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Iraq and the evolution of Saudi–Iranian relations
in Saudi Arabia and Iran

This chapter makes use of data from fieldwork carried out in Iraq to explore how competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia is experienced on the ground in that country. The chapter starts by contextualising the importance of Iraq to regional security, along with the efforts of Iran to capitalise on the favourable conditions created for it by the fall of Saddam Hussein, and subsequent Saudi fears of Iran’s growing role there. The chapter homes in on the largely Sunni province of Anbar, and highlights the role of the Iran-aligned factions of the Popular Mobilisation Units in economic and political life there, as well as Saudi efforts to enhance its relations with sympathetic actors in the country.

On 3 January 2020, a US drone strike killed Qasem Soleimani, the leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, the elite branch of the Iranian military, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the founder of Kata’ib Hezbollah. Described by Stanley McChrystal as a ‘ghostly puppet master, relying on quiet cleverness and grit … singularly dangerous’,1 Soleimani was viewed by many to be responsible for coordinating Iranian activity across the region. Following the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iranian influence across Iraq grew dramatically, facilitated in no small way by the actions of Soleimani, whose ability to cultivate relationships with a range of prominent political and societal leaders helped to secure Tehran’s ability to shape Iraqi politics.

According to some, Soleimani was in Baghdad to discuss efforts to reduce tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, whose fraught rivalry has played out – in a range of forms – across the Middle East with devastating repercussions in Iraq, Syria, Bahrain, Lebanon and Yemen.

An official statement from Riyadh about Soleimani’s assassination called for ‘self-restraint to ward off all acts that may lead to aggravating the situation, with unbearable consequences’.2 The tone of the statement – which caught many by surprise – echoed those from earlier in the year after attacks on a Saudi refinery and an oil tanker, where prominent officials also called for de-escalation in spite of brash rhetoric from US President Donald Trump.

Later that year, the main border crossing between Saudi Arabia and Iraq at Arar was opened after a thirty-year closure, dating back to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The opening of the border reflected a round of diplomatic engagement that has taken place since 2015, reflecting a broader changing stance of the Kingdom’s policy towards its northern neighbour.

After the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, regional security across the Gulf has been defined by bipolarity, shaped by the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, albeit a form of bipolarity underpinned by US support for Saudi Arabia and allies. This bipolar competition plays out in a range of different arenas across the Middle East – and beyond – which provide opportunities for Saudi Arabia and Iran to exert influence and shape regional politics according to their visions of order.

A regional security triangle

Understanding modern Iraq and the role of Saudi Arabia and Iran within its politics requires reflecting on the development of the state and its efforts to establish a form of political organisation amidst a broad coterie of identities and ideologies. The Iraqi state is often viewed as a post-colonial state, referred to as the product of the Sykes–Picot Agreement, made between the British diplomat Sir Mark Sykes and his French counterpart, Francois-Georges Picot. Whilst the agreement called for the distribution of territory to London and Paris, it was never formally implemented. At a time of revolution in Russia and the increasing bloodshed of the First World War, Sykes suggested that protectorates, spheres of influence and annexations must be consigned to the ‘diplomatic lumber room’.3 Instead, the establishment of the Iraqi state is a produce of the interaction of myriad forces across both time and space. Across roughly a 100-year period, the Iraqi state has been forged by a range of geopolitical forces, from the palatial halls of Versailles to the emergence of Daesh in the summer of 2014.

Whilst Sykes was quick to dismiss the agreement he reached with Picot, its legacy remains, emblematic of the perfidious interference of colonial powers. Consideration of Iraqi history supports such a position. Indeed, in the following decades after the Treaty of Versailles, British involvement in Iraq was central in governing the state, helping to bring together the disparate ethnic, tribal and religious groups. In the formative years of the Iraqi state, regulating the demands of competing identity groups proved to be one of the key challenges for policymakers in both Baghdad and London.

The challenge facing Faisal, the inaugural king of Iraq, was outlined as such:

There is still – and I say this with a heart full of sorrow – no Iraqi people but unimaginable masses of human beings, devoid of any patriotic idea, imbued with religious traditions and absurdities, connected by no common tie, giving ear to evil, prone to anarchy, and perpetually ready to rise against any government whatsoever.4

Reflecting these challenges facing Faisal, Charles Tripp noted that the king was ‘sovereign of a state that was not itself sovereign’.5 Iraq at this time was, as Hana Batatu pertinently argues, ‘a congeries of distinct, discordant, self-involved societies’, replete with class divisions and broader tensions between urban and rural societies.6 Shia groups were hardest hit. As Adeeda Dawisha observes,

no Shi’ite was accepted in the military college or in the bureaucracy, except on very rare occasions. There were all kinds of hurdles preventing Shi’ites from even entering high schools. The state did not think of the Shi’ite community as part of it, and the Shi’ites did not consider themselves to be part of the state.7

Sectarian divisions were thus bound up in the very nature of the state and continued to reverberate across the following decades as consecutive rulers sought to ensure their survival through management of division. While sectarian affinity was by no means the most important identity marker in defining social relations in the Iraqi state – with tribal, ethnic and geographic locations playing a prominent role – an undercurrent of sectarian identity remained latent, manifesting across time as regimes sought to consolidate power. The salience of sectarian identity in Iraq is perhaps best described by Fanar Haddad, as the ‘mutually antagonistic other of national identity’.8

Adding to this complexity were broader fears about links between local groups and neighbouring states and, as a consequence, the influence of these actors on domestic politics. Although these were commonly expressed during the time of Saddam Hussein, the concerns had their roots far earlier. As one British official in the 1920s observed,

The proximity of Persia and the existence in Mesopotamia of Karbala and Najaf, two of the most holy shrines of the Shiah sect, to which the Persians belong, with the resulting influx of Persian pilgrims, have brought the country much under Persian influences. Nomad Arabia belongs wholly to the Sunni half of Islam, yet the tribes settled in Mesopotamia have embraced, almost without exception, the Shiah faith. Those, however, who maintain purely nomadic habits, ‘people of the Camel’ as they proudly call themselves, have kept as a rule to the desert doctrine and are almost invariably Sunni.9

Over the decades that followed, regime-led processes of state-building sought to regulate the actions of Shia groups, resulting in widespread persecution, repression and the cultivation of what Giorgio Agamben later termed ‘bare life’.10 Prominent members of Shia political groups such as Dawa sought refuge in Iran where the Islamic Republic tried to cultivate influence amongst this nascent Iraqi diaspora.

