Iran general visits Baghdad, tries to forge political unity

BAGHDAD (AP) — A top Iranian general arrived in Baghdad this week to try and unify Iraq’s fractured political leaders, Iraqi officials said Wednesday, as stiff opposition by one major bloc thwarts the chances the country’s latest prime minister-designate can form a government.

Esmail Ghaani, head of Iran’s expeditionary Quds Force, arrived in Baghdad late Monday, Iraqi officials said, in his first public visit to Iraq since succeeding slain Iranian general Qassim Soleimani. His arrival at Baghdad airport came amid a days-long curfew to stem the spread of the coronavirus that has halted inbound and outbound flights.

The four officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

Soleimani, along with Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was killed Jan. 3 in a Washington-directed airstrike outside Baghdad airport. The attack led to deteriorating U.S.-Iraq relations and prompted Iraqi lawmakers to call for the withdrawal of U.S. troops in a non-binding resolution.

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After arriving, Ghaani left the airport under tight security in a three-vehicle convoy.

Known for his ability to make even the staunchest Iraqi rivals see eye-to-eye, Soleimani was known to make frequent trips to the Iraqi capital to forge unity during times of political paralysis.

But many officials are doubtful Ghaani can establish consensus in Iraq’s deeply fractured political scene, given his poor command of Arabic and lack of personal relationships with key figures.

“This is his first test to see if he can succeed in uniting the Shiite position, as Soleimani was doing,” said a senior Shiite political official, speaking on condition of anonymity to comment freely about the visit, which has not been publicly announced.

Ghaani’s trip coincides with a burgeoning crisis in Iraq as Prime Minister-designate Adnan al-Zurfi faces resistance from certain powerful political elites amid a deepening fragmentation across the political spectrum. Meanwhile, plummeting oil prices and the financial toll of the coronavirus pandemic have badly damaged the country’s economy.

Previous premier-designate Mohammed Allawi withdrew his candidacy citing political obstruction.

Without Soleimani’s charisma, mostly Shiite Iran will have to switch tactics to bring Iraqi Shiite parties in line, analysts said.

“Iran is still powerful and (Ghaani) will have to rely on threats to try and find some way to bring back the massive fragmentation that is Iraqi elite politics today,” said Renad Mansour, senior research fellow at Chatham House in London. “Carrot and stick rather than managing networks.”

In many ways, Iraq’s political scene has become more difficult to maneuver since Soleimani’s death, with more political infighting between Shiite and Kurdish parties.

“There are too many people who feel entitled to a piece of the pie,” said Mansour. “The competition seems heightened.”

The Fatah bloc in parliament, which came in second after Sairoon in the May 2018 election, vehemently opposes al-Zurfi. Headed by Hadi al-Ameri, it is composed of parties with affiliated militias under the Popular Mobilization Forces, some of which are Iran-backed.

The Sairoon bloc, led by influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, initially supported al-Zurfi’s candidacy.

Ghaani has met with Shiite leaders including al-Ameri, State of Law head Nouri al-Maliki, head of al-Hikma Movement Ammar al-Hakim, as well as President Barham Saleh, the officials said.

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