Zalmay Khalilzad writes: It’s time for some serious dialogue with Iran about Iraq. The chaos in Baghdad, culminating in the temporary occupation of the parliament by followers of Shiite Islamist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, is undermining the war against the Islamic State, weakening Iraq’s economy, and accelerating the country’s disintegration. Without cooperation between the United States, Iran and Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Sistani, the crisis could very well lead to the collapse of the entire political system set up in Iraq during the temporary U.S. occupation. And that in turn could open the door to permanent occupation by the Islamic State and other violent anti-U.S. terrorist organizations.
To prevent this Washington needs Tehran’s help. And Iran should be as motivated to seek stability as much as Washington because currently it is losing favor in Iraq; the Shiite Islamist political parties that have dominated the government — with Iranian backing—have lost the confidence of most Iraqis. These groups had little support among Sunnis from the outset and now their standing has weakened among the Kurds and fellow Shiites also. For over nine months, young Iraqis have organized mass demonstrations, protesting the government’s economic mismanagement and its failure to provide security, governance and services. In their calls for reform, the protesters are demanding answers on where the country’s billions in oil revenues have gone.
Fearing that both secular groups might gain at their expense, intense rivalries have erupted among the entrenched Shiite Islamist parties. Ayatollah Sistani, the most revered Shiite cleric in the country — who had previously supported Haider al-Abadi’s appointment as prime minister — has publicly sided with the young protesters in their demand for reform. Sistani has echoed their calls for progress on combating corruption and improving services, and his withdrawal of support for Abadi has given Muqtada al-Sadr an opening to take up the mantle of reform. By attacking his Shiite rivals — notably Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq leader Ammar-al Hakim, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and militias such as the Badr Corps that back them—Sadr is seeking to wrest control of the reform movement from secularists. [Continue reading…]