The establishment of the modern states of Iraq and Saudi Arabia are intertwined within broader British foreign policy objectives in the Middle East at the turn of the twentieth century. While the exploits of Lawrence, Bell and others had a dramatic impact on politics in both states, it was the ‘revolutionary year’ of 1958 that brought Baghdad, Riyadh and Tehran together, facilitated this time by the US. The presidency of Dwight Eisenhower was driven by a strong desire to combat the spread of Communism, cultivating relations with states across the world to counter the proliferation of Communist ideas, including with states in the Middle East. The toppling of the Iraqi monarchy in 1958 which brought Abd al-Karim Qasim to power during the 14 July Revolution prompted Iraq’s withdrawal from the pact.

Any lingering hopes of wooing Iraq back to a tripolar alliance of Gulf powers was ended with revolutionary events in Iran. The establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979 had a seismic impact on regional politics, ‘laying waste’ to the old order of relations.11 The outbreak of war between Iran and Iraq in the summer of 1980 was a consequence of growing fears about Tehran’s expansionist agenda and Saddam’s long-standing concerns about Iraq’s Shia population. The war also resonated across the Persian Gulf, inciting existential fears amongst many, including Saudi Arabia who viewed both states with suspicion. Despite these concerns, Saudi Arabia sided with Iraq against Iran. As May Darwich articulates, the Saudi decision to support Iraq in its war with Iran appears at odds with conventional approaches to alliance-building, instead, revealing a broader concern about ‘ontological security’, directly linked to the challenge posed by the Islamic Republic to the Kingdom’s claims to Islamic legitimacy.12

These security concerns prompted Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd to negotiate an agreement with the US that solidified Washington’s presence as a security guarantor, achieved through the AWACS Agreement of 1980–1981. In a quintessential example of a security dilemma in operation, officials in Tehran were quickly concerned at increased Saudi military spending, which outstripped both Iran and Iraq, fuelling an environment of distrust between the three major Gulf powers.13

Despite supporting Iraq in the fight against Iran, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in the summer of 1990 posed a different kind of threat to Saudi Arabia. The vast might of the Iraqi army – around 100,000 men and 700 tanks – in neighbouring Kuwait prompted Riyadh to turn to the US in search of security. Relations between the two can be traced back to an agreement reached in 1943 between Ibn Saud and President Franklin D. Roosevelt on board the USS Murphy in the Suez Canal which positioned oil and security as the two central tenets shaping relations. Following this agreement, the Iraqi invasion prompted the deployment of around 500,000 US troops to the Kingdom for Operation Desert Shield, designed to protect Saudi Arabia from any future Iraqi invasion, much to the chagrin of many. At this time, relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran were entering a more positive period, brought about by the death of Ruhollah Khomeini. Ultimately, however, the firm positioning of the US military in the Persian Gulf would prove central in shaping tensions between Riyadh and Tehran, with strategic calculations about Iraq driving much of what followed.

The US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, which removed Saddam and the Ba’ath Party from power, dramatically altered the political ordering of life across the state. According to Banafsheh Keynoush, Saddam made overtures to Iran in the immediate aftermath of the US invasion in an attempt to create a united front against the US, but the Islamic Republic was quietly happy to see the end of the Ba’ath regime. In contrast, Saudi Arabia was concerned that the establishment of a Shia-led government was all but inevitable which would, in turn, dramatically increase Iranian influence across the state.14 Such a move was a source of concern for many in Saudi Arabia who feared a ‘Shia-led’ Iraq falling into the sphere of Iranian influence. Exacerbating such concerns were fears amongst some elite figures about a US–Iranian deal over Iraq.15 One of the most pressing concerns for elites in Riyadh was the removal of Iraq from regional security calculations, with Iraq previously having served a key balancing role against the Islamic Republic.

In the years that followed, Iranian officials cultivated relations with a range of organisations in pursuit of their goals, ranging from the elite discussions of ‘high politics’ to the provision of financial and ideational support to militias across the state. Unsurprisingly, such developments helped consolidate relations between regional powers and their co-sectarian kin across Iraq. While relations between Iraqi actors and their regional allies – in the form of Saudi Arabia and Iran – initially remained largely static, in the years that followed these relations became increasingly complex as frustrations grew, underpinned by theological, political and economic factors, as once again, geopolitical currents resonated across Iraqi politics.

Following the toppling of Saddam by US forces in 2003, the Iraqi state fragmented and descended into conflict between various groups whose (geopolitically charged) identity markers pitted them vitriolically against one another. The return of Iraqi political figures who had sought refuge in Iran during Saddam’s rule exacerbated such fears and when violence took on sectarian characteristics, Saudi Arabia and Iran – to varying degrees – found themselves on opposing sides of a conflict that also involved the US-led coalition and an al-Qaeda franchise.

The de-Ba’athification process quickly deployed by coalition forces sought to remove all traces of the ancien regime and facilitate a new form of democratic politics.16 The establishment of the muhasasa system of ethno-sectarian power sharing solidified the divisions that had emerged in the aftermath of the invasion. It also created conditions whereby external actors could involve themselves in the formal political landscape of Iraq through cultivating relations with political figures.

Ultimately, however, the decision created a vacuum filled by violent Sunni Islamist groups, Shia militias, competing tribal groups and, in the political realm, figures returning from Iran. This period of instability also brought about the involvement of regional powers who sought to shape the future of Iraq according to their wishes. With Iran providing support to political elites and Shia militias such as the Sadrists and SCIRI, Saudi Arabia turned to tribal groups in an effort to counter Iranian gains, anecdotally providing bags of money to support this goal.17 Reports in some Iranian news outlets allege that the provision of financial aid was not limited to tribal groups but also included al-Qaeda affiliates operating in Iraq, revealing the extent to which Saudi Arabia was concerned about Iranian actions.

The instability in Iraq provoked much consternation amongst regional actors fearing a dramatic increase in Iranian involvement in the state. This is perhaps best seen in comments by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who called on the US not to ‘leave Iraq until its sovereignty has been restored, otherwise it will be vulnerable to the Iranians’. In remarks noted in a diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, Abdullah stressed that ‘the Saudis will not support one Iraqi group over the others and that the Kingdom is working for a united Iraq. However, he warned that, if the U.S. leaves precipitously, the Saudis will stand with the Sunnis.’18

Abdullah’s concerns about the manipulation of Iraqi sovereignty were exacerbated by the actions of Nouri al-Maliki, who served as prime minister between 20 May 2006 and 9 September 2014. During this time, Abdullah and other prominent Saudi officials viewed Maliki with suspicion. In conversation with US officials, Abdullah’s views on Maliki were clearly stated:

