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Iraq’s protest exposed Iran’s tightened grip

Why Iran sees anti-corruption protests in Iraq as a threat to its influence in the neighbouring country, writes Salah Nasrawi

Salah Nasrawi , Tuesday 22 Oct 2019
Iraq’s protest exposed Iran’s tightened grip
Iraqi security forces chase anti-government protesters in Baghdad photo: AP

From the moment anti-government protests engulfed many parts of Iraq earlier this month, Iranian officials and media were quick to condemn the uprising as orchestrated by the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia, Iran’s arch enemies.

The nation-wide protests that started on 1 October have rocked Iraq, killing more than 100 people and wounding thousands. They have reflected the Iraqis’ anger and frustration about what they see as government dysfunction and political cronyism.

Rampant government corruption, high unemployment, and the dismal state of public services and essential infrastructure have led to growing discontent in recent years, causing demonstrations and clashes with the security forces and leading to deaths, injuries and arrests.

The government has used force to quell the protests in the past, but in recent demonstrations the security forces’ response has been brutal. The vast majority of the casualties have been protesters who were shot by live rounds. Many were killed and wounded by shots to the head, neck and chest.

The exceptional ruthlessness with which the security forces have dealt with the protesters has sparked an outcry and raised questions about who is behind the brutal tactics that have led to many casualties.

Activists and human-rights advocates hold the security forces responsible for the bloodshed by using excessive force. They have also accused unidentified snipers who have fired from rooftops or infiltrated the demonstrations for most of the killings. Footage on social networks show men in uniform firing directly on the demonstrators.

The massacres have revived the memory of the cruelty of the regime of former dictator Saddam Hussein, of whom many Iraqis still share stories of brutality, torture, fear and death. 

In his first public statement about the demonstrations, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi accused the protesters of the destruction of property, deliberate attacks on the security forces, and undermining the country’s peace and stability.

But as the government has failed to stop the carnage against the protesters, many Iraqis have raised concerns about the role of the Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF), the paramilitary organisation which groups together Iraq’s Iran-backed Shia militias.

Civil-rights groups, activists and residents have shared videos that show members of these militias using force against the protesters and sometimes firing on protesters who appeared to be showing no hostility towards them.

Independent international media outlets have also affirmed the deployment of the snipers. On 17 October, Reuters reported that Iran-backed militias had been deployed in this month’s deadly protests and that many of their members had operated as snipers against the protesters.

Quoting Iraqi security officers, the British news agency said that it had “confirmed evidence” that the snipers were elements of Shia militias that were “very close to the Iranians” and reporting directly to their commander in the PMF.

One officer told Reuters that militiamen clad in black had shot protesters from rooftops in one Baghdad neighbourhood. A Reuters cameraman covering the unrest near Baghdad’s Tahrir Square also said he had seen at least one sniper on top of an under-construction building that overlooked the demonstrations.

Reuters said the fighters were directed by Abu Zainab Al-Lami, head of security for the Hashd, the Arabic name of the PMF, who has been tasked with quashing the protests. US intelligence reports described Al-Lami as a close ally of Iran charged with cracking down on opponents.

The deployment of the Shia Iran-backed militia fighters underscores Iran’s increasing power in Iraq and shows how the Islamic Republic exploits Iraq’s chaotic politics to promote its interests.

Iran-backed militias have become a fixture in Iraq as a result of Tehran’s rising influence. Though the Iraqi government claims that the militias working under the PMF’s umbrella are part of its own armed forces, the militias retain their own command structures.

A spokesman for the Hashd denied that the groups had taken part in the crackdown.  Iraqi Interior Ministry Spokesman Saad Maan blamed unnamed “vicious” shooters for the mass deaths and injuries.

Whether the PMF snipers acted on their own or under instructions from Abdul-Mahdi, officially commander-in-chief of the Iraqi armed forces including the PMF, remains an open question.

Many Iraqis have connected the dots back to Iran and held up the militias’ role in the crackdown as evidence of what they see as an Iranian-orchestrated effort to foil the uprising by using rogue Shia militias that are directly answerable to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Iranian leaders and media have waded into the crisis in Iraq by suggesting that the uprising was not home-made and have lambasted the demonstrators as foreign stooges.

The hardline Iranian Keyhan newspaper said the “evidence” pointed to the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel being involved in the protests.

Iran accused its foes of deliberately stirring up trouble at a time when Iranian pilgrims were heading to Iraq for the Arbaeen pilgrimage to the holy city of Karbala, a major religious event maerkd on 19 October.

Since the fall of the regime of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iran has been using these events to demonstrate its power in Iraq.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei added his weight to the reports and accused unnamed enemies of seeking to “sow discord” between Iran and Iraq.

“Iran and Iraq are two nations whose hearts and souls are tied together through faith in God and love for the Imam Hussein and the progeny of the Prophet [Mohamed]. This bond will grow stronger day by day,” he wrote on Twitter.

Such statements are increasingly deepening suspicions among many Iraqis of what they see as Iran’s encroaching control over their country’s affairs and Tehran’s broader effort to undermine Iraq’s sovereignty.

Although power outages, rising unemployment and rampant government corruption have led to growing discontent in recent years, many people are believed to have rebelled against the rising Iranian influence and the humiliation it produces.

Neither the state of government’s dysfunction nor the louche behaviour of prominent politicians can long distract Iraqis from their greatest fear – of the strategy employed by Iran to expand its political, economic, security and ideological influence in their country.

Indeed, as Iran continues to push its roots deeper into Iraq, a culture of patriotism and national pride is shoring up resistance to Tehran and its proxies in the country.

Many protesters have voiced concerns that the Islamic Republic is making Iraqis foreigners in their own country and have shouted out slogans demanding that Iran get “out” of Iraq.

Noticeably, the protests have engulfed mainly Shia provinces where Iran has been using the militias it sponsors and their military and security roles to solidify its position as the protector of Iraq’s Shia community.

Many Iraqis lament the dark path that the Iraqi-Iranian relationship is currently on and have voiced concerns that Persian Iran is imposing a political and cultural hegemony over the largely Arab-populated country.

In fact, many Iraqis believe that Iran is seeking to reshape Iraq’s national identity as part of efforts to expand its cultural and religious influence in the country.

The Iraqis are awaiting the results of a probe ordered by Abdul-Mahdi after Iraqi grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani demanded an inquiry into the killings of the protesters.

There are increasing fears that the commission to investigate the deaths, which has delayed the publication of its results, may be trying to whitewash the militias’ involvement.

A report that extenuated the role of the militias in the violent crackdowns could fuel public anger as Iraqis prepare for a new round of protests this Friday.

More unrest will be the steepest challenge facing Iran’s influence in Iraq, as Tehran faces similar problems in Lebanon this week as protests continue in an uprising against a sectarian political system nourished by Iran through its Lebanese proxies.

The bottom line, therefore, is that Iran is now facing the staunchest resistance in Iraq it has seen in years and demands to dislodge its influence in Iraq. The crisis could be another defining moment for Iran’s ambitions in the Arab country.


*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.


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