An Iraqi protester hits a poster showing the leader of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s foreign wing, or Quds Force, Gen. Qassim Soleimani with a shoe during ongoing anti-government protests in Baghdad, Iraq, Nov. 3, 2019. (AP)

By Track Persia

December 25, 2019

Since October 1, thousands of Iraqi protesters has been taking to Iraq’s capital and across the south and middle of Iraq’s major cities to protest against government’s corruption, unemployment, lack of basic services which they blame on what they describe as Iran’s nefarious influence in their country through proxy Shiite political and paramilitary groups.

The anti-government rallies that are calling for a complete overhaul of the corrupt inefficient regime in Iraq overly beholden to Tehran have compelled Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi to resign. In the southern Iraqi cities, the protesters have blocked off some government buildings and burnt tyres to block roads linking southern cities to Baghdad. The road to Umm Qasr port which is vital for imports near Basra was among those blocked. In the two Shiite holy cities of Karbala and Najaf, striking students closed schools and gathered in their thousands. In Nasiriyah, protesters blocked bridges and several roads while all public buildings remained closed. More recently, the protesters have demanded the fall of President Barham Saleh and parliament speaker Mohammed al-Halbussi, accusing them of procrastinating.

Sunday marked the latest deadline which already pushed back twice by President Barham Saleh for parliament to choose a new premier to replace Adel Abdel Mahdi. Officials say Iran wants to install Qusay al-Suhail, who served as higher education minister in Abdel Mahdi’s government. Iraqis oppose the designation of al-Suhail because they view him as Iran’s man in Iraq, and if designated as prime minister, he will allow the corruption to continue.

Iran-backed paramilitaries have threatened Iraq’s President Barham Saleh to remove him because he seems he is reluctant to designate their prime minister candidate al-Suhail. Saleh has been reluctant to designate al-Suhail as the new PM because there is no agreement among lawmakers on a candidate.

 Iraqi forces cooperated with militias to kill activists    

Iran is using its proxy paramilitaries in Iraq to kidnap and assassinate activist to dissuade the protesters from continuing their protests according to the UN. Around 460 people have been killed since October 1, and some 25,000 have been wounded. Yet the protesters appeared they have not lost confidence.

The violence and the crimes that these armed groups have committed against the ongoing anti-government protesters indicate that these groups have coordination with the Iraqi government forces to target anti-government activists. This has prompted Western governments and the UN to raise concerns.

The Human Rights Watch (HRW) has recently called on international and regional powers to withhold arms sales to Iraqi government’s security forces which it is accused along with unidentified masked men of using excessive force to disperse protesters, leaving hundreds dead.

HRW’s Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson said protesters were killed constantly and added that “The US, UK, and Iran can’t have it both ways, calling on the Iraqi government to respect the rights of protesters while supporting the Iraqi forces killing protesters or standing by.”

The report underlined the fact that unidentified men were heavily involved in the massacres against civilians. Speaking to witnesses and protesters, the report indicated that these unidentified armed men were responsible for the brutal killing of dozens of protesters in Baghdad last week. The report quoted a witness as saying that “as the vehicles drove through the square slowly, gunmen in plain black uniforms and civilian dress opened fire with AK-47s and PK machine guns above the protesters, before lowering and firing directly at them.”

The report said that the Iraqi security forces had disappeared during the massacre but came back later for arrests. Whitson said, “There’s very strong evidence that Iraqi authorities outsourced their dirty work against protesters, leaving just as the killings commenced and returning to assist with arrests.” Therefore, the Iraqi government is responsible, too.

Amid the political deadlock, the Iraqi government, which is under the political influence of Iran and is largely dependent upon foreign aid, remains helpless to find a solution.

A historical view on the formation of pro-Iran paramilitaries

Following the destruction of the Iraqi state by the 2003 US-invasion, the occupation authority under the leadership of the then US representative Paul Bremer, the de facto governor of occupied Iraq, created a new regime based on sectarian power-sharing, which pro-Iran Shiite Islamists were controlling. The new political process was also designed to please the Kurds while excluding Iraq’s Sunni Arabs. who felt they were excluded and treated as second citizens.

Most importantly, the occupation authority allowed the pro-Iran groups which had already military wings trained by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to impose their authority on representatives of Iraq’s other communities. For example, the prime minister’s position, the new Iraqi military and the intelligence agency since the invasion have been under pro-Iran Shiite Islamists.

With the fall of the second largest city of Mosul to the extremists  Islamic State (IS) fighters in June 2014 and the defeat of the Iraqi forces controlled by corrupt Shiites officers under former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, has started a new spate of violence and instability in Iraq. The fear that Shiite-dominated cities could fall to the IS prompted the top Shiite cleric in Iraq Ayatollah Ali Sistani to issue a fatwa (religious edict) urging Iraqis to fight against the IS. This fatwa was exploited by pro-Iran militant groups to join the fighting and form what so-called Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), or the Hashd al-Shabi. The legitimisation of these pro-Iran non-state armed groups by the Iraqi government has empowered the Shiite militias and increased the rise of Iran’s influence in Iraq. These paramilitary groups have not only controlled Iraq’s security and intelligence apparatus, but they have also dominated Iraq’s economic and foreign affairs.

The new generation of Shiite militia allies in Iraq such as Qais al-Khazali, head of Asaib Ahl al-Haq; Jamal Jaafar Mohammad al-Ibrahimi (otherwise known as Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis), deputy chairman of the Popular Mobilisation Units (al-Hashd al-Shaabi, or PMU) who are accused of ordering the killing and kidnapping of Iraqi activists offered Iran political and military support and increased Iran’s influence in Iraq. Losing leverage in Iraq is the worst nightmare for Iranian leaders.

For the time being, Iran and its Shiite proxies are striving to dominate Iraq’s political scene and the decisions, taken against the protesters. Iran is counting on these proxies to influence the formation of the next Iraqi government. However, the ongoing anti-government protests seem they have not been dissuaded by the shocking violence practised against them by the pro-Iran militias.

The almost three-month-old protests have already succeeded to make gains reflected in the resignation of the PM Abdul Mahdi and the passing of new bills to reform election law by the Iraqi parliament. The Iraqi protesters seem they are adamant they make a change and reform the post-invasion failed Iraqi state. Most importantly, they are confident they can put Iran’s nefarious interference in Iraq at bay.

About Track Persia

Track 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.