The King said he had ‘no confidence whatsoever in (Iraqi PM) Maliki, and the Ambassador (Fraker) is well aware of my views.’ The King affirmed that he had refused former President Bush’s entreaties that he meet with Maliki. The King said he had met Maliki early in Maliki’s term of office, and the Iraqi had given him a written list of commitments for reconciliation in Iraq, but had failed to follow through on any of them. For this reason, the King said, Maliki had no credibility. ‘I don’t trust this man,’ the King stated, ‘He’s an Iranian agent.’ The King said he had told both Bush and former Vice president Cheney ‘how can I meet with someone I don’t trust?’ Maliki has ‘opened the door for Iranian influence in Iraq’ since taking power, the King said, and he was ‘not hopeful at all’ for Maliki, ‘or I would have met with him’.19

Central to these concerns were fears that Iran was gaining a foothold in Iraqi politics through the (in)action of prominent officials who had been exiled in Iran. Abdullah’s fears were not entirely unfounded. An International Crisis Group report documenting the actions of Maliki during his prime ministership observed that

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has implemented a divide-and-conquer strategy that has neutered any credible Sunni Arab leadership. The authorities also have taken steps that reinforce perceptions of a sectarian agenda. Prominent officials – predominantly Sunni – have been cast aside pursuant to the Justice and Accountability Law on the basis of alleged senior-level affiliation to the former Baath party. Federal security forces have disproportionately deployed in Baghdad’s Sunni neighbourhoods as well as Sunni-populated governorates (Anbar, Salah al-Din, Ninew, Kirkuk and Diyala). Al-Iraqiya, the political movement to which Sunni Arabs most readily related, slowly came apart due to internal rivalries even as Maliki resorted to both legal and extra-judicial means to consolidate power.20

In the years that followed Maliki’s rule, Iranian influence in Iraqi politics continued, yet anger at Tehran’s actions began to resonate across the state, resulting in widespread protests from 2019.

At the same time, the emergence of Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) as Crown prince of Saudi Arabia in 2017 ushered in a more proactive form of engagement from the Kingdom in an effort to counter Iranian gains. Speaking to The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, MbS stressed a commitment to

pushing back on these Iranian moves. We’ve done this in Africa, Asia, in Malaysia, in Sudan, in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon. We believe that after push back, the problems will move inside Iran. We don’t know if the regime will collapse or not – it’s not the target, but if it collapses, great, it’s their problem. We have a war scenario in the Middle East right now. This is very dangerous for the world. We cannot take the risk here. We have to take serious painful decisions now to avoid painful decisions later.21

These efforts included reaching out to prominent Iraqi figures in an effort to cultivate and privilege a nationalist sentiment that would override sectarian identity and an affinity to the Islamic Republic of Iran. In the years that followed, this would occur organically, as Iraqis took to the streets demanding an end to corruption and Iranian interference in Iraqi politics amidst the reassertion of an Iraqi identity. This struggle over the nature of political life and the complex relationship between the state, the militias and their external sponsors has long played out across Iraq. In what follows, we explore developments across Anbar, which allow us to critically reflect on the penetration of Iraqi politics by Saudi Arabia and Iran, and also observe the complex interplay between sects, space and the state.

The case of Anbar

The penetration of Iraqi politics by Saudi Arabia and Iran plays out in a range of forms, but also across different spaces. From the cultivation of relations with political, religious or tribal elites to helping establish and support Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs), known locally as Hashd al-Shaabi, which were formed in 2014 following Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s fatwa calling on all Iraqis who were able to aid the fight against the (then) Islamic State of Iraq and Levant. It is likely that the PMUs formed some months earlier and were legitimised by the fatwa. Of the forty (approximately) PMU groups established at the time, half were already established militias operating in Iraq. Between 80 and 90 per cent of the PMUs are thought to be Shia (including Shia Turkmen in the north), with most of the enlisted fighters from the southern provinces in Iraq.

Of interest for what follows is the province of Anbar, the largest governorate of Iraq, situated on the western border. A Sunni-majority area, Anbar was largely captured by ISIS in the summer of 2014, with the help of local militias. In the years that followed, Iraqi government forces (army and police) supported by Sunni tribesmen and members of the Hashd al-Shaabi engaged in a series of battles with ISIS, culminating in recapturing the province in late 2017.

The capture of Anbar’s western border towns from ISIS prompted former prime minister Haider al-Abadi to announce victory over the militant group on 9 December 2017. Following the liberation, various Shia PMUs (several of which are aligned with Iran and loyal to Ayatollah Khamenei) took little time to assert their presence on the western border of Anbar province. The deployment was championed by the various PMU leaders as being in the interest of Iraq’s national security; after all a depleted national security force had insufficient resources to secure the border with Syria. However, in the years after 2017 different parts of the pro-Iran alignment have used this vacuum to increase their influence over border areas, serving their own agenda as well as that of Iran.

Iran and the PMUs: An alliance of convenience?

The positioning of the various Shia PMUs was endorsed by Iran who saw it as an opportunity to cement their regional influence, particularly in its support of Syria’s premier Bashar al-Assad. However, some of the more experienced pro-Iran PMUs such as Kata’ib Hezbollah have made themselves extremely wealthy through the controlling of border routes and the establishing of an informal border crossing south of Qa’im in west Anbar. Access routes offer the Shia PMUs the opportunity to tax imports and smuggle goods across the Iraqi–Syrian border, and their desire to maintain this source of revenue has led to rising tensions with locals as well as augmenting rivalries between the various Shia PMUs operating in the area.

The PMUs are officially under a command structure, but the various units have different loyalties and ultimately objectives.22 The Iran-aligned PMUs operate with a considerable degree of autonomy, from Iran and state, and invariably from one another depending on resource allocation as well as leadership matters. The structure of the PMUs and the various relations spawning from them therefore form part of a complex process that incorporates both loose hierarchical structures and a network of dynamic interaction that ensures the flow of information and resources between the various focal points. As prescribed by Renad Mansour,23 it is better to view the PMUs as ‘fluid and adaptive networks that vary in horizontal (leadership coherence) and vertical (ties to a social base) structure’, although as Mansour highlights ‘some of these networks are closely related to Iran’.

Understanding the fluidity of the PMU network helps us assess its actual permeability to Iranian influence. For Iran, having proxies enables it to expand an aggressive posture particularly when placed under pressure from the US per se. However, while Iran has proved in Syria and Iraq it can expand when national security interests are involved, it can also contract its network by reducing its support for proxies. Iran’s contractibility can, for example, be guided by the importance of a particular cause, its domestic finances, and the removal of a direct threat to it. In the case of Iraq, then, Iran does not wish to relinquish its influence, but instead can go through phases of emphasising political, economic and business matters over a security posture. Iraq’s Iran-aligned PMUs have therefore become accustomed to generating their own revenue to ensure their sustainability, which as a result also grants them significant autonomy and, through periods, reduces the actual influence Iran has over the aligned network. This has the potential to create tensions within the alignment, especially if Iran changes its posture towards the US and the various aligned PMUs such as Kata’ib Hezbollah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) continue to gain politically and economically. Such schisms have already emerged, and according to members of an Iran-aligned unit in Iraq, an Iranian general in the IRGC, Haider al-Afghani, asked to be transferred from his position from working with the various aligned PMUs due to their increasing disobedience.24 Such disharmony could evidence Iran contracting its network, especially with a nuclear and economic agreement on the table. However, if the agreement falters, Iran could equally use its proxies to create a threatening posture.

