Nov. 2 (UPI) -- Two thousand five hundred years ago, Lao Tzu, the legendary Chinese philosopher, said: "If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading."
His words may accurately describe the spiraling decline of Iraq. The cause of Iraq's disintegration cannot be blamed solely on the Bush, Blair invasion and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's cruel Baathist regime. The eight-year term in office of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a puppet of the Iranian regime, sowed the sectarian seeds, which set off a low-level civil war and paved the way for the Islamic State to invade the country from Syria.
Many Sunnis preferred IS to the oppressive Shi'ite militias largely controlled by Maliki and his Iranian masters. But, despite repeated warnings, the West stood aside and allowed Maliki to remain in office for two disastrous terms. Maliki did Iran's bidding, opening a direct route for Iranian troops and equipment heading to Syria to bolster the bloody Bashar al-Assad regime. He became a serial thief, systematically robbing the Iraqi people of their oil wealth.
So, the world breathed a sigh of relief when he was replaced as prime minister by Haider al-Abadi, hoping Abadi would take control and restore order inside Iraq. But, instead of rounding up the savage Shi'ia militias associated with the Iranian regime, known as the popular mobilization forces, Abadi kowtowed to the Iranian mullahs and allowed their militias to wage a genocidal campaign against the Sunni population of Iraq. Under the pretext of fighting IS, the ancient cities of Fallujah, Mosul and Ramadi were literally reduced to rubble, their men murdered and their women and children dispersed.
In a last-ditch attempt to hold onto office in the May 12 elections this year by sucking up to the Americans, Abadi threw his weight behind the reimposed U.S. sanctions on Iran. But the move backfired spectacularly and despite Herculean efforts by Washington's special envoy Brett McGurk, who spent weeks trying to persuade Iraqi politicians to support Abadi and isolate Iran, it all came to nothing. Abadi even lost the support of his own political party and was cast aside in favor of the new prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi.
Mahdi is relatively unknown, even inside Iraq. He served as an uninspiring oil minister from 2014 to 2016, allowing his ministry to become the private fiefdom of his own political party cronies from the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. He is pro-Iranian and equivocal about supporting America. Indeed, he is against the new U.S. sanctions on Iran.
Although, like Abadi, he pledged to introduce a Cabinet of technocrats, the reality has inevitably been somewhat different. The coalition of parties he required to support his elevation to the role of prime minister each demanded their pound of flesh, jockeying fiercely for the key Cabinet posts. The end result is yet another government almost entirely composed of pro-Iranian minions, lightweights who answer only to their political parties rather than to the state. Mahdi's inability to honor his pre-election pledge has revealed his weakness as a leader, a vulnerability that the mullahs in Tehran will be quick to exploit. Indeed, alarmingly, his nominee for the powerful interior ministry is Falih al-Fayadh, who ran the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces militias.
Mahdi was proposed as prime minister by the newly elected Iraqi President Barham Salih, who emerged from a chaotic campaign that saw the Kurds, who traditionally bury their political differences to unite behind a single presidential candidate, ferociously divided. The pro-Iranian Salih's election by a decisive majority in the national parliament in Baghdad was seen as a blow to the Kurdistan Democratic Party leader Masoud Barzani and by extension also to the Americans. So, across the board, America has lost and Iran has won, a scenario that bodes ill for the future. We can expect more rampant sectarianism, corruption, economic turmoil and political stasis, playing directly into the hands of the Iranian mullahs.
Iraq is now the world's fourth-largest oil producer, with an output of over 4.78 million barrels a day and forecasts that this will rise to 7.5 million barrels by 2024. But industrial-scale corruption by successive Iraqi political leaders has left the country with little to show for its vast oil wealth. Sporadic power cuts, crumbling infrastructure, poor healthcare, wrecked sewerage systems and even water shortages are still the order of the day, as petro-dollars find their way into Swiss bank accounts and the divide between rich and poor escalates dramatically, even in Basra, where most of the oil is extracted.
So, the simmering tension between Baghdad and the secessionist Kurds in Erbil will continue, as will the partisan intolerance between the Shi'ite majority and the Sunni minority. The Iranian regime will continue to infiltrate its paid agents at every level of Iraqi society, tightening its grip on the government. None of this will encourage foreign companies to invest in Iraq, where the appalling decline of a once great and powerful country will continue apace.
Aside from the fundamental mistake of invading Iraq, what today prevents the peaceful restoration of order in Iraq is the Iranian regime. So how can the mullahs' regime be confronted? With decisiveness and firmness. McGurk, who for many years has been the U.S. special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, seems to be more keen on trying to create a compromise between the interests of Iran and the United States in Iraq. Such a compromise is a hollow illusion. The Iranian regime only retreats when it is faced with firmness from the United States.
The United States must give a firm answer to the regime's interference in Iraq and at the same time tell the Iraqi government that it cannot maneuver between the United States and Iran. If it really needs America's political, military and economic assistance, it must immediately stop the interference of the Iranian regime. Iraq is the Iranian regime's number one priority for domination and the United States should therefore regard the eviction of Iran from Iraq as a matter of urgency.
Struan Stevenson was a member of the European Parliament representing Scotland (1999-2014), president of the Parliament's Delegation for Relations with Iraq (2009-14) and chairman of Friends of a Free Iran Intergroup (2004-14). He is an international lecturer on the Middle East and is also president of the European Iraqi Freedom Association.