Ukraine cast aside as Iraqi factions, Hezb, Houthis crown Putin ‘Abu Ali’

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BAGHDAD, March 8, (AP): In a neighborhood of Iraq’s capital, a gigantic poster of Vladimir Putin with the words, “We support Russia,” was up for few hours before a security force arrived and hurriedly took it down. Then came the security directive: All public displays of Putin’s pictures shall be banned. In Lebanon, the powerful Hezbollah militia railed against the government’s condemnation of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, calling for neutrality. Such wrangling shows the deep divisions over the Ukraine war in the Middle East, where Moscow has embedded itself as a key player in recent years, making powerful friends among state and non-state actors while America’s influence waned.

Political elites closely allied with the West are wary of alienating Russia or the U.S. and Europe. But other forces – from Shiite militia factions in Iraq, to Lebanon’s Hezbollah group and Houthi rebels in Yemen – vocally support Russia against Ukraine. These groups are considered to be Iran’s boots on the ground in the so-called anti-U.S. “axis of resistance.” Putin won their backing largely because of his close ties with Tehran and his military intervention in Syria’s civil war in support of President Bashar Assad. They see Putin as a steady, reliable partner who, unlike the Americans, does not drop his allies. In their circles, they even have an affectionate nickname for Putin – “Abu Ali” – which is a common name among Shiite Muslims and meant to portray a certain comaraderie. Meanwhile, governments are walking a tightrope. “Iraq is against the war but has not condemned it nor taken a side,” said political analyst Ihsan Alshamary, who heads the Political Thought Think Tank in Baghdad. Iraq needs to remain neutral because it has shared interests with both Russia and the West, he said. He said Iran’s allies in the region are outspokenly with Russia “because they are anti-American and anti-West and believe that Russia is their ally.” Russia has invested up to $14 billion in Iraq and the northern Kurdish-run region, mainly focusing on the energy sector, Moscow’s ambassador Elbrus Kutrashev told the Iraqi Kurdish news agency Rudaw in a recent interview. Among the major oil companies operating in the country are Russia’s Lukoil, Gazprom Neft and Rosneft. Iraq also maintains close ties with the U.S., but Western companies have steadily been plotting to exit from Iraq’s oil sector.

Iraq’s strongest move so far came after its central bank advised the prime minister against signing new contracts with Russian companies or payments in light of U.S. sanctions. The decision will impact new Russian investment in the country, but little else, Russian industry officials said. Last week, Iraq was among the 35 countries that abstained from a U.N. General Assembly vote to demand that Russia stop its offensive and withdraw troops from Ukraine. Lebanon voted in favor, while Syria, where Russian ties run deep, voted against. Iran also abstained.

In Lebanon, an unusually blunt Foreign Ministry statement denouncing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine caused an uproar and upset the Russians, forcing the minister to clarify that Lebanon did not intend to take sides and would remain neutral. “They distance themselves and claim neutrality where they want, and they interfere and condemn where they want,” Hezbollah lawmaker Ibrahim Moussawi wrote on Twitter, taking aim at the Foreign Ministry. “What foreign policy does Lebanon follow, and what is Lebanon’s interest in that? Please clarify for us, foreign minister.” Hezbollah, which also sent thousands of fighters to neighboring Syria to shore up Assad’s forces, has seized on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to portray it as an inevitable result of U.S. provocations and yet another betrayal by the United States of its allies – in this case, Ukraine. In Syria, where Russia maintains thousands of troops, billboards proclaiming, “Victory for Russia” popped up in areas of Damascus this week. In opposition- held areas, which still get hit by Russian airstrikes, residents hope pressure will ease on them if Russia gets bogged down in fighting in Ukraine. In Iraq, the Ukraine war is highlighting divisions in an already fractured landscape during stalled efforts to form a new government, five months after parliament elections were held. The huge billboard in support of Putin was briefly put up in a Baghdad neighborhood considered a stronghold of powerful Iranian-backed militias. After it was removed, the Russian Embassy in Baghdad tweeted an image of it.

