The peaceful revolution of the Iraqi protesters to terminate an era of state dysfunctionality and endemic corruption is about to be overshadowed by the US-Iran escalation on Iraq’s territories. The Washington’s decision to kill Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani, an Iranian major general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and head of Quds Force, in Baghdad Airport, and later Tehran’s response with missile strikes on two Iraqi military bases housing US troops escalated the never-ending hostilities between the two countries to a new ground unlike before. Furthermore, since 2003 Iraq has become one of their main playgrounds that has been the main reason for instability and now it is threatening the reform seeking protests that occupied Iraq’s major cities since October 2019.
The latest escalation outshined the Iraq’s peaceful protests not just in the media, but it gave excuses to Iraqi security forces and pro-Iranian militias to crack down on them farther while many of the protest-organizers were targeted through assassinations and threats without getting any media attention. The ruling elite exploited the US attacks to stage anti-American protests parallel to the reform-seeking protests which does not just redirected the public and media attention from their three months movement, but it hinted that these two protesting forces are in odd with each other. One side against the US’s aggression and not respecting the Iraqi sovereignty, another side is portrayed as enemies of the country which works for a foreign agenda.
Apart from its devastating security, economic, and political effects, the Iran-US conflict has created an environment for the security forces and militias to increase their attacks and oppression on peaceful protests in the center of major Iraqi cities such as Baghdad, Nasiriyah, Najaf, Basra, and Karbala. Many activists and protest organizers have raised their concerns about using this regional tension to crack down on the peaceful protests before realizing their demands for better governance, more employment opportunities, and removing current ruling elite that have led Iraq since 2003 regime change. Over the past two days, 12 protesters were killed and 127 others wounded in addition to arresting 89 ones, according to Iraqi High Commission of Human Rights, Baghdad based organization.
Concerned by the implications of the US-Iran regional conflicts, since last week protesters moved out in their designated areas in city centers and tried to block some high ways and major streets just to increase their pressures on the ruling elite. They have faced the security forces’ live ammunition and smoke-bombs. It is very possible, that the protesting voice of thousands of young Iraqis disappear within the commotion of the US-Iran conflicts and then the US-Iraq diplomatic problems. Consequently, it would give an open hand to the security forces to use extreme violence against protesters without even reaching local and international media, that has been a key factor to make Iraqi respond to some protesters’ demands.
Killing Soleimani dramatically shifted people’s attention from the reform oriented protests to the US-Iran direct confrontations. “This was just to kill the Iraq’s soul and revolution. We were struggling for better governance, but they made us and the country hostage in the middle of a regional missile battle,” Said, Fazil al-Shamari, one of the activists participated in protests in Iraq’s capital city Baghdad. The activist’s concern over the US-Iran conflict is coming from the reality that he, and thousands of his peers, have faced harsh ways of terrorizing and intimidations that killed more than 600 Iraqis protesters and injured thousands more since last October. However, their current efforts can easily be for nothing, if the tension escalates, and they are more vulnerable compare to any other time because the country is in the middle of crisis and it is not the right time for reforms.
The ruling elite and their militias did not hesitate exploiting the conflict to crack down on the protesters. On January 8, 2020, the militia men used the mourning ceremonies of Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis (deputy chairman of Iraq’s Public Mobilization Units/PMU that was killed in the same airstrike) in Nasiriyah to attack protesters who were gathering in Al-Haboubi Square, and setting their tents on fire. On the same day, security forces withdrew from protesters’ designated area in Basrah, leaving them to the mercy of the militias, according to eyewitnesses and activists from the both cities.
The branches of the PMU forces that define themselves as Resistance Factions (Fasail al-Muqawama) known for supporting the ruling elite, used the mourning ceremonies in most of the cities and neighborhoods to outshine protests and victimize themselves, trying to gain back the reputation they lost due to their support for the ruling elite while attacking on protesters in the past three months.
Destroying the Iraq’s Already Weak Institutions
40 years of continuous wars, instabilities, and internal upheavals left Iraq with fragile and weak institutions that can’t resist any internal and regional shocks. Both the United States and Iran have used the weak state institutions, trying to consolidate their regional influences and protect their interests. Currently, they are using Iraqi territories to score their gains. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and some Gulf Arab Countries also use Iraq as a battle ground for their conflicting interests.
These regional conflicts farther jeopardized Iraq’s weak stability that also made protesters review their set of demands. Now, respecting Iraq’s sovereignty and protecting it from all the regional and global powers is one of their key demands, according to Yousif al-Hashimi, independent journalist tracking protests in Dhi-Qar and other southern provinces.
Iraq is extremely vulnerable to any instability and devastating conflict as a result of the US-Iran tensions since the both sides have leverages on Iraq’s politics, security, and economy. They basically have played crucial roles in setting up the political arrangements that have given birth to the post 2003 Iraqi governments, from Ayad Allawi to Adil Abdul-Mahdi.
American and Iranian Leverages in Iraq
Iraq has depended on the US and the U.S. led international coalition in its war against the so called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which occupied one-third of the country’s territories in 2014. The U.S. and coalition advisers are still in the country to prevent ISIS resurgence. For its financial stability, Iraq’s central bank also depends on the American Federal Reserve to access Iraq’s oil revenue in U.S. dollars. The oil revenues in US dollars (which comprises more than 95% of the country’s exports) have been used to support Iraqi Dinar. Once the flow of the U.S dollars decrease, Iraqi Dinar is expected to depreciate and the market will face the issues of inflation. Similar to what happened in Iran and Venezuela.
