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Top Iran General in Baghdad for Talks 04/02 06:05

Top Iran General in Baghdad for Talks  04/02 06:05

   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 chances the country's latest prime 
minister-designate can form a government. 

   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 chances the country's latest 
prime minister-designate can form a government. 

   Meanwhile, revenues from oil exports were slashed by nearly half due to 
plummeting oil prices in March, according to figures released Wednesday by the 
Oil Ministry, pushing Iraq into deeper economic uncertainty amid political 
dysfunction and the coronavirus pandemic. 

   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 curfew to stem the spread of the coronavirus that has 
halted inbound and outbound flights. 

   The four Iraqi 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. 

   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 had made frequent trips to the Iraqi capital to forge 
unity during times of political paralysis. 

   Ghaani's visit coincides with a burgeoning crisis in Iraq as Prime 
Minister-designate Adnan al-Zurfi faces resistance from some powerful political 
elites. Meanwhile, there is deepening fragmentation across the political 
spectrum. Selected on March 16, al-Zurfi has 30 days to present a Cabinet 
lineup. 

   One of the Iraqi officials who spoke to the AP said Ghaani suggested in the 
meetings that Iran and the Revolutionary Guard do not want al-Zurfi to be the 
next prime minister. 

   Amid the ongoing leadership void, an economic crisis is also brewing. 

   The Oil Ministry said Iraq had earned $2.9 billion in oil revenues in the 
month of March, down by nearly half compared to February. Oil sold at an 
average price of $28 per barrel, according to spokesperson Assem Jihad. In 
February, by contrast, Iraq earned $5.05 billion based on an average price of 
$51 per barrel. 

   Iraq relies on oil revenues to fund over 90% of state spending. The 2020 
budget projected an oil price of $56 per barrel to fund expenditures. 

   Experts have warned that if the slump in oil revenues is prolonged, Iraq 
will be unable to pay public sector salaries, a step that will likely lead to 
more unrest. 

   The government has been taking steps to conserve dollar reserves and cut 
back on spending. 

   This month, the oil ministry requested that international oil companies 
reduce expenditures by 30% while keeping production rates the same, according 
to two industry officials. 

   One of the officials said a lot of tenders and projects will be halted and 
planned production increases will be delayed. The officials spoke on condition 
of anonymity to not derail ongoing talks with the government.

   Many officials considered Ghaani's visit to be a test of his ability to 
establish consensus among rival parties like his predecessor had. Given his 
poor command of Arabic and lack of personal relationships with key figures, 
some were in doubt. 

   "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. 

   "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." 

   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 on the grounds that his selection 
was made unilaterally by the president and without political agreement. Headed 
by Hadi al-Ameri, Fatah 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.


(KR)