There has hardly been any positive news coming out of Iraq in nearly four decades and after the bloody eight-year war with Iran (1980-1988) that left millions of Iraqis killed, injured or missing in one of the bloodiest and longest wars of the 20th century and with enormous economic losses for Iraq alone. That war was followed just two years later by the invasion of neighbouring Kuwait by former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.
The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the military campaigns that were then launched against the country to force it to liberate it followed by a decade of economic sanctions left Iraq battered on all levels. However, as disastrous as the 1991 war on Iraq was, it was nothing compared to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and what followed. Mayhem has been reigning in the country up until the present day, and this has included sectarian violence, terrorist attacks and the rise of terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS).
One thing that has characterised the Iraqi political spectrum over recent decades has been the fact that the fate of the Iraqi people has not been decided by the Iraqis alone even with the tyrant Saddam Hussein in power. Their fate has usually been decided in Moscow, Washington or Tehran, with both Turkey and Saudi Arabia attempting to influence the political players on the ground or through military incursions in the Turkish case. It is high time that the fate of Iraq was restored to its own people to decide.
The current uprising of the Iraqi people may be unprecedented in its magnitude and momentum. The demonstrators are calling for massive changes to the political system that has established sectarianism within the country and become a stepping-stone for regional political influence. Many Iraqis believe that the Iranian regime’s greedy eyes have been targeting Iraq for decades to avenge its losses during the Iraq-Iran War and expand its influence in the region. With Shia Muslims a majority in Iraq, the Iranians have not held back in infiltrating the political spectrum of the country, especially after the US-led invasion of Iraq that was a blessing in disguise for Iran.
The Iranians have managed to keep their economic, political and military influence in Iraq at the highest levels. Their infiltration became open during former Iraqi prime minister Nouri Al-Maliki’s time in office (2006-2014), with his ties to the Iranians dating back to the Iraq-Iran War. Al-Maliki’s Islamic Daawa Party backed the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and even went as far as to back Iran’s former leader Ayatollah Khomeini during the Iraq-Iran War. The party still receives financial and political support from Iran. This bizarre behaviour has cemented sectarianism within Iraq, making the Iraqi government become a puppet regime controlled from Tehran.
Sunni Islamists and terrorist groups capitalised on this unholy alliance between the former Iraqi prime minister and Iran. They managed to recruit and rally many Sunni Iraqis to their vile cause, and the rise of the Islamic State (IS) group in Iraq and Syria was merely a by-product of this policy. Iraq thus became a hotbed for sectarian terrorism for over a decade, with Iran-backed militias such as the Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi or the Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF), founded by Al-Maliki, being comprised of over 40 predominantly Shia Muslim militias.
While the PMF helped to fight the likes of Al-Qaeda and IS in the country and curb the expansion of these terrorist groups, it was also seen by many observers to be applying its own version of atrocities in Iraq, including ethnic cleansing against the Sunni population in the region of Tikrit. These accusations were filed by the international rights group Amnesty International, and the Iraqi government vowed to investigate them but without any results thus far.
Concerns at the growing size of the PMF have grown recently, as the powerful militia has been growing in influence and still retains its allegiance to Iran. Eye-witnesses report that the group is being used to quell the current uprising across Iraq, including by violently attacking, kidnapping, torturing and killing the protesters. The group is thus mimicking the influence exercised by the Shia group Hizbullah in Lebanon, which was once called the “resistance” against the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon, but after the Israeli withdrawal in 2000 continued to expand its activities and became a political player that pledged allegiance to Iran and thus became a parallel army and a state within a state in the country as a whole.
Both the PMF in Iraq and Hizbullah in Lebanon are similar to the Iran-backed terrorist group the Houthis in Yemen, which was instrumental in igniting the current civil war in that country.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi protests have taken a violent turn, with over 260 protesters reportedly killed and thousands of others wounded in clashes with the security forces across the country. Internet services have been cut by the Iraqi government, and while it was reported that these services resumed last week, reports of erratic services are ongoing. The protesters are demanding improvements in public services in Iraq, including in healthcare, electricity provision, transportation and education, all of which have reached an abysmal state due to the decades of war and civil strife that have struck the country.
This time around the Iraqi protesters do not seem ready to relent from their demands, and they have been escalating their protests by the day. While Iraq has witnessed many uprisings over the past decade, the 2019 protests seem to be the most persistent and violent the country has yet seen. The Iraqis do not wish to see their country become a battlefield for regional and international proxy wars, or a hotbed of sectarian violence and terrorism. There are now two generations of Iraqis who have not witnessed a day of peace since they were born. This country with its great history, economic potential and strategic importance can and ought to do much better.
For the past three decades, Iraq’s enormous oil wealth has been a target for regional and international powers that have left no stones unturned in their desire to control it. Iraq can still be a massive oil-producer and a leading country in the region. However, its lack of a unified national leadership and the regional and international interventions in its domestic affairs have hindered and still hinder the great potential of the country. This time around, young and older Iraqis have had enough, and they all wish to restore their country’s stability and build a new Iraq that will truly fulfil its potential.
It is unlikely that the older politics and the older political figures who have failed their country and its citizens for decades will have a place in the future Iraq. But they will likely take desperate measures before they capitulate to the demands of the Iraqi public.
There are no signs that the protests in Iraq are on their way to fading out, and the attempts by the Iran-backed militias and the Iraqi authorities to crush the rebellion will only lead it to grow and become more violent. Only massive concessions by the current government and the establishment of a new republic in the country will save Iraq from descending into further chaos and repeating the vicious cycles of violence that it has suffered over the past four decades.
The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.