The PMUs in operation

Not only does each PMU have its own agenda, some members within each PMU also have their own schemes and ways of generating revenue separate from their command structure, government and Iran. This can range from theft, burglary and kidnapping to the trafficking of humans between Syria and Iraq. For example, families of Iraqi ISIS members seeking to return home after fleeing heavy fighting in the north and west of Iraq have used the smuggling networks operated by PMU members to return. After 2017 the price for one person wanting to be smuggled across the border was US$2,000, although as competition for this business increased, the price has more recently dropped to anything between US$200 and US$500.25

Initial concerns shared by locals about the presence and objectives of the Shia PMUs in Anbar, or what they call the ‘Iranians’ in the majority Sunni Arab province, were pacified by a combination of tribal outreach and promises of mutual spoils through political channels if Anbar’s key stakeholders supported PMU efforts. For many of the senior Anbari sheikhs and politicians, their options were limited and the need for stability post-ISIS and some form of economic growth for their respective communities outweighed any desire to resist the latest incursion. From early 2018, relations between the various PMUs and the locals were good. Occasional disagreements did occur, but mutual respect for the tribal system of negotiation helped render any escalation. Senior tribal figures from Qa’im district, notably Sheikh Rabbah Karbouli (of the Karbala tribe), played an integral role in navigating the complexities and ensuring a peace existed, and in a meeting with the sheikh in 2019 he revealed a large part of this stability was achieved through personal relations and the ‘respect’ held between the various senior figures from all sides. One such person was the leader of Kata’ib Imam Ali, Shible al-Zaydi. Kata’ib Imam Ali was one of the first pro-Iran units to establish itself in western Anbar, and through Zaydi, who is more commonly referred to as Hajji Shible, it set about fostering good relations with the local community while simultaneously creating its own revenue streams through unofficial border taxation and smuggling.

Shible’s authority was bolstered by his relationship with Iranian General Qasem Soleimani. Soleimani visited Anbar on several occasions in 2018 and after a meeting with senior Sunni tribesmen, one source recounted a willingness by Soleimani to establish direct channels of communication with the local tribes. Soleimani, an Arabic speaker, was all too aware of Anbar’s volatility and its propensity for militancy against perceived occupying forces, so he was keen to offer immediate support to the tribal leaders if any issues arose from the Shia PMU side. According to one sheikh26 who was having problems with some elements of the Shia PMUs near the border (thought to be Kata’ib Hezbollah), Soleimani offered him is mobile phone number so he could call the general if he needed help. However, Soleimani’s support came with a caveat.

Iran’s strategy in Anbar provides a microcosm of its broader regional goal, but for it to sustain its leverage Iraq should be stable but not strong enough to override its influence. Iran aided Iraq in the fighting of ISIS, but also used the opportunity to develop a pathway from Iran through to Syria while simultaneously restricting US influence.27 Soleimani was at the forefront of this plan. However, by the beginning of 2019 tensions between the Shia PMUs and tribes in west Anbar begun to emerge. Part of this was because of the redeployment of Kata’ib Imam Ali to the Sinjar border crossing in Nineveh province, and the growing influence of Kata’ib Hezbollah on Anbar’s western border. An unofficial PMU border crossing point known to locals as Imam Ali crossing near Akashat, south of Qa’im district, was already generating significant income through smuggling and taxation, while also being a portal for the transferring of logistics between Iraq and Syria in support of Assad and the various Iranian-sponsored groups operating in Syria. Imam Ali crossing was and remains a prized asset for the PMUs and gaining control of it was a priority for Kata’ib Hezbollah.

Kata’ib Hezbollah spawned from Iranian operations in Iraq during the 1980s28 but gained global notoriety as part of the Iranian-sponsored resistance to the US-led occupation of Iraq. Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was integral throughout Kata’ib Hezbollah’s evolution and maintained close relations with the IRGC, particularly Soleimani. In the face of anti-Iranian pressure led by the US administration under President Donald Trump, this pro-Iran alignment in Iraq was to be galvanised. The US administration under Trump, aptly supported by Israel and Saudi Arabia, vilified Iran and by withdrawing from the nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – JCPOA) elevated the mistrust of an already suspicious Iran and its proxies. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo even blamed Iran for its sponsoring of ‘Shia militia groups and terrorists to infiltrate and undermine the Iraqi security forces and jeopardise Iraq’s sovereignty’.29

A series of tit-for-tat exchanges between the US military and the pro-Iran PMUs ensued, with rocket attacks launched at US bases in Iraq and the US responding with military strikes against pro-Iran interests. The situation reached its peak towards the end of 2019 when hundreds of protesters supporting the pro-Iran PMUs attempted to gain access to the US embassy in Baghdad’s International Zone following the killing of PMU members in one of the US airstrikes. For the US administration, this incident crossed the line, and on 3 January 2020 a precision drone strike killed Soleimani and deputy PMU leader (and figurehead of Kata’ib Hezbollah) Muhandis as they travelled in a convoy from Baghdad International Airport to central Baghdad. The situation in Iraq destabilised as US–Iran tensions intensified. In response to the killing of Soleimani, Iran launched ballistic missiles towards two bases hosting US forces in Iraq, Anbar and Erbil, on 8 January 2020. There were no casualties and the Iranian response appeared to be calibrated, which with US acquiescence allowed the situation to de-escalate. Nevertheless, the ripple effects continued throughout 2020 and 2021, with numerous resistance factions emerging from Kata’ib Hezbollah and other aligned groups, who effected a low-level but sustained campaign of rocket and IED (improvised explosive device) attacks on establishments and convoys associated with US military operations. The main goal of these resistance factions is to force the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq.

Even prior to the killing of Soleimani and Muhandis, the US targeting of Shia PMUs and associated militias on the border between Syria and Iraq was exasperating tensions in west Anbar. According to a security force member in Anbar, Shia PMUs such as Kata’ib Hezbollah and its affiliates were accusing locals of supplying intelligence to the Americans.30 Whether locals were providing information or not, the US–Iran situation influenced the dynamics in west Anbar, and in this case the pro-Iran elements responded by doubling down on their security mechanisms and their control of the border area. One tribal senior noted, ‘there were daily problems from the stopping of our trucks (carrying foodstuffs on routes in west Anbar) and heavy taxes, to entering towns and villages in search for people or goods.’ An Anbari truck owner who transports fruit and vegetables from Syria to Iraq said the border PMUs would charge him US$500 per truck to pass their checkpoint.31

Qa’im town itself was being used as a stopover by militias operating in Syria, and according to a shop owner32 regular visits from ‘Lebanese and Chinese’33 militias was all too frequent and not without problems. These militias view Anbar as part of the ISIS problem, a territory synonymous with Sunni Arab militancy, and with the newfound power and influence amongst the various Shia armed groups, individuals have sought to use this leverage to take what they wanted from shops and markets.

