WEEKEND READ: Shiites take control

As the US prepares to hand control of another two provinces to Shiites factions, Iran will be examing ways to use the Shiite domination of Iraq to further its influence in the region

Iraqi forces will soon be taking control of the last of the two provinces in the Shiite south that remain under US military control. The handover will mark a key development in the Iraqi Shia’s bid to consolidate their power base. In turn, this will facilitate Iranian national security policy regarding Iraq, where the Shiite south can act as a buffer between Iran and Iraq’s Sunni population.

Iraqi Defense Minister Abdul-Qader Jassim said on September 10 that Iraqi security forces would soon take control of Babil and Wasit – two key Shiite provinces – from the US military.

Babil and Wasit are the only two provinces in Iraq’s Shiite south where security is still in the hands of US forces. Iraqi security forces have already taken over security responsibility for the seven other provinces in the region – Maysin, Basra, Dhi Qar, Al Qadasiya, Al Muthanna, An Najaf and Karbala. Together, these nine provinces constitute the envisioned Shiite southern federal autonomous zone – a proposal being championed by Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, leader of Iraq’s most powerful Shiite (and most pro-Iranian) party, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI).

While the notion of federalism is part of the Iraqi Constitution and is already manifested in the Kurdistan Regional Government in the north, several hurdles remain in the path toward this objective, especially intense intra-Shiite power struggles and disagreements over the idea. Whether or not an autonomous southern Shiite zone takes shape, the reality is that the handover of these two provinces will be a major step in the consolidation of Shiite power in the south. A key reason for this is that control over the security forces – police and army – in the south will be in Shiite hands through both the central government in Baghdad and the provincial authorities in each of the nine provinces.

Most of the governors in the Shiite south are affiliated with ISCI, including the governors of Babil and Wasit. Babil, which has a significant Sunni population, is a strategic province in that it is the only direct land link between Baghdad and the Shiite south. Together, the nine Shiite provinces in southern Iraq allow Tehran to keep its historic enemies – Iraq’s Sunnis – far from its borders.


The Zagros Mountains, which serve as a natural bulwark protecting Iran against an attack from the west, extend from the northern Kurdish areas down to Diyala, a province contested by each of the country’s three principal sectarian groups. Put differently, the Iranian-Iraqi border that runs south of Wasit all the way to Basra is more or less flat territory vulnerable to an attack and a gateway to Iran’s oil-rich Khuzestan province, which is also home to ethnic Arabs opposed to Tehran. This is why the Iraqi Shiite south is of critical strategic importance to Iranian national security.

Iran would like to use the Shiite domination of Iraq as a launch pad for projecting power into the region, but there are significant obstacles – namely, the natural competition that characterises the various Shiite factions – that will prevent that from happening in any meaningful way. But, at the bare minimum, the pro-Iranian Shia dominating southern Iraq and Baghdad should serve as sufficient assurance for Tehran that Iraq will not attack Iran, as many Persian regimes over the millennia have feared.

Of course, the Iraqi Shia do not want their dominion to become Western Persia, but they are new to the game of governance in their country and they want to ensure that the Sunnis (who have the backing of the region’s wealthy Arab states) do not pose a threat to their hold on power. This is why the Iraqi Shia are likely to remain closely aligned with Iran – the only state actor patron at their disposal – for the foreseeable future.

This alignment is the single most important reason behind the mostly backchannel dealings between the United States and Iran over the past several years, which have yet to culminate in the form of an understanding on the final makeup of Iraq. A US-Iranian settlement has become all the more critical in the wake of last month’s Russian intervention in Georgia, because Washington is now desperate to free up its military capability to more directly confront and deter Moscow. But the situation remains complex, and a deal remains elusive.

Tehran, however, can take comfort from the fact that its plans for Iraq, for which it has been laying the groundwork for years, seem to be taking shape in the form of the consolidation of Shiite power in the south.

Stratfor provides intelligence services for individuals, global corporations, and divisions of the US and foreign governments around the world.


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