“The poster was provocative, I am against it,” said Athir Ghorayeb, who works at a nearby coffee shop. Iraq is only just emerging from decades of war and confl ict, he said. “Why do they insist on involving us in new problems?” Many Iraqis see in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine echoes of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of neighboring Kuwait and subsequent years-long economic sanctions placed on Iraq. It was only a few days ago that Iraq finished paying reparations to Kuwait which totaled more than $52 billion. On social media, Iraqi pages on Facebook with millions of followers have posted news of what is happening in Ukraine, sharing their views. “Our hearts are with the civilians, as those who have tasted war know its catastrophes,” posted one user, Zahra Obaidi. “We have tents for refugees and internally displaced people, so you’re welcome to come use them,” Hafidh Salih posted.

Toby Dodge, a professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics, said Iraq’s moves — abstaining from the U.N. vote while limiting economic activity — were prudent, managing the short-term risks without taking an ideological stance. But the longer the war drags on, the harder it will be to maintain this strategy. “Iraq is deeply divided politically amongst players between pro-Iran and those that are anti-Iran trying to assert autonomy. The Ukraine becomes another performance, another example of where either side can burnish their credentials,” he said. President Joe Biden announced Tuesday the U.S. will ban all Russian oil imports, toughening the toll on Russia’s economy in retaliation for its invasion of Ukraine, but he acknowledged it will bring costs to Americans, particularly at the gas pump. The action follows pleas by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to U.S. and Western officials to cut off the imports, which had been a glaring omission in the massive sanctions put in place on Russia over the invasion. Energy exports have kept a steady stream of cash fl owing to Russia despite otherwise severe restrictions on its financial sector. “We will not be part of subsidizing Putin’s war,” Biden declared, calling the new action a “powerful blow” against Russia’s ability to fund the ongoing offensive. He warned that Americans will see rising prices, saying, “Defending freedom is going to cost.” Biden said the U.S. was acting in close consultation with European allies, who are more dependent on Russian energy supplies and who he acknowledged may not be able to join in immediately.

The announcement marked the latest Biden attempt at cutting off Russia from much of the global economy and ensuring that the Ukraine invasion is a strategic loss President Vladimir Putin, even if he manages to seize territory. “Ukraine will never be a victory for Putin,” Biden said. The European Union this week will commit to phasing out its reliance on Russia for energy needs as soon as possible, but filling the void without crippling EU economies will likely take some time. Unlike the US, which is a major oil and gas producer, Europe relies on imports for 90% of its gas and 97% of its oil products. Russia supplies 40% of Europe’s gas and a quarter of its oil. The U.S. does not import Russian natural gas. The issue of oil sanctions has created a conflict for the president between political interests at home and efforts to impose costs on Russia. Though Russian oil makes up only a small part of U.S. imports, Biden has said he was reluctant to ban it, cutting into supplies here and pushing gasoline prices higher. Infl ation is at a 40-year peak, fueled in large part by gas prices, and that could hurt Biden heading into the November midterm elections. “Putin’s war is already hurting American families at the gas pump,” Biden said, adding, “I’m going to do everything I can to minimize Putin’s price hike here at home.”

Gas prices have been rising for weeks due to the conflict and in anticipation of potential sanctions on the Russian energy sector. The average price for a gallon of gasoline in the U.S. hit a record $4.17 Tuesday, rising by 10 cents in one day, and up 55 cents since last week, according to auto club AAA. Biden said it was understandable that prices were rising, but cautioned the U.S. energy industry against “excessive price increases” and exploiting consumers. Proposed U.S. aid for Ukraine and its European allies has grown beyond $12 billion, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Monday, as congressional bargainers worked toward a bipartisan government-wide spending deal that would also contain fresh sums for battling COVID-19.

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