Over an extended period, then, the direct line between Iran and the local tribes dissipated as pro-Iran PMUs and Iranian officials sought assurances from the local community. For one Anbari sheikh this bartering tactic with the tribal leaders was born out of fear and in case ‘the Americans launched an attack’.34 However, the senior tribal committee in Qa’im, involving the Albu Mahal and Karbala tribes, preferred not to take sides and have sought to maintain a balancing act, often to the detriment of their own businesses. Some local elements have, however, benefited from siding with certain Shia PMU elements, developing their own tribal militias for payment and acting on behalf of the Shia PMUs in local situations.

The future of Anbar

Anbar in general has benefited from a sustained period of stability and despite the obvious tensions and occasional bouts of violence, it is witnessing something of a rebuilding process. In west Anbar, the stability has afforded some of the Shia PMUs, such as Kata’ib Hezbollah, further opportunity to expand their business that has focused them on the border areas rather than communities in the surrounding area. In Qa’im district itself, the insufficiently resourced Iraq army works closely with the tribes, police and PMU Liwa al-Tafuf35 led by Qasim Muslih. Muslih is also the head of PMU operations in west Anbar, and while known to use anti-US rhetoric he has proved particularly adept in working with the local community. As noted by one local police officer, little can be achieved without the ‘approval of Muslih’,36 once again highlighting the PMUs’ growing authority in peripheral areas of Iraq.37

Perhaps most importantly for Anbaris and the government of Iraq, at least economically, is Akkas gas field, which is in the south of Qa’im district. Once secured from ISIS in November 2017, the army set about clearing the area of explosive devices and preparing it for a return to service. The Korean Gas Corporation (KOGAS) had assumed 100 per cent ownership of the gas field prior to ISIS’s advances in 2014 but by 2016 had shown an unwillingness to return. Rumours began to circulate in 2020 that the security situation, and concern regarding the location of Shia PMUs in the vicinity of the gas field, had convinced KOGAS its investments are better lying elsewhere. Numerous oil industry candidates emerged, some of whom tentatively assessed Akkas’s environs and decided the risk was too great. The Ministry of Oil entered negotiations with French-founded oil services provider Schlumberger in late 2020, while simultaneously seeking to end the KOGAS contract. The proposed deal would see Schlumberger lead a consortium of investors in the field’s development, one of whom according to Iraqi oil minister Ihsan Abdul Jabbar could be Saudi Aramco, a potential issue itself considering the anti-Saudi rhetoric emanating from the Iran-aligned PMUs and associated armed factions.

The Shia PMUs operating in Anbar (and other areas of Iraq of course) continue to benefit from close ties to Iran, but this does not directly translate into Iranian control as previously highlighted, nor is the situation permanent. Currently, the situation is balanced. If a nuclear and subsequent economic agreement with Iran is made it will soften Iran’s security posture, and therefore remove its immediate need for a proxy network in Iraq. This could allow Saudi Arabia to offer financial incentives to Iraq as part of its investment, which will undoubtedly benefit the Shia PMUs. Failure to reach an agreement could of course have the opposite effect.

A new-new Saudi Arabia in Iraq?

Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy under MbS could be described as both chaotic and pragmatic, some of which can be dismissed as naivety and at other times opportunistic band-wagoning – particularly where the US is concerned. However, considering its domestic vulnerabilities as well as the regional actors around it, Saudi Arabia’s defensive and often changeable foreign policy reflects its insecurity as a monarchy operating within a volatile regional landscape that produces constant challenges to authority and sovereignty. Acts of aggression as well as cajoling are integral parts of Saudi Arabia’s attempts to adapt to these challenges, but it is Saudi’s inert defensiveness that has limited its ability to generate more positive networks and place itself as a much larger regional hub for business and trade. Saudi’s relations with Iraq typify the region’s volatility, but also since 2003 a failure to build positive networks. Of course, the Iran factor was and still is instrumental in limiting Saudi influence, but with new horizons opening, Saudi now has an opportunity to develop relations with both Iran and Iraq.

While serving as defence minister and since 2017 the Crown prince, MbS oversaw Saudi Arabia straining its capability and damaging its reputation in Yemen. A lesson seemingly not learned from attempts to counter Iranian support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria, despite one Saudi diplomat declaring, ‘We had a little dive into supporting groups in Syria … Iran outmanoeuvred us everywhere … We realised we have to play another game.’38 Instead, bolstered by the Trump administration’s aggressive policy towards Iran, Saudi doubled down on its hard-power approach in joining the axis. For economic and reputational reasons, this approach proved unsustainable. With the new Biden administration seemingly preferring rapprochement with Iran, MbS and Saudi Arabia have taken the opportunity to alleviate the stresses of its involvement in Yemen and through diplomatic channels embark on a process of dialogue with Iran, supported by the Iraqi government.39

Saudi has also augmented its outreach to Iraq, offering investment and support for the development of the country.40 This strategy predicates soft power as a means to building positive relations, but in recognising its own limitations, Saudi is also attempting to secure a geopolitical buffer within an ever fluctuating region. This, of course, is not a new phenomenon in Saudi–Iraq relations, with the former even in recent years attempting to court political and religious figures, exemplified by Muqtada al-Sadr’s visit to Saudi Arabia in July 2017, where he met with MbS.41 During 2020, Saudi presented plans to invest in Iraq’s agricultural sector, a proposal that would have seen the growing of foodstuffs in Iraq and their export to Saudi Arabia on a larger scale. However, the offer was complicated by historical tensions and mistrust, reinforced by an aggressive posture by pro-Iran PMUs who used local and social media to augment anti-Saudi sentiment within Iraq. On 30 October 2020, the Secretary General of AAH, Qais al-Khazali, formally rejected the idea of Saudi Arabia seizing land in the provinces of Najaf, Anbar, Muthanna and Basra ‘on the pretext of investment’.42 Shortly after this statement, on 7 November and again on 18 November, locals and tribal leaders referring to themselves as the People’s Revolution Movement (Harakat al-Intifada al-Sha‘baniyya) conducted sit-in protests in Muthanna’s provincial capital Samawa, to denounce the Saudi agricultural investment project in Badia (Muthanna) on the grounds that Saudi Arabia ‘supports terrorism’.43

Hard-line Shia activist group Rab‘ Allah, made up from a myriad of pro-Iran elements including those affiliated with Kata’ib Hezbollah, took this a step further by pledging its willingness to target Saudi investment, in a social media post on 13 November 2020. Rab‘ Allah declared there is ‘no way for Saudi investment before compensating the families of the martyrs’ who they cite were killed by car bombs that came from Saudi Arabia, in a reference to Sunni militant-led terrorism in Iraq. In a statement via the Ministry of Agriculture on 22 November, Saudi companies responded by apologising for any offense caused by the investment plans.

