An Iraqi protester hits a poster showing the leader of the IRGC-Quds Force, Gen. Qassim Soleimani with a shoe during ongoing anti-government protests in Baghdad, Iraq, Nov. 3, 2019. (AP)

By Track Persia

April 29, 2020

Iraqi politicians including those affiliated to Iran have chosen Mustafa al-Kadhimi as Iraq’s interim prime minister to succeed Adel Abdul Mahdi who resigned on the backdrop of the widespread protests over the failed political establishment and blatant Iranian interference in the Iraqi affairs. It was the first time, since the resignation of Abdul Mahdi that all representatives of all Iraqi factions, including Iranian allied groups, had a consensus on selecting next prime minister.

Following the killing of General Qasim Soleimani, the former leader of Qods Force, an elite unit belongs to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), by an American airstrike in Baghdad early January, the Iranian regime designated Esmail Ghaani but he does not seem to enjoy the same leadership qualities that Soleimani possessed. Iran’s loyalists in Iraq have been in a disarray and the Iranian regime has still been working to find a suitable replacement that can fill the vacuum that Soleimani left.

The acceptance of Kadhimi’s designation among the Iranian-backed factions though has raised doubts, given the importance of Iran’s consent with the naming of all Iraq’s prime ministers since 2006. Consequently, Iran’s blatant interference in Iraq has raised its unpopularity among Iraqi population over the last few years, in particular after the end of the war on the extremist militants of Islamic State (IS) in Iraq in 2017. Interestingly, its unpopularity is rising sharply among Iraqi Shia who comprise the majority in the country, despite Iran touts itself as the symbol of Shiism and supporter of the Shia in the world.

Iran’s interference in Iraqi affairs has major effects on the progress of the process of state-building and political progress in Iraq. Since 2006, Iran has exerted its utmost efforts to back Islamic Shi’i factions which it has used to work for its interests, in addition to being accused of corruption and being involved in criminal and mafia-like activities. Subsequently, the entire political establishment in Iraq has been rejected by Iraqis. This is manifested their turning away from participation in the 2018 general elections which witnessed the lowest turn-out in any elections in post-invasion Iraq, even in the predominately Shi’i cities in the south.

There are additional factors behind Iran’s unpopularity in Iraq including:

Iran’s sponsorship of terrorist militias

Following the US withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, Iran has become more assertive in exerting its influence in the country, especially with the growing threat posed by the Syrian civil war. Following the renewed Sunni uprising in Iraq during the office of former PM Nouri al-Maliki (2006-20014), the Iranian regime began to broaden its common interests with al-Maliki, asking him to strengthen his alliance with its proxy groups by forming a military force similar to Iran’s military elite IRGC in Iraq.

When Iraq’s northern city of Mosul fell to the Islamic State (IS) in June 2014, the senior Shi’i cleric in Najaf Grand Ayatollah Ali issued a jihad fatwa (religious edict) against the extremist group, calling on Iraqis to take up arms against the extremist group’s onslaught. The IS had already taken control large swaths of lands in north and west of Iraq. Subsequently, Sistani was concerned as the threat of the IS became high and the militants were marching on Baghdad and the Shi’i shrine cities.

Thousands of Shi’i men heeded Sistani’s fatwa and formed militias and others joined the Iranian-backed militias which had already been formed by al-Maliki. All these militias operated under the umbrella of al-Hashd al-Sha’bi, or Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), which was later legalised by the predominately Islamic Shi’i parliament to be part of the state military forces, despite the clear allegiance of majority of its components to Iran rather than Iraq.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei described Sistani’s fatwa as “a divine inspiration” because he foresaw it would further empower Iran’s proxies in Iraq. With Iran’s objective of the formation a copy of IRGC in Iraq by the formation of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), Iran has dominated Iraq through its proxies in the country.

Indeed, Sistani’s fatwa was key in defeating the IS, however, this fatwa also filled the ranks of Iranian-backed militias which exploited the fatwa to implement Iran’s agenda in Iraq in the name of fighting IS. These sectarian paramilitaries perpetrated serious crimes against Iraq’s Sunni Arabs during the liberation campaign. Thousands of the displaced Sunni Arabs were banned from entering Baghdad by the Iraqi security forces which are infiltrated by the Iran-backed militias such as Badr organisation, Hezbollah Brigades and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq. For example, at Bzaibiz crossing bridge in the outskirts of Baghdad, thousands of Sunni families were banned from entering Baghdad, forcing them to return to the battle zones to face death at the hands of the IS militants who saw them traitors or at the hands of these militias who saw them as IS militants.

The war on IS ended in 2017, however, Iran-allied militias have still been banning Sunni families from returning their homes in several areas such as Jurf al-Sakhr which Iran considers significant for implementing its expansion strategy in the region. It is one of stark Iran’s demographic change policies in Iraq that no Iraqi politician has been able to talk about.

Despite Iraqi constitution bans any form of militias from participating in the political process, a large number of Iranian-backed militiamen run for the 2018 general elections and won a significant number of seats in the Iraqi parliament.

Silencing Iraqi protesters

Having gained political power and controlled significant state resources, Iran-allied Shi’i militias have controlled the decision- making in Iraq. They are accused of targeting human rights activists and protesters who have been taken to the street since October to reject government corruption, unemployment, poor services and the blatant Iranian interference in their country. Over 3000 protesters are believed to have been killed and more than 30,000 have been wounded.

Handling the protest violently is the strategy that was drawn by Iran’s former leader of Quds Force, Soleimani. He was reported to have been killed while on his way to meet with allies to discuss how to silence Iraqi protestors and target US forces in Iraq to force them to withdraw from the country.

The anger at the Iranian interference in the Iraqi affairs was manifested in the slogans of the popular protests which witnessed incidents of torching the Iranian consulates in Karbala and Najaf, in addition to headquarters of Iranian-backed parties and Shi’i militia allied with Iran.

Iran’s economic and social impacts on Iraq  

The Iranian regime views Iraq as part of a broader regional context of competition with their international and regional rivals. The regime had a bitter experience with this neighbour that is manifested in one of the longest war in modern history. The fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime and the consequent power vacuum that followed created a great opportunity for the Iranian regime to reshape the Iraqi state and maintain its dominance by strengthening its allies within Iraq.

Since the Trump administration re-imposed sanctions on Iran, the latter has suffered greatly because it has been deprived of its main sources of funding, the oil and other major industries. The sanctions have limited Iranian ability and led Iran’s economy to the brink of collapse. Subsequently, the Iranian regime limited IRGC’s funding for its regional allies which have become a heavy burden on the Iranian economy.

To ease impacts of the US sanctions, Iran used has Iraqi market, in particular, Iraq’s farming industry to evade the sanctions. Iraqi farmers are now unable to compete with Iranian below price products which have been credited with an open-door policy and tax exemptions by the successive Shi’i-led governments. This comes as the coronavirus pandemic has hit Iraq the hardest and the Iraqi government is not dealing well with the pandemic, adding another burden on Iraqis.

On the social aspect, Iraq has been plagued by illegal drugs coming from Iran, especially among its youth. The spread of these drugs in Iraq has not only been affecting Iraqis socially but has also affected their security. The drug-related crimes in the country have risen sharply over the past few years, these crimes including organised crimes, human trafficking and sex slavery. Most of these crimes are linked to mafias sponsored by the Iranian-backed militias which ironically publicly impose on the Iraqi society strict Islamic rules such as attacking alcohol sellers, banning alcohol drinking and forcing women to wear hijab.

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.