An Iraqi protester waves the national flag during a demonstration against state corruption, failing public services and unemployment, October 3, 2019. (AFP)

By Track Persia

October 16, 2019

More than 150 Iraqi youngsters were reported to have been killed and many more were believed to have been injured in the six-day demonstrations started on 1st October. According to Iraqi official authorities, the cause of the most casualties was live ammunition fired by masked snipers which the protesters accused of having links to the powerful pro-Iran Shiite militias in Iraq.

The protestors reacted to deficient state services, high rates of unemployment, and rampant corruption that channels largesse to the elite for political and paramilitary purposes. They want to express their rejection of Iraqi politicians and their failure to heed calls for reform and abuses of power that have plagued Iraqi governments since 2005. The violent suppression of the protesters, however, does not seem to have stopped these youngsters from planning more protests on 25th October.

The Iraqi government under PM Adel Abdul Mehdi has proposed reforms including housing allowances and unemployment aid, while the Iraqi parliament held meetings to see how to meet the demands of the young protestors who are convinced that Iraqi authorities have failed to keep promises they made before.

The Iraqi protestors started their protests in Baghdad and the protests spread to other cities in southern Iraq. They initially denounced absence of jobs and lack of basic public services while Iraqi leaders benefited from corruption which reached over the past 16 years about $450 billion, according to official figures.

Tehran maintains close relations with the fellow Shiite-led government in Iraq, holding significant clout among its dominant Shiite political groups. The Iranian regime has been aiming to use Iraq as leverage to pressurise the US President Donald Trump administration to lift the US economic sanctions on Iran. It has realised that Trump does not intend to weaken his chances of winning re-election by getting more involved in the region’s affairs.

Iran’s negative intervention in Iraq since the invasion in 2003 has created discontent among Iraqi youth who accused Iran of creating chaos and governance failure in their country.

The Iranian regime filled the power vacuum created by the invasion of Iraq and over the past decade, it has dramatically increased its influence in this war-torn country using its Shiite proxies, in particular after the defeat of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Iraq in 2017 and following the US decision of limiting its military presence in the whole region under the Trump administration.

The protestors attacked the headquarters of some pro-Iranian political parties during the violence, chanting  “Free Iraq, Iran out” slogans which have been heavily circulated on social media.

The deadly protests in Iraq have been tracked closely in Iran where they are seen by Iranian leaders as a plot to undermine ties between the neighbours. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei tweeted on his office’s account: “enemies seek to sow discord but they have failed and their conspiracy will not be effective”. He added: “Iran and Iraq are two nations whose hearts and souls are tied together… This bond will grow stronger day by day.”

Iranian leaders have also condemned the Iraqi protestors, accusing them of being US spies. Hossein Shariatmadari, one of Khamenei’s representatives, and the head of Iran’s hardline Kayhan newspaper called on Iraqis to “occupy the US embassy like the Iranians did in 1979”.  Shariatmadari reiterated in an editorial that featured in the newspaper the accusations by top Iranian officials claiming that the protests were instigated “by America and foreign elements.” Occupying the US embassy in Tehran has had “many achievements” for Iran, Shariatmadari wrote, adding: “Why should Iraq’s revolutionary youth deprive their country of such achievements?”.

On his part,  Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif described the Iraqi protestors as a small minority which did not represent Iraqi people, accusing foreign forces of instigating them.

These attacks on Iraqi protests by the Iranian leaders came as Iraqi protestors were reported to have chanted slogans against the Iranian regime accusing it of supporting its Shiite proxies in Iraq, that they have accused of corruption and violently attacking thousands of them during the six-day protests.

Many of the pro-Iran Shiite militias in Iraq have been recognised by the Iraqi government. They are united under the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), or the Hashid, which publicly took the opposite position towards the protests, saying it was ready to crush the “conspiracy” aiming to bring down the government.

The 1st October protests echoed the demands of  Iraqis over the past few years, however, these recent protests were organised as there have been spiralling tensions between the US and Iran. They also reflected the mounting anti-Iranian sentiment overall.

Additionally, unlike the past mass protests in Iraq, the six-day October protests were not organised by the followers of the Shiite populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who has the ability to paralyse the country with sit-ins.

These angered youth proved to have cost the Iranian regime a great deal of credit and support among the Iraqi Shiite community. They are expected to continue to cost the Islamic Republic a great deal in the protests planned on 25th October. The discontent among Iraqis is expected to grow as videos showing the violent practices against the six-day October protestors at the hands of security forces and the pro-Iran militias continue to circulate online.

About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.