Iraq’s precarious economic situation means the government is open to international investment, including Saudi Arabia’s, but the government also realises it must tread carefully considering the physical capacity of Iraq’s Iran alignment through its armed groups and the political leverage it holds in parliament and across the many ministries. As previously noted, while there is a degree of fluidity in the Iranian–Iraqi network, during periods of tension the networks can expand to protect Iranian interests. In truth, Iraq’s ministries are more akin to powerful fiefdoms designed to benefit the interests of individuals and parties that have worked to establish themselves within the elitist status quo. The pro-Iran Fatah bloc, led by Badr’s Hadi al-Amiri, secured 48 seats out of the 329 available in the 2018 elections, placing it second to Muqtada al-Sadr’s Sairoon, meaning it was able to negotiate its allocation of prized ministerial positions at all levels. According to an independent official, it is the squabbling over these spoils following elections that causes the delays in forming the government, and while the position of minister may appear to carry gravitas, it is control of ministerial finances that most parties seek and ‘this is the position they barter for’.44 For example, the current minister of interior is Othman al-Ghanimi, a former senior officer in the army with no clear political allegiances, but the ministry itself has long been under the influence of Badr. Badr also controls the Ministry of Transport, a useful information source and revenue generator considering its authority over airports and other terminals.

Al-Sadiqoun, the political wing of AAH and member of Fatah, has controlling interests in the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs as well as the Ministry of Culture. When prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi announced his cabinet in June 2020, Fares Harram, an activist and poet, was slated to be the new minister of culture, but his nomination was disputed, reportedly because he would not bow to AAH’s demands to serve their requirements.45 Other political stakeholders also take a share in the spoils. Ammar Hakim (al-Hikma) influences the Ministry of Oil, while those loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr have gained control over the ministries of health46 and electricity, as well as an increasing influence within the Prime Minister’s Office.47 Former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki from the State of Law (Dawa linked), who is also part of the broader al-Bina parliamentary bloc that contains Fatah, continues to benefit from his connections to various ministries and even the Prime Minister’s Office.

As for the Ministry of Agriculture, it is headed by Muhammad Karim al-Khafaji, but is largely considered to be influenced by different Sunni Arab parties, it of course being their share of the political spoils. The stakeholders in the Ministry of Agriculture want to generate revenue for their own cause, and in Qa’im, for example, a local businessman reported a scheme through Saudi investment, which was reportedly boosting the agricultural sector on the Euphrates River.48 Saudi has a more sympathetic ear with the Sunni Arab parties, and while shared faith or a history of interaction across the borders certainly plays a part in this, there is an economic and political convenience that suits both sides. However, this arrangement is heavily scrutinised by those from the Fatah bloc. Dalal Hassan al-Gharawi, a Fatah parliament representative and member of the parliamentary committee for agriculture, has even accused the ministry itself of allowing ‘former regime’ men to do as they want within the ministry, stating ‘the Ba’athist influence has returned to the ministry stronger than before’.49

Al-Gharawi’s comments reflect Fatah’s pro-Iran positioning and a history of domestic mistrust, but they should also be understood within the context of a domestic political-economic struggle. Fatah, like other political parties and blocs, wants its share of the financial spoils and is not averse to using sectarian slogans to discredit its political opponents. In the case of Saudi Arabia, such comments by those aligned with Iran fit the narrative of there being a terrorist-supporting ‘other’, which can be used not only when tensions involving Iran are elevated, but when political or economic tensions within Iraq arise. However, with a new era of dialogue emerging between the key geopolitical players, a degree of pragmatism towards Saudi Arabia may also arise as it broadens its investment portfolio in Iraq. The removal of sanctions, for example, could allow Iran to diversify its economic planning and reduce its reliance on Iraq as one of its only legitimate sources of revenue, generated through trade and energy sales. The opening up of Iran’s economy could therefore remove the protection barrier against Saudi investment and give it greater access to Iraq’s market.

The full reopening of Arar border crossing to Saudi Arabia in south-east Anbar in November 2020 symbolises a recent upturn in Iraqi–Saudi relations.50 Efforts to reopen the terminal began in 2017 for the first time since 1990, but impetus only grew as relations between Kadhimi and Saudi developed.51 From a Saudi perspective, it would ideally like to compete with Iran’s and Turkey’s trade in Iraq and following two years of negotiations a bilateral trade agreement was signed on 31 March 2021. Along with mutually beneficial taxation rules, the agreement52 incorporates a three-billion-dollar fund that aims to enhance Saudi investment opportunities in Iraq’s private sector, while establishing greater cooperation in energy and renewable energy projects in support of OPEC and the stabilisation of the global oil market. The agreement also commits both countries to the completion of the Gulf Cooperation Council International Authority (GCCIA) electrical project, which is designed by US company General Electric to connect the power grids of Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the UAE as a way of improving electrical efficiency for all member states.53

Conclusion

Iraq’s position of influence within Gulf politics and in the context of the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran has oscillated dramatically in the decades after the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran. From an initial period of tripolar competition between Baghdad, Tehran and Riyadh to a period of external actors penetrating Iraqi politics in an effort to shape it in their image, the Iraqi state continues to be an arena of key strategic and religious significance for both Saudi Arabia and Iran, oscillating between periods of overt hostility, political rivalries, the cultivation of identity politics and economic competition.

There is little doubt that since 2003 Iran has exerted far greater influence over Iraqi politics than Saudi Arabia. In part, this stems from shared sectarian affinity but perhaps is better understood in terms of long-standing relationships with elites who fled Iraq during the rule of Saddam, which immediately gave Iran access to key officials in the post-2005 governments. Given the rising sectarian tensions playing out across Iraq, Saudi Arabia’s inability to cultivate relations with Sunni groups – in part a consequence of the presence of violent Islamist groups such as al-Qaeda then Daesh – left Iran well placed to capitalise and cement its position within the political, social and economic spheres of the state.

In recent years, however, under the tutelage of Crown Prince MbS, Saudi Arabia is making strides to develop its relations with Iraq. They have plans to expand its embassy in Baghdad and investment portfolio through Saudi businesses. A local lawyer who has represented Saudi interests related to compliance issues in Iraq told of the numerous meetings being held with Iraqi officials regarding millions of dollars of available finance.54 However, the lawyer also stated there is a lack of trust, and Saudi Arabia remains very cautious.