Plus, the US also has many allies within the Iraq’s current ruling elite, and they have always sought American supports and intervention in Iraq’s affairs to contain Iranian backed political parties and armed groups in Iraq. Moreover, Iraqi government needs the US Administration to grant it a waiver on the U.S. sanctions against Iran to buy natural gas and electricity, which provides one third of Iraq’s power supply.
Likewise, Iran has 1,458 kilometers border with Iraq and about $12 billion bilateral trade. It has close ties to several armed groups of Iraq’s PMU organizations in addition to many politicians who used to live in Iran while opposing the Saddam Hussein Regime from late 1979 till 2003. Iran, which also helped Iraqi armed and security forces in their war against ISIS, enjoys closer relations and alliance with many powerful Iraqi politicians and military leaders.
In addition to its Shia allies, through various ways of intimidations and threats Iran can get the leaders of Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Arab Sunnis to accept its agenda and long term plans. The KRG’s trade relations and economic ties with Iran are worth $6 billion. Many of the politicians who are supposed to represent Arab Sunni provinces came through the Iranian support, so they can’t become a threat to the Iranian agenda in the country. Iran functions like a spider with strings connected to most of the decision-makers in Iraq, and it can easily pull the strings and redirect the events.
Following the recent Iran-US conflict, Iraqi protesters have changed their demands to more specific national goals. Previously, they used the slogan of “We need a homeland” as a common banner to their anti-corruption slogans. But now, they are asking to respect and protect Iraq’s sovereignty, prevent all regional and international powers’ interferences in Iraq’s internal affairs, including Iran, the US, and other neighboring countries. Now, they focus on forming a transitional government consisted of a new set of politicians (away from the current ruling elite). They are demanding to pass fair electoral laws and form a new electoral commission to organize early elections. Also, the new elected parliament agenda to regulate political parties’ activities in a way to limit their manipulation of state institution, according to Al-Hashmi.
Many MPs, politicians, and activists have raised their concerns over the Iran-US conflict in Iraq. Former Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, on his Twitter account, called not to use Iraq as a theater for the regional conflicts, and asked the Iraq’s Federal leaders to think about Iraqi interests and people before other nations’ interests. The Allawi’s statement was the result of a common understanding that many Iraqi officials have prioritized Iranian and American interests before Iraq’s.
The Iraqi media coverage is also divided over the Iran-US agendas. The political parties and groups that enjoy good relations with Iran have demonized protesters, while anti-Iran media promote the protesters’ demands and usually amplify the Iraqi government’s poor management of the crisis, according to Al-Hashimi.
However, neither side serves the end goal of Iraqi protesters, trying to change the Baghdad’s ruling elite peacefully and reduce the bulk of corruption in Iraq’s state institutions. Any conflict that might distract Iraqis’ attention from the protesters’ demands will ultimately endanger the movement which is too close to create historical changes in Iraq and build a country for its people.
Deep-State Militias to Cancel Out Protesters’ Achievements
On January, 5th 2020, in an Iraqi parliament’s extra ordinary session, Shiite Blocks made a nonbinding decision to urge Iraqi Government to expel all foreign forces in the country. The session, boycotted by Kurdish and most of the Arab Sunni MPs, further widened the gap between Iraq’s major ethno-sectarian groups; soon Kurdish and Arab Sunni lawmakers accused the Shiite blocs of appeasing Iran. Following the decision, US President Donald Trump stated that he would impose economic sanctions directly on Iraq if the U.S. military advisers will be forced to leave disrespectfully. The developments dramatically shifted the spotlight from the protesters to the Iraq’s deep state mafias and gave them the hope that they could keep their business as usual without implementing any real changes.
The issue of forcing the foreign forces out of Iraq, which has become the most repeated slogan by the political elite, does not have anything with Iraq’s sovereignty as much as it is a tool used to keep their corruption. While the outgoing PM Adil Abdul-Mahdi is publically asking for removal of the foreign forces in the country, he knows that such hasty move can damage the country greatly, and his stand point looks more like trying to negotiate the Americans to keep his position. This is similar to the rest of the political elite agenda which is prioritizing personal and party interest over Iraq regardless of the consequences.
During his visit to Kurdistan last week, Abdul-Mahdi sought Kurdish supports for staying in office till the upcoming elections; such a step would certainly face protesters’ rejection. This move is to disappoint the protesters who have sacrificed their lives and endanger themselves while facing Iraqi security forces’ using excessive force to kill and wound them, according to human rights groups. The first major achievement of the protests was forcing the PM Abdul-Mahdi’s cabinet to resign and making Iraqi parliament and presidency to start working on new electoral law and forming new electoral commission. However, the protesters’ achievements are about to be removed amid the Iran-US conflict that have overcome Iraqi protesters’ reform demands and concerns.
Now, the protests are the biggest threats to the political elite’s power, and they find the current tension between Iran and the US to be the best tool to extend their power and preserve their interest. All their talks about keeping Iraq away from war and protecting its sovereignty is yet another method to distract the people from real reforms.