WASHINGTON’S already tense relationship with the 82,000-strong Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Forces militia coalition suffered a major blow in January after PMF deputy commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was assassinated in Baghdad in a US drone strike alongside Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani.
The Trump administration’s only interest in Iraq is to loot the country’s oil riches and to exploit Iraqis, Qais al-Khazali, leader of the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq political party and paramilitary group, has alleged.
‘The United States simply intends to exploit the needs of our people to achieve its own goals,’ al-Khazali said, speaking in a televised address on Friday.
‘US President Donald Trump is thinking about how to control Iraq’s oil, and how to ensure that (US companies) come to control electricity contracts,’ the militia leader added.
Al-Khazali urged Baghdad to instead move forward with the deal reached by the previous government in 2019 with German industrial giant Siemens to upgrade the country’s dilapidated power grid.
‘Can the government not succumb to US pressure?’ al-Khazali asked.
Last month, Washington praised plans for increased energy cooperation between the US, Iraq and the Gulf Cooperation Council Nations in a deal aimed at connecting Iraq’s electricity grid to that of the Gulf states.
The Iraq-Gulf state power deal was signed in 2019, with Baghdad expected to receive an initial supply of 500 megawatts of electricity daily, and as much as 2,000 megawatts per day after that.
The agreement, originally meant to come into force this summer, has been delayed due to the coronavirus and the associated economic crisis gripping the region.
Iraq presently depends on Iran for much of its electricity needs, with up to 45 percent of its current wattage generated using imported Iranian natural gas, and a direct grid-to-grid connection providing 1,200-1,500 megawatts of juice to the country on a daily basis.
The two countries signed a two-year electricity contract in June, with the deal extending the two countries’ cooperation until 2021.
Cash-strapped Iraq is estimated to owe Iran nearly $1 billion in back payments for electricity imports, and has imported nearly 65 billion kilowatt hours of electricity from the Islamic Republic since 2005.
The Baghdad government is currently forced to request US sanctions waivers for Iranian energy supplies.
Iraq’s power grid, already weakened by wars and sanctions during Saddam Hussein’s rule, was further devastated in the aftermath of the US invasion in 2003 and the insurgency that followed in its wake.
US, Turkish and Iranian companies have been involved in rebuilding the nation’s power sector, but it remains insufficient to handle growing power needs.
Iraq’s power woes have led to mass shortages, accompanied by violent protests in some areas.
Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq is a member of the Baghdad-allied Popular Mobilisation Forces (PFU), the mostly Shia militia coalition formed in 2014 to help the country’s government beat back and defeat Daesh (ISIS).
These groups, many of whose members fought an insurgency against the US-led coalition following the 2003 invasion, have an unfriendly attitude toward the continued US presence in Iraq in the aftermath of Daesh’s defeat, and have demanded that Washington withdraw its forces.
Tensions between the PMF and the US escalated dramatically in January after Washington killed PMF deputy commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani in an airstrike.
Since then, some PMF units have launched rocket attacks on US military bases and hit-and-run attacks on US supply convoys throughout the country, while pro-militia lawmakers in Iraq’s parliament have demanded that US forces leave the country immediately. Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi is expected to visit the US at a later date to discuss the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq.
- Iran-Venezuela relations are are prospering meanwhile, with the opening of a new grocery store featuring over 2,000 products from Iran.
This was made possible after the Islamic Republic sent half a dozen cargo ships carrying fuel, food, medical supplies and spare parts for Venezuela’s oil industry to the South American nation last month, in defiance of US pressure and sanctions.
US acting assistant secretary for the US State Department’s bureau for Western Hemisphere affairs, Michael Kozak, expressed irritation over the opening of the first Iranian supermarket in Venezuela.
‘I would be surely surprised if Venezuela is able to obtain much benefit from Iran,’ Kozak said, speaking to reporters last Thursday. ‘Iran is willing to play around, is willing to sell stuff to Venezuela when Venezuela really does not have the money to be buying very much,’ he added.
Calling the supermarket’s opening a sign of an ‘alliance of pariah states,’ Kozak suggested that ‘Iran is not going to save Venezuela from the situation it has put itself in,’and warned that ‘it does put itself in a more dangerous situation by playing these games.’
Iranian investors spent $10 million to open Megasis, where over 3,500 goods from Iran and Venezuela are on sale. The man behind it is Issa Rezaei who owns 700 supermarkets in Iran. Megasis has created 500 jobs.
The new supermarket, which opened in eastern Caracas last Wednesday, features a high-tech form of anti-coronavirus defence which even companies in wealthier Western nations might envy – an airport scanner-style booth which instantly measures temperature and sprays customers with a disinfectant mist.
Megasis was opened by Iranian diplomatic staff and senior Venezuelan government officials, including Vice President Delcy Rodriguez.
While running the store in Venezuela, Rezaei is also buying Venezuelan food products such as mangos and pineapples, as well as wood, to ship back to Iran.
Iranian Ambassador to Venezuela Hojjatollah Soltani praised the supermarket’s opening and growing Iranian-Venezuelan cooperation, saying that ‘despite the sanctions, despite the threats, we are two sister nations.’
Venezuelan-Iranian ties are presently characterised as a ‘strategic alliance’.
Relations improved significantly between 2005 and 2012, when then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran and then President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela established a personal rapport, which led to the signing of over two hundred bilateral agreements on everything from defence cooperation to trade, investment and regional and global ‘anti-imperialist’ initiatives.
Relations enjoyed another boost over the past two years, amid the tightening of sanctions pressure on both countries by the Trump administration.
- The Pentagon has meanwhile announced plans to position new ground-based missiles in the Indo-Pacific region, after the US scrapped the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) with Russia.
However, US allies, including the Philippines, South Korea and Japan have expressed opposition to the deployment of new strategic weapons on their territory.
The US is developing and preparing to deploy a variety of new missiles, including ‘long-range precision’ hypersonic weapons, in the Indo-Pacific region, US Army Chief of Staff General James McConville has confirmed.
‘We know we need long-range precision fires. That’s our number one priority and so we’re developing hypersonic capability right now, we’ve been successful in our tests.
‘We are going to have mid-range missiles that can sink ships. We think that’s very, very important for the anti-access/area denial capabilities that we may face,’ the general said, speaking at an event organised by the Washington-based Center for Strategic & International Studies last week.
Suggesting that it is ‘still being determined’ where new US military capabilities would be deployed, McConville said that the military’s objective was to ‘overmatch’ any prospective adversary in any possible conflict, with this expected to become possible through the comprehensive modernisation of the US military.
US military officials have expressed concerns over the growing size and technological sophistication of China’s naval and air forces in recent years, with Beijing surpassing the total number of US warships last year, and preparing to complement these numbers with added tonnage in the form of two new aircraft carriers and combined amphibious assault/helicopter carrying vessels.
Both countries are also racing toward the production and fielding of new hypersonic weapons.
In late June, US President Trump formally invoked an executive authority – ordinarily reserved for wartime – to direct civilian industry toward the production of components for hypersonic weapons.
The US is working on as many as nine separate air-, sea- and ground-launched hypersonic missiles, with the first expected to become operational by 2022.
Earlier this year, senior Pentagon officials admitted that the US was working to catch up to both China and Russia in the field of hypersonic weapons, pointing to ‘huge investments’ by Beijing in the field in recent years.
China unveiled its new hypersonic DF-17 short-medium range missile at the National Day military parade in October 2019. A year earlier, the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation successfully test launched the Xingkong-2 waverider hypersonic flight vehicle.