The Iraqi protesters who briefly suspended their activities in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square last week to watch their national football team playing Iran on a large television screen erupted with joy as their players finally secured a 2-1 win over Iran to move four points clear of their old rivals at the top of Group C.
Across Iraq, crowds celebrated the stunning victory with dancing, singing, fireworks and raising Iraqi flags, effectively bringing the traffic to a halt for most of the night. Some jubilant fans also chanted “Iraq is free, and Iran should get out.”
For Iraqis who have been protesting against the country’s Shia-led government and seeking an end to the hegemony of the Islamic Republic in their country, more than football was at stake when Iraq faced Iran in the Jordanian capital Amman in a World Cup qualifier.
The ongoing protests in a larger sense are about the rise of Iraqi nationalism, which has been reduced to sect-based politics following the overthrow of the Sunni-dominated regime of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.
The demonstrations, which enter their second month next week, have been calling for the overturning of Iraq’s power-sharing sectarian system and Iran’s political influence in the country, which many Iraqis see as a main culprit for the rise of sectarianism in their country.
In many ways, the protest movement against sectarian politics has been transcending communal divides to oppose a political system that is rooted in division, dysfunction and corruption, and run by pro-Iran Shia political factions.
For more than 16 years, the Iraqis have been governed by what the country’s political elites call a “consensus democracy,” otherwise known as a quota system of power and wealth-sharing between Iraq’s different ethnicities.
But behind these lofty words is the idea that the political class has been monopolising politics and national wealth in the name of national consensus and communal cooperation.
This system of consensus democracy, or rather the misuse of the concept, is largely blamed for the corruption, chaos, conflict and extremism that have affected Iraq.
The mismanagement of the system has been behind the stirring up of sectarianism and, even worse, the promoting of Iran-backed Iraqi groups to further the agenda of the Islamic Republic in Iraq.
Consequently, sectarianism and rising Iranian influence have coupled together to undermine Iraqi national identity and threaten the very existence of the Iraqi nation.
For years, Iran’s hegemony over Iraq has been taken for granted thanks to the proxies it has employed to extend its power and political influence in the country and fend off resistance to its interference.
Nevertheless, over the years Iraqis have been losing faith in the sectarian order. A new generation of Iraqis has been rising in the shadow of the Iranian influence, and they have seen Tehran punch above its weight in Iraq by employing its proxies and ideology.
Indeed, Iranian meddling in Iraqi affairs has started to backfire, and Iran’s political, economic, cultural and security influences have eventually provoked patriotic sentiments and a new assertiveness of Iraqi patriotism and national values.
As the current uprising has escalated and with evidence showing that Iranian-backed militias have been implicated in the violence against the protesters, Iraqis have increased their demands that their leadership stop accommodating pro-Iran political, cultural and paramilitary groups lest they push the country into falling under Iran’s domination.
In other words, what started as a peaceful demonstration against government corruption and mismanagement in Iraq has turned into an effective tool to revive an Iraqi nationalism that the post-Saddam order tried to suppress for the sake of the declared objective of accommodating Iraq’s ethnic and religious diversity.
Iraqi nationalism emerged with the establishment of the modern Iraqi state after the collapse of the former Ottoman Empire following World War I. It began asserting itself in the belief that Iraqis were part of a nation and in promoting the discourse of cultural unity of Iraqis of all backgrounds.
Iraqi nationalism has involved the recognition of an Iraqi identity stemming from the civilisations of ancient Mesopotamia. Iraqi nationalism also influenced Iraq’s movement for independence from the British occupation.
Iraqi nationalism was an important factor in building the post-independence state and Iraq’s domestic and regional politics. With regard to domestic affairs, it was key in the protests and later revolution against the country’s British-installed Hashemite monarchy and in trying to unite the Iraqi ethnicities behind a one-nation perception based on a common heritage.