In an ideal scenario, Iraq would also benefit from such mutual agreements and in doing so remove its dependency on Iran as a primary energy source. However, Iran and Saudi relations are only one part of Iraq’s problems. Corruption is endemic in Iraq and its sovereignty is not only challenged by security incursions, but by the fragmented state of its political system. Ministries are fiefdoms for generating income, which undermines the authority of the prime minister and executive branch. While power is invested in such a system, there is little incentive to change. This means Iraq will remain susceptible to outside influence as long as it serves the individual interests of those in key positions.

This does not necessarily translate into public support for pro-Iran factions or Iran for that matter, and instead an anti-government protest movement that aimed much of its ire at the Iranian connection and peaked towards the end of 2019 dissipated under the lack of executive action and the targeting of activists by armed groups with links to prominent Shia PMUs. Anti-Iranian sentiment manifests at the sub-political level, and while figures such as Muqtada al-Sadr have previously denounced Iranian intervention, they have proved more willing to maintain the political status quo rather than support the more chaotic grass-roots movement.

There remains a public mistrust of Iran in Iraq in general, including Sunni Arabs, Kurds and Shia Arabs. The Iran-linked political parties are not particularly liked across Iraq either, but their geographical positioning and strategic alignments, with tribes and villages for example, have enabled them to fix and cajole electoral constituencies to their benefit. An approach that uses both carrot and stick is not enjoyed by the majority, however, and tensions with Sunni Arab areas in the north and west of Iraq have the potential to develop once more. For now, while there is a degree of economic prosperity, stability will remain, but any fluctuation in the situation caused by a collapse in oil prices, for example, could heighten the struggle for finances and stimulate hostile dynamics at the local level, which in turn could draw Iran closer to the issue once more.

Seeking to position itself as a mediator between the two sides, Baghdad facilitated four rounds of talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia in 2021. This included wider discussions on regional security with a number of other Middle Eastern powers also in attendance. The impact of these diplomatic efforts led by Iraq on regional security remains to be seen, yet such efforts have positioned Iraq more prominently within broader mediatory efforts, albeit at a time when divisions appear to cut across Iraqi politics and society.

