Protests in Iraq are Turning Up the Heat on Iran

Despite Promises, the Government in Baghdad Has Yet to Satisfy Demonstrators’ Demands

Masses of people have taken to the streets of Baghdad and several southern provinces, angry over corruption, poor public services and lack of jobs in the largest protests to hit Iraq since 2005, shaking the foundations of the government. Demonstrators accuse Iran and Iran-backed politicians of of controlling Iraq and harming the country's interests. The protesters are calling for the resignation of key government figures, the dissolution of parliament and provincial councils, electoral reforms, and a rewrite of the constitution.  Since the beginning of October, over 270 Iraqis have been killed and thousands injured. Roads are blocked and schools shut down. Many Iraqis fear an even bigger confrontation could occur between protesters and government security forces that include Iran-backed former militia members. 

The protests have exposed long-simmering resentment at Iran’s influence in the country, with protesters targeting Shia political parties and militias with close ties to Tehran. In a country that is OPEC’s second-largest oil producer, impoverished residents complain that powerful Shiite militias tied to Iran have built economic empires, taking control of state reconstruction projects and branching into illicit business activities. In years past, Iraqis have beaten their shoes against portraits of Saddam Hussein in a sign of anger and insult, but now protesters in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square are using their shoes again — slapping them against banners depicting Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader. At least three people were shot dead when protesters attacked the Iranian consulate in the Iraqi holy city of Karbala on last week. The protesters, who demanded that Iran stop interfering in Iraq's internal affairs, climbed the consulate's walls, bringing down an Iranian flag and replacing it with the Iraqi flag.


The public are angered by the increasing death toll across the country. Most of those deaths occurred during the first week of the demonstrations, when snipers shot into crowds from Baghdad rooftops. Amnesty international have warned that police are using two variants of military grade gas that are ten times heavier than the standard canisters that shatter skulls when directly fired at protesters.


Jassim Mohamed, a Counterterrorism & Intelligence researcher based in Germany, told Majalla that many protesters blame Iran and the Revolutionary guards for deadly violence against protesters. “It is believed that Iran the Revolutionary Guards, in coordination with the militias, are carrying out organised terrorist acts against demonstrators, such as kidnapping, sniping and killing, to scare the demonstrators,” he said.


He explains that as these protests pose a threat to political parties who are connected to Iran, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, as well as Shia militias, who fear that the uprising will put an end to their powers in Iraq.


Tehran has vested strategic interests in Iraq’s political orders being Iran-friendly, as they remain critical in countering the influence of the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other regional actors and therefore it is determined to save its strongholds in Iraq. The arrival of Iranian Gen. Qassim Soleiman, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force and the architect of its regional security apparatus, in Baghdad last month, signaled Tehran’s concern over the protests. The day after Soleimani’s visit, the clashes between the protesters and security forces in Iraq became far more violent.


The government has expressed suspicion that a third party is playing a role in provoking greater violence, through using snipers who shoot to kill. Interior Ministry spokesman Saad Maan said at a press conference that “malicious hands” were targeting protesters and security forces alike.


Sabah Noori, a spokesman for Iraq's counterterrorism forces, told Majalla that the Iraqi security forces are doing their best to protect the protesters from armed militias who are trying to “turn the peaceful protests to violence to fulfil their agenda” and that they are working closely with the Iraqi counterterrorism unit to stop them.


According to Iraqi Security expert Saeed al-Jayashi “the Iraqi security forces are able to distinguish between the peaceful protestors expressing patriotic demands, and those that want to cause harm.” However, he told Majalla that he holds the government responsible for not doing enough to stop those who are blocking roads and bridges to disrupt public life.


Protesters are now escalating their tactics, saying civil disobedience is their only recourse. On Wednesday, they blocked the entrance to the southern Nassiriya oil refinery, security and oil sources said. They stopped tankers that transport fuel to gas stations from entering the refinery, causing fuel shortages. Thousands have been blocking all roads leading to Iraq’s main Gulf port Umm Qasr, near Basra. Operations at the port, which receives most of Iraq’s imports of grain, vegetable oils and sugar, have been at a complete standstill for a week. The Umm Qasr blockade has cost the country more than $6 billion so far.


Iraqi demonstrators set tires ablaze behind the walls protecting the Iranian consulate in the Shiite Muslim shrine city of Karbala, south of Iraq's capital Baghdad, during the night of November 3, 2019. (Getty)



Prime Minister Abdel Abdul-Mahdi who came to power after elections last year produced a 6-month political deadlock as a compromise candidate between populist Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his main political rival Hadi al-Amiri, whose alliance of Iran-backed militias is the second-largest political force in parliament, has promised to resign after a successor is named. Iraq's President Barham Salih has called for early elections after parliament passed a new election law. However, there is no consensus on who

would be an acceptable successor to Abdul Mahdi and while protesters have been demanding change that begins with the prime minister, they certainly don’t not end there. While political elites jostled over Abdul Mahdi’s fate, ten of thousands of protesters from across Iraq’s sectarian and ethnic divides thronged Baghdad’s Tahrir Square in a show of fury saying his resignation would not be enough and demanded an end to the entire governing system of identity-based, sectarian power-sharing.


Noori told Majalla that the resignation of Abdul-Mahdi is not a reasonable way out of the crisis and that the solution requires “all three components of the government – the president, the parliament and the cabinet –to come together to bring about constitutional amendments that meet the protester’s demands.” 


Noori expressed hope that parliament’s move to open-up the constitution to amendments could resolve the current crisis. “I think if we succeed in amending the constitution, we will reach a solution as many of the problems we are facing now in Iraq are tied it.”


According to al-Jayashi, whether the government is dissolved is not the issue, “what’s important is that we focus on meaningful change.”


“The current political solutions proposed will not bring about the real change that the protesters are demanding,” he added.


Al-Jayashi also explained that the protests have sparked a destructive blame game amongst the political parties. “Some political parties blame the government, some shirk their responsibility, and others are still not on the right road to accomplishing what the protesters are demanding.”


Under mounting pressure, Iraqi parliament took drastic steps on October 28 to try to abate anti-government protests, voting to dissolve provincial and local councils, cut privileges of top government officials, and form a committee tasked with amending the constitution within four months. The bid to rewrite Iraq’s 2005 constitution has been accepted and promoted by political elites, some of whom were involved it its original drafting. The first meeting of a parliamentary committee formed last month to oversee the drafting took place in Parliament on Tuesday, with officials hoping it would help to meet the public's demands and calm weeks of protests. So far, the plans proposed by the government, which could take months to implement, have had no effect on appeasing frustrated demonstrators.


Although their motivations may not as aligned with those of the protesters, political figures’ support of constitutional change represents an important opportunity in the ongoing protests.  There is a belief within the protest movement that the constitution’s lack of legitimacy has resulted in the flawed system, and that, by extension, an amendment to this constitution would be a solution to alleviate many grievances. But as, Marsin Alshamary and Safwan Al-Amin write in The Washington Post, “the same delegitimising factors that existed in forming the constitution in 2005 – being rushed and drafted under foreign influence – arguably still exist in Iraq.”


They added that the current approach being considered by the political elite to rewrite or amend the constitution may fail to meet the constitutional requirements, but “amending and rewriting the constitution in a way that reflects the national consensus meaningfully, on the other hand, would signal to the protesters that their voices are being heard.”


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