The massive protests in Iraq since October 1, 2019, show no signs of abating or ending. These are the most sustained and large-scale protests in years that have reportedly developed organically over social media and telephone apps. Faced with rampant corruption, skyrocketing unemployment rate, lack of basic services, and foreign influences in the country’s internal affairs, the Iraqis have run out of patience and trust in their government.
In the face of the ongoing turmoil, desperate economic conditions, corruption, and government paralysis, there is a glimmer of hope that something good is already coming out of the protests: unprecedented unification of the Iraqi people along sectarian and class lines. Although the protests started in majority Shiite cities, other groups have supported and joined them en masse since October. Solidarity between Muslims and Iraq’s minority Christian population is now stronger than ever before.
So far, the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi at the end of November, who failed to pacify the protests, has not satisfied the demonstrators.
So far, the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi at the end of November, who failed to pacify the protests, has not satisfied the demonstrators. Apart from demanding a prime minister who is politically independent, and not beholden to sectarian interests, the protesters want a complete overhaul of their government, which they believe has failed to represent ordinary people and their interests. They see the narrow political elite as the source of entrenched sectarianism, corruption, poverty, and incompetence. Established since the American invasion of Iraq and removal of Saddam Hussain’s regime in 2003, the country’s current political class is based on sectarianism and ethnicity, known as the “muhasasa system” (Quota system).
Blockages of roads, oil facilities, and ports have been met with government’s use of force, which have resulted in more than 500 deaths and close to 20,000 injured since October. So far, the killings and violence have not intimidated or subdued the protesters. The effect appears to be the opposite: more angry protesters have been taking to the streets across the country. As the government has failed to appoint a new prime minister in December 2019, the chaos is likely to deepen.
One of the most interesting aspects of the protests is the deep-seated anger against the influence and intervention of Iran in Iraq’s affairs. The anger has been so strong that the protesters burned down the Iranian consulate in Najaf in November 2019.
One of the most interesting aspects of the protests is the deep-seated anger against the influence and intervention of Iran in Iraq’s affairs. The anger has been so strong that the protesters burned down the Iranian consulate in Najaf in November 2019. The opposition to Iran is strong not only among Sunnis, but also among Iraqi Shiites. There are several reasons why the resentment against Iran has reached a boiling point in Iraq.
First, Iraqis are increasingly outraged with the involvement of Iran’s armed forces, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC), in their country’s affairs. Iran has had a disproportionate level of political and military influence on Iraqi affairs since the U.S. invasion in 2003. Iraq was a natural sphere of influence for the Iranian religious establishment, particularly given the fact that Shiites constitute more than 50 percent of Iraq’s population. However, Iran seemed to have overplayed its hand.
Iranian military and Iran-backed Shiite fighters that fought al Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS), a Sunni extremist and terrorist organization that controlled parts of Iraq for more than five years, on the Iraqi territory are now believed to be targeting and killing Iraqi protesters since October 2019. Many of the protesters are Shiites. Pro-Iranian Shiite militant groups allegedly helped Iraqi authorities to crack down on protests in Basra and a number of other Iraqi cities in 2018.
A U.S. airstrike killed Soleimani at Baghdad airport on January 2, 2020, further escalating tensions between the U.S. and Iran.
The head of IRGC’s Quds Force General Qassem Soleimani had allegedly frequently visited Iraq, especially during critical times, such as popular protests, and held meetings with Iraqi security officials. A U.S. airstrike killed Soleimani at Baghdad airport on January 2, 2020, further escalating tensions between the U.S. and Iran. Some Iraq observers are concerned that Iran’s continued involvement may further inflame domestic tensions and spark a conflict in Iraq and beyond.
Second, it appears that Iraqi protesters are increasingly rejecting the Iranian brand of Shiism. The unifying cross-border Shiism seems now less appealing to Iraqi Shiites, who want a more meaningful version of Shiism suited for them. In other words, for many Iraqi Shiites, Iran’s religious ideological influence is associated with Tehran’s support of corrupt politicians in Baghdad and brutal militant groups that have killed and wounded peaceful protesters.
According to Marsin Alshamary, a Middle East scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, if Iraqi Shiites have traditionally looked up to the religious establishment as an ultimate authority, there is now growing discontent with its influence on people’s lives. While Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Husseini Sistani, the country’s most powerful Shiite cleric, still commands strong respect among Iraq’s Shiites, the legitimacy of other religious clerics affiliated with political and militant groups is falling. No longer wanting Iran’s interference in Iraq’s affairs, Iraqi Shiites hope that their lives may improve if Tehran loosened its grasp on their country and if Iraq’s entire ruling elite was removed and replaced with new people.
However, Iran is not fully delegitimized in Iraq. Many Iraqi Shiites want people to remember that Iran helped defeat the Islamic State.
However, Iran is not fully delegitimized in Iraq. Many Iraqi Shiites want people to remember that Iran helped defeat the Islamic State. The Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq, mostly Shiite pro-Iranian militia groups made up of about 40 units, fought in almost every large battle against IS. Iran provided arms, training, and intelligence to Kurdish militant groups in northern Iraq in their fight against IS. This has strengthened Iran’s military and political influence in Iraq.
Because Iran’s geopolitical and economic interests would be hurt if it were to lose Iraq, Tehran is likely to continue to maintain a strong grip on its neighbor, and not only for the expansion of its Shiite ideology and preservation of its natural sphere of influence. Faced with crippling U.S. sanctions, Iran needs Iraq to smuggle goods and exchange currencies. Iraq provides Iran, which is undergoing its own social turmoil, an economic breathing space.
At this juncture, it is hard to tell how long the protests in Iraq will go on and what results they will produce, a forecast made more difficult after the U.S. assassination of Qassem Soleimani and Iran’s inevitable retaliation.
That said, Iran’s presence in Iraq is unlikely to subside. Despite the protests, the Iraqi political establishment is currently too weak to curb Iran’s influence. Because Iran still has strong influence on Iraq, whoever becomes Iraq’s next prime minister will have to be approved not only by the Iraqi protesters, but also by Iran. The current developments only muddle the picture further.