Notes

1 S. McChrystal, ‘Iran’s Deadly Puppet Master’, Foreign Policy, 2019, https://foreignpolicy.com/gt-essay/irans-deadly-puppet-master-qassem-suleimani/ (accessed 30 March 2020).
2 ‘KSA Follows Events in Fraternal Iraq, Resulting from Escalation of Tensions, Terrorist Acts, It Previously Denounced, Warned of Their Repercussions – An Official Source Announces’, Saudi Press Agency, 1 March 2020, www.spa.gov.sa/viewfullstory.php?lang=en&newsid=2018996 (accessed 21 October 2021).
3 T. Dodge, Inventing Iraq (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), p. 13.
4 T. E. Lawrence, ‘Faisal’s Table Talk’, report to Colonel Wilson, 8 January 1917, FO 686/6, p. 121. Faisal’s remarks are also quoted in H. Batatu, The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements in Iraq (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), pp. 25–26.
5 C. Tripp, A History of Iraq (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 24.
6 Batatu, The Old Social Classes, p. 13.
7 A. Dawisha, Iraq: A Political History from Independence to Occupation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), p. 72.
8 F. Haddad, ‘Sectarian Relations in Arab Iraq: Contextualising the Civil War of 2006–2007’, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 40:2 (2013), 115–138.
9 G. Bell, A Woman in Arabia: The Writings of the Queen of the Desert (New York: Penguin, 2015), p. 169.
10 See G. Agamben, Homo Sacer (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998); and for a discussion of ‘bare life’ in the Iraqi context, see S. Mabon, ‘The Apocalyptic and the Sectarian: Identity, “Bare Life” and the Rise of Da’ish’, in T. Clack and R. Johnson (eds), Before Military Intervention: Upstream Stabilisation in Theory and Practice (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2019), pp. 165–190.
11 S. Chubin and C. Tripp, Iran-Saudi Arabia Relations and Regional Order (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 1996).
12 M. Darwich, Threats and Alliances in the Middle East: Saudi and Syrian Policies in a Turbulent Region (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019).
13 Chubin and Tripp, Iran-Saudi Arabia Relations, p. 10.
14 B. Keynoush, Saudi Arabia and Iran: Friends or Foes? (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), p. 176.
15 Ibid.
16 S. Mabon and S. Royle, Origins of ISIS (London: I.B. Tauris, 2017).
17 Keynoush, Saudi Arabia and Iran, p. 176.
18 ‘Saudi MOI Says if U.S. Leaves Iraq, Saudi Arabia Will Stand with Sunnis’, WikiLeaks, 26 December 2006, https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/06RIYADH9175_a.html (accessed 21 October 2021).
19 ‘Counterterrorism Adviser Brennan’s Meeting with Saudi King Abdullah’, WikiLeaks, 22 March 2014, https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/09RIYADH447_a.html (accessed 21 October 2021).
20 Ibid.
21 J. Goldberg, ‘Saudi Crown Prince: Iran’s Supreme Leader “Makes Hitler Look Good”’, The Atlantic, 2 April 2018, https://bit.ly/3INV0rD (accessed 24 October 2021).
22 In a broader sense, Iran-aligned units such as the more established Kata’ib Hezbollah, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), Saraya al-Khorasani and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada pose a considerable question to Iraq’s long-term sovereign goal. Shia cleric and former Jaysh al-Mahdi (JAM) leader Muqtada al-Sadr presents a nationalist picture through his unit Saraya Salam, although much of the tension between Sadr and the pro-Iran groups tends to revolve around political and economic spoils rather than ideology. In contrast to both of the aforementioned elements, there are the national PMUs galvanised by revered Shia cleric Ali al-Sistani’s fatwa to counter ISIS. Units such as Liwa al-Tafuf, which operates in western Anbar, form part of this more moderate strand of PMUs, although through its leader, Qasim Muslih, it too has been drawn into an alliance with the pro-Iran units.
23 R. Mansour, ‘Networks of Power: The Popular Mobilization Forces and the State in Iraq’, Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House, February 2021, https://bit.ly/3wTin0C (accessed 10 October 2021).
24 S. al-Salhy, ‘Iraq Armed Groups’ Defiance Prompts Iranian Official to Quit’, Middle East Eye, 21 May 2021, www.middleeasteye.net/news/iraq-iran-armed-group-rebel-official-quits (accessed 11 October 2021).
25 This information was collected from two different sources in Anbar.
26 A member of one of the local tribes passed this message via telephone in October 2018. He agreed to the use of this information under conditions of anonymity.
27 H. Hasan and K. Khaddour, ‘The Transformation of the Iraqi-Syrian Border: From a National to a Regional Frontier’, Carnegie Middle East Centre, 31 March 2020, https://bit.ly/3Nyjmcv (accessed 11 August 2021).
28 The name Kata’ib Hezbollah became synonymous with the targeting of US-led occupation forces in Iraq after 2007, but its roots stem from pro-Iranian operations against Saddam’s regime in the 1980s. Its modern-day mantra is fixated on resistance to the so-called American project in Iraq and remains at the forefront of efforts to remove US forces from Iraq presently. It is aligned with Iran and pays homage to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. For a brief but useful history of Kata’ib Hezbollah, see Rikar Hussein, Mehdi Jedinia and Michael Lipin, ‘Iran’s Iraqi Militia Proxy Kataeb Hezbollah Explained’, VOA News, 31 December 2019, https://bit.ly/3K00YY4 (accessed 12 August 2021).
29 A. England, ‘Iraq’s Shia Militias: Capturing the State’, Financial Times, 31 July 2018, www.ft.com/content/ba4f7bb2–6d4d-11e8–852d-d8b934ff5ffa (accessed 1 August 2021).
30 The security official heralded from and works in Anbar. The authors spoke with him in November 2019 and agreed to keep anonymity.
31 The authors spoke with the trader in November 2019.
32 The shop owner is an embedded community member and has managed to keep his business going despite the various ISIS- and PMU-related incursions. He was spoken with twice, once in the summer of 2019 and again in February 2020.
33 The authors could not verify if the Lebanese group were Hezbollah related. The reference to Chinese was also difficult to verify but could be related to Hazara or Central Asian militias operating in Syria.
34 This quote was obtained during a telephone interview with a senior tribal member in Qa’im district in October 2019 who gave us approval on the proviso we did not release his identity.
35 Associated with the Imam Hussein shrine in Karbala. The leader is Qasim Muslih, thought to be anti-US but associated with Najaf-based cleric Ali al-Sistani officially. He was arrested by Iraqi security forces in May 2021 for his apparent role in the killing of activists in Iraq, but later released.
36 This was shared with the authors through a telephone interview with a local police force member in December 2020.
37 H. al-Obeidi, ‘Iran-Backed Militias Obstruct Development of Iraq’s Akkas Gas Field’, Diyaruna, 1 October 2020, https://diyaruna.com/en_GB/articles/cnmi_di/features/2020/10/01/feature-01 (accessed 1 July 2021).
38 ‘Saudi Arabia: Back to Baghdad’, International Crisis Group, Middle East Report no. 186, 22 May 2018, https://bit.ly/374oV1O (accessed 1 July 2021).
39 A. England, ‘Saudi and Iranian Officials Hold Talks to Patch Up Relations’, Financial Times, 18 April 2021, www.ft.com/content/852e94b8-ca97–4917–9cc4-e2faef4a69c8 (accessed 1 July 2021).
40 Examples of Saudi’s outreach include the visit of its defence minister, Prince Khalid bin Salman, to Baghdad on 11 May 2021, where he met with Iraqi President Barham Salih, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi and Speaker of the Parliament Muhammad al-Halbousi, to discuss enhancing relations. See ‘Prince Khalid Seeks to Consolidate Bilateral Relations during Iraq Visit’, Saudi Gazette, 11 May 2021, https://saudigazette.com.sa/article/606556 (accessed 11 August 2021). King Salman bin Abdulaziz also issued a royal order to repair Ibn al-Khatib Hospital in Baghdad, which was destroyed in a fire and cost the lives of eighty-two people on 25 April 2021; see ‘King Salman Issues Royal Order to Rebuild Baghdad’s Ibn al-Khatib Hospital’, al-Sharq al-Awsat, 13 May 2021, https://bit.ly/3iOtQ9B (accessed 11 August 2021).
41 ‘Iraq’s Muqtada al-Sadr Makes Rare Saudi Visit’, Al Jazeera, 31 July 2017, https://bit.ly/3IRd1We (accessed 14 August 2021).
42 ‘Al Asaib: We Reject Saudi Arabia’s Attempts to Seize Iraqi Areas under the Pretext of Investment’ [in Arabic], al-Marbad, 30 October 2020, www.almirbad.com/detail/67124 (accessed 14 August 2021).
43 ‘Al-Muthanna … the “Popular Uprising” Rejects Saudi Investment in the Badia’ [in Arabic], al-Marbad, 7 November 2020, www.almirbad.com/detail/67956 (accessed 14 August 2021).
44 This information was obtained during an interview with a Baghdad lawyer in February 2021.
45 H. Latif, ‘Cabinet Appointment Illustrates Militias’ Hold on Iraq’s Political System’, The Arab Weekly, 8 June 2018, https://bit.ly/36UZGPg (accessed 10 August 2021).
46 S. Sumaida’ie, ‘The Hijacking of Democracy: The Role of Political Parties in Iraq’, Wilson Center, 8 April 2021, www.wilsoncenter.org/article/hijacking-democracy-role-political-parties-iraq (accessed 10 August 2021).
47 J. Davison and A. Rasheed, ‘In Iraq, an Old U.S. Foe Grows His Political Power’, Reuters Special Report, 29 June 2021, www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/iraq-cleric/ (accessed 10 August 2021).
48 This information was obtained while speaking to a local trader in Qa’im. His claim, although difficult to substantiate through financial evidence, appears to be a general consensus amongst the local populace.
49 ‘Scandals of the Ministry of Agriculture’ [in Arabic], Iraq House Center, 28 January 2021, https://bit.ly/3DpNXob (accessed 10 August 2021).
50 ‘Reception of Saudi Delegation at Arar’ [in Arabic], al-Sumaria, 18 November 2020, https://bit.ly/3JV5SoW (accessed 11 August 2021).
51 ‘Iraq, Saudi Arabia Reopen Arar Border Crossing after 30 Years’, Al Jazeera, 18 November 2020, www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/11/18/iraq-saudi-reopen-arar-border-crossing-after-30-years (accessed 11 August 2021).
52 ‘Joint Statement by the Government of Iraq and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’, Government of Iraq, 1 April 2021, https://bit.ly/3uFvu2P (accessed 3 August 2021).
53 ‘General Electric Grid Solutions, GCCIA Phase 1 Making Interconnection in the Gulf a Reality’, Grid Solutions, 2018, https://bit.ly/36YB20i (accessed 3 August 2021).
54 This interview was conducted in Baghdad in April 2021. The lawyer was happy to share his experience but did not wish to be named.
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Saudi Arabia and Iran

The struggle to shape the Middle East

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