Hajji Putin, the Shiite

Russian president 'Abdulamir Abutin' is pretty popular in Iraq


Here's a tongue-in-cheek story making the rounds among Iraqi Shiites, a secret genealogy inspired by Russian president Vladimir Putin's military entry into the war in Syria, and his bombing of Assad's Sunni enemies. It's passed along by Agence France-Presse (AFP):

"Putin's father was an Iraqi grocer from the Shiite south, near Nasiriyah, who introduced figs ("tin" in Arabic) to local markets and thus became known as 'Abu Tin.'

"After World War II, he moved to the Soviet Union, married 'a blonde Russian girl' and named their son Abdulamir. That proved a bit of a mouthful for locals who Russianized it into Vladimir."

The punchline, obviously, is that Vladimir Putin is revealed as Abdulamir Abutin, secret Iraqi Shiite, now come to deliver fellow Iraqis from the murderous predations of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The story is just one example of Putin's sudden popularity among Iraqis. For one thing, his strong-arm style plays well in the region; he's a Russian version of the Middle Eastern za'im, the headman to whom a community (or an entire country) defers. Iraqis are welcoming him to the region as a defender and a champion, and, as the Abdulamir Abutin story illustrates, have affectionately Arabized him.

"I have been waiting for Russia to get involved," a Baghdad artist told AFP. "They get results. The United States and its allies on the other hand have been bombing for a year and achieved nothing."

"We don't want the international coalition," a second Iraqi said. "We want only Russia and we will slaughter a sheep to welcome them."

Yet another Iraqi told the wire service that Putin is the only reason he hasn't already fled the country for Europe. "I thank Putin because he convinced me to stay in Iraq," said a cab driver in Najaf. "Hajji Putin is better than Hussein Obama." (A hajj is a Muslim who has fulfilled the religious obligation to make a pilgrimage to Mecca.)

Actually, such "Hajji Putin" references have a long history. Iraqis have welcomed other foreign forces in similar ways when they thought they might lead to a desirable outcome. For example, when Iraqis were anxious to be rid of the Ottomans, they welcomed British soldiers, calling Britain "Abu Naji" ("Father of the Rescuer"). American forces were greeted with cheers and sweets by many Iraqis. It was in Najaf, where AFP did much of its reporting about 'Hajji Putin', that the welcoming cry of "Democracy! Whiskey! Sexy!" was heard. Iraqis, as one Baghdadi has lamented, have a history of pinning their hopes on outsiders.

Do Iraqis have any good reasons to pin their hopes on Putin? There's no obvious reason to think that Putin cares much about either Iraq or even about Syria, beyond the fate of Russia's Mediterranean base in Tartus. 

Politico recently ran a round-up of 14 Putinologists speculating on the Russian president's actual aims in the Middle East. Some thought that his interests were in ending the diplomatic isolation imposed on him as a result of his actions in Ukraine (an aim he achieved); others that he was making Syria a bargaining chip in future negotiations over Ukraine. Some thought he was reasserting Russia's status as an "indispensable" nation; others that the real target of his actions was the Russian public. Some thought the purpose was to humiliate President Barack Obama and the West; others thought that Putin was making up an ad-hoc policy as he went along and that he wasn't really thinking ahead at all.

Fighting ISIS was the least of Putin's aims, if was an aim at all, according to these observers, none of whom thought Iraq worth a substantive mention. 

"The Russians have shown a willingness to accept and even encourage the creation of so-called failed states and frozen conflicts from Georgia to Moldova to Ukraine," note Robert Gates and Condoleezza Rice in The Washington Post. "Why should Syria be any different? If Moscow's 'people' can govern only a part of the state but make it impossible for anyone else to govern the rest of it—so be it." Nor, they add, has the well-being of the population been a Russian concern, either.

Of course, an ungovernable Syria, outside the Alawite redoubt that Bashar al-Assad still controls, would also mean an Iraq still plagued by ISIS, and those jokes about 'Hajji Putin' would be bitter ones at the expense of the Iraqis themselves.