On the other hand, the newly independent state of Iraq also faced the daunting task of combining Iraqi nationalism with the much broader concept of Arab nationalism, which was the dominant political ideology in the aftermath of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and during the new challenges posed by colonialism and Zionist plans to create a Jewish state in Palestine.
With its ancient and Islamic history, rich human and material resources, and strong potential, Iraq emerged as one of the Arab world’s de facto leaders, something many of its rulers have also aspired to or pursued throughout its modern history.
This narrative went that Iraq with its political, economic and human “excess of power” was “the Germany of the Middle East” and could be a catalyst for Arab unity and the champion of the struggle against the enemies of the Arabs.
In the minds of many of Iraq’s neighbours and the world powers, this narrative of Iraq as a dominant power on the regional stage was the driving force behind Saddam’s decisions to go to war with Iran in 1980 and with the US-led International Coalition after his invasion of Kuwait in 1991.
Though that perception has been widely debated, the question of Iraqi nationalism remained at the centre of discussions about both Iraq’s domestic and external politics until the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 that ushered in a new era for the country.
The US Occupation Authority established an ethno-sectarian political system in Iraq under a weak and fractured regime that created an unstable and chaotic country and shattered its political, military, economic and societal potential.
Effectively, nationalism in post-invasion Iraq was relegated to the sidelines, putting Iraq at a geostrategic disadvantage and its neighbours and regional competitors in a favourable situation.
Today, the revival of Iraqi nationalism is receiving attention once again as the current protest movement puts countering Iran’s influence on its agenda. This nationalism is even expected to make a strong return to the forefront of Iraqi domestic politics and foreign relations.
For Iran, which has managed to gain huge influence in Iraq that includes political, economic and cultural assets that it has used to maximise its position, the rise of Iraqi nationalism could be a nightmare.
With the previous rivalry with the Saddam regime in mind, one of Iran’s main worries is the presence of a hostile regime in Iraq that could be incorporated into an anti-Iran regional alliance and upset the balance of power that Iran now sees as operating in its favour.
Yet, the revival of Iraqi nationalism could also be worrying to the rest of Iraq’s neighbours and beyond. These fear that a new Iraq could emerge that would stand up forcefully to rectify the ill effects of the 2003 invasion on Iraq’s sovereignty and its interests.
They are worried that should the present uprising culminate in success, the Iraqis would consider the invasion and the ensuing destruction of their country and human suffering, as well as the meddling by Iraq’s neighbours in Iraq’s affairs, as a point of origin for the coup against Iraqi nationalism.
This fear of an Iraqi nationalist revival has been well exemplified by the US Foreign Policy journal, believed to be a publication which helps shape the views of US elites. In a banner headline last week, the journal included an article claiming that “Iraqi Nationalism is Back and the United States Should be Worried.”
“Iraqi nationalism is not generally associated with good tidings in the Middle East,” the journal wrote, reminding American policy-makers that “mitigating the nefarious effects of Iraqi nationalism became the main preoccupation of the United States in the 1990s.”
“Iraqi nationalism leaves the United States’ ability to operate in that country just as exposed as the protests leave Iran’s presence,” it added, with a stern warning to take “a leap of faith to see the mélange coming together to produce a pro-American outcome.”
But are the sceptics right to start raising the red flag and setting off alarm bells only because Iraqis are taking pride in their football victory or demanding that their country should be free from Iranian hegemony?
Is it not wrong to condemn the peaceful rise of patriotism and its effects on the regional balance of power just because Iraqis are rejecting sectarianism and aspiring for an Iraq free of foreign influence?
This kind of Iraqi nationalism that aims at nation-building and a drive towards the future does not have a political programme associated with it beyond the desire for independence from foreign influence and a revival of the Iraqi national identity.
The Iraqi uprising is continuing, and the prospects that it will succeed in combating Iranian hegemony in Iraq are good. It would be prudent, therefore, for concerns about Iraq’s rising nationalism not to lapse into hysteria.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.