Iraq, still trying to rebuild itself as a nation state while reviving its security forces, cannot afford to have strained relations with Iran, a nation with which it has a history of conflict and war going back to the very beginnings of Iraqi independence in the 1920s. Geography and history dictate that Iraq, especially when in a position of weakness, maintain working relations with Iran. Ninety per cent of Iraqis live within 60 miles of the Iranian frontier. Ethnic Kurdish and Shia Arab tribes are present on both sides of the Iran-Iraq frontier with countless mixed families and clans. More than 60 per cent of Iraqis are Shia Muslims, sharing the faith of 85 per cent of Iranians across the border. Iraq's Shia majority would have far preferred the US as its protector against Sunni revanchism at a time when sectarian sentiments are being pushed to fever pitch throughout the Middle East.
However, the US refused to offer that protection, even preferring to side with the Sunni Arab bloc led by Saudi Arabia. To Iraqi Shias, Saudi Arabia recalls the invasion of 1802 that led to the destruction of Najaf by a horde of Wahhabi jihadists. As long as it has not gained enough strength to protect itself, Iraq will need a powerful foreign ally. In the absence of the US, only Iran can play that role, regardless of who rules in Tehran.
The Iraqi leadership is fully aware of the true nature of the Khomeinist regime. Many of them spent years in exile in Iran and have a close knowledge of how the Islamic Republic works. They also observe Tehran's support for client groups, including armed gangs, in southern Iraq and the mullahs' fear of seeing Najaf re-emerge as the centre of Shiism. Thus, despite the apparent entente between Tehran and Baghdad, the Iran-Iraq relationship is riddled with tensions. This is why Tehran's thinly disguised strategic goal is to carve itself a foothold in southern Iraq by creating an autonomous Shia region in the name of federalism.
From the point of view of American geostrategic interests, shunning Iraq is a big mistake. Of all the Arab states, only Iraq has the population, the natural resources and the strategic location needed to keep the hegemonic ambitions not only of Iran but also of Turkey in check. Iraq also boasts a sizeable middle class with distinctly pro-Western sentiments. It is no accident that Iraq has decided to look to the US to equip its fledgling air force. Helping Iraq speed up the rebuilding of its state structures and armed forces is in the interests both of regional stability and democratisation throughout the Middle East. It would be a pity if domestic political considerations, including a refusal to admit that toppling Saddam Hussein was a good deed, prevented the US and its European allies from helping Iraq on its democratic journey.
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