong to portray Maliki, who is under double pressure from the Americans when it comes to the Kurdish issue and the Iranians with respect to de-Baathification, as the champion of this trend. (Breaking news: The State of Law website announced its own closure just minutes ago.)

Previous article on the State of Law website critical of Iran and the Shiite-led alliance, now unavailable

Until there is a more persistent pattern of Iranian transgressions, episodes like the Fakka incident ultimately serve as political theatre that will deflect attention from the more fundamental question about Iranian influence – at the level of high politics in Iraq, and through a constitution that works in Tehran’s best interest. In that perspective, Hill’s reaction is reminiscent of the way Crocker and General Ray Odierno spent a disproportionate amount of time tracking weapons smuggling from Iran while at the same time continuing to dine with pro-Iranian leaders like Hakim. We can only speculate about the possible explanations for the Fakka occupation itself, which may range from everything like local issues in the Maysan area via internal disagreements on the Iranian side of the border to the possibility that Tehran would like to test Maliki on the eve of his visit to Cairo. Far more important, for internal Iraqi politics, is probably how the Hakim–Maliki relationship continues to evolve over the coming months.

Posted in Iranian influence in Iraq, Iraqi nationalism, Oil in Iraq | 56 Comments »