It is said that when elephants fight and play, it is the grass that gets crushed. When it comes to Iraq, this Swahili proverb provides a symbolic explanation. With a global superpower like the US and a regional power like Iran being militarily active in Iraq and fighting countless wars on its soil for years, it is the people of Iraq who are being crushed under the weight.
Since the 1980s, the people of Iraq have witnessed how friends turned into foes and foes were replaced with new foes and vice versa. But after the US invaded Iraq in 2003, Baghdad seems to have found a consistent friend in Iran, a friendship that becomes stronger every day.
On January 5, when the Iraqi parliament voted to expel the US troops from Iraq, it was clearly a response in an apparent solidarity with Iran following the assassination of Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani.
During the '80s though, the picture was quite different. Iran and Iraq were fighting a brutal war with chemical weapons and trench warfare tactics, prompting some historians to seek World War I for analogies.
Within an interval of a few decades, we find the Iraqi parliament standing for the cause of former arch enemy Iran, risking the alliance they found in US following the fall of Saddam Hussein.
This Iraq is new. But this has not come along all of a sudden. This has indeed been in the making for more than a decade by now, following the US invasion of the middle-eastern nation.
To understand the dynamics of bilateral relations between Tehran and Baghdad, it is significant to focus on Iran's desire to dominate Iraq since it fought a morbid war with the regime of Saddam Hossain in the '80s. A Shiite friendly regime in Iraq has indeed been substantial for Iran to ensure that they have a safe corridor from Tehran to the Mediterranean, if not to safeguard its very existence.
Following the fall of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iran got a chance to expand its influence over Iraq through various proxy groups. With majority of the population in Iraq belonging to the Shiite sect, many of whom had a soft spot for its neighbour, Tehran grabbed the opportunity.
When Islamic State (IS), commonly known as Daesh in the Middle East, swept across a vast area of Iraq and Syria in 2014, Iran's clout in the neighbouring countries became even stronger. Marshalling a large force of Shiite militias, Iran led fights against the IS along with the global forces.
According to The New York Times, Iran's Revolutionary Guards openly recruited fighters from the Shiite-majority cities of southern Iraq during the fights against Daesh. Recently assassinated Iranian general Qassem Soleimani used to be at the forefront of such Iranian arrangements.
The relentless efforts, both from Iran and its proxies, along with the global efforts finally helped Iraq defeat IS. And the Iraqi people – especially the majority Shiite section – remember the role Tehran played against IS.
Tehran's sway mushroomed on the ruins of the IS in Iraq. The US may hate the Iranian influence in Iraq, but this has all the way been a US creation as they invaded Iraq on false accusations of the presence of weapons of mass destruction in the country.
Considering the mess and destruction that the US invasion brought upon the Iraqi people, the Iraqi parliament's move to expel US troops from their land in the face of an impending war is not unprecedented, even though such moves may serve the interest of Tehran more than that of Baghdad.
After years of suffering due to wars and conflicts, the Iraqi people indeed cannot endure another war that does not even concern them.
Iraqi President Barham Salih told The New Yorker in an interview, "Iraq should never serve as a gate for others. And Iraq should not fight a war, paid for by Iraqi resources and Iraqi lives, for others."
After the US assassinated Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad, tens of thousands of Iraqi people mourned for him. The acting Iraqi Prime Minister himself joined the mourners.
The Iraqi parliament voting to expel US troops does not necessarily mean the departure of the troops. But such a move, in the face of reiterated US warnings of attacks on 52 Iranian sites, Iranian clout in Iraq may only increase in the future.