Demonstrators run from tear gas thrown by Iraqi security forces during the ongoing anti-government protests in Baghdad, Iraq November 12, 2019. (Reuters)

By Track Persia

December 19, 2019

Iraq has been rocked by weeks of mass protests, with tens of thousands taking to the streets to demonstrate against government corruption, unemployment and poverty. However, the demands of the protests later escalated to calls for a complete overhaul of the political system and the ruling elite, prompting Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi to resign.

More than 500 people have died and 25,000 have been wounded since the eruption of the ongoing wide protests which started on October 1, according to human rights activists.

In the early days of December, about 70 protesters were gunned down in just 48 hours. On December 16, gunmen reportedly killed four members of the same family at their home in Iraq’s southern oil-rich city of Basra. The father, mother, their eight-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son were killed by the assailants. Only a three-year-old girl survived the attack, according to Iraq’s Rudaw Kurdish news outlet. During the early days of the ongoing anti-government protests civil activist Hussein Adel al-Madani and his pregnant wife Sara Talib, who was also an activist, were shot dead in their apartment.

The motives for these assassinations remain unclear, however, similar attacks throughout the Iraqi cities witnessing protests indicate that the perpetrators are targeting human rights activists and protesters. The main suspects are powerful Iran-backed Shiite militias.

Security Forces are complicit in the mass killing of Iraqi protesters

The high death tolls have been blamed on a brutal response by government security forces but also the involvement of armed groups. Iran has also been blamed for playing a hand in organizing a response to the protests.

The killing of dozens of Iraqi protesters in Baghdad earlier this month was carried out by unidentified armed forces in cooperation with Iraqi national and local security forces, according to Human Rights Watch. The organisation said in a report issued Monday that between 29 and 80 people were killed and 137 injured when gunmen opened fire on a crowd gathered in Al-Khilani Square on December 6. The killings came amid a brutal crackdown against widespread protests across middle and southern Iraq.

“Police and military forces withdrew as the unidentified militia, some in uniforms, began shooting,” the Human Rights Watch report said. Witnesses said about 1,000 people were gathered in the square and a nearby five-story parking garage that had been used as a hub for the protests when seven pickup trucks sped into the area.

“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. The attackers then moved on to the building known as Al-Senak garage. Men carrying machetes and sticks stormed the building before more arrived with guns and opened fire inside.

“Five of my friends are still missing, and I don’t know if they are dead or were detained,” one of the witnesses said. “I saw the armed men loading bodies into their buses and trucks an hour before they drove away.”

The witnesses said about two dozen Federal Police and Iraqi Security Forces, who were manning two checkpoints in the square left as the gunmen arrived. Nine hours later, at 4:30 a.m. on December 7, the armed men left and the security forces returned within minutes.

Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said: “There’s very strong evidence the Iraqi authorities outsourced their dirty work against protesters, leaving just as the killings commenced and returning to assist with arrests,”. Whitson added: “If they stood by and allowed these armed men to attack protesters or carried out the murders themselves, the Iraqi government forces will be responsible. The authorities, it seems, even allowed the lights to go out, blanketing the protesters in darkness with only flying bullets to light up the sky,” she added.

The report said that videos show some people detained during the violence being released and claiming they had been abused. A police officer tells them that they had been held by Kata’ib Hezbollah, an armed group in the so-called Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) linked to Iran. The organisation called on Iran, along with the US and UK, to stop providing military support to the Iraqi government until the killings of protesters stop.

Why is Iran keen to crush Iraq’s peaceful protests?

Iran’s influence in regional countries such as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen has increased, thanks to the success of its transnational Shiite militancy policy that Tehran has been adopting since the success of the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

Tehran does not only use Shiite militancy to manage its strategic expansion but it endeavours to use these third-party militias to confront adversaries and those who might pose threats to its interests. Regional interventions have cost the Iranian people thousands of lives and billions of dollars at a time when the nation is facing unprecedented international sanctions and growing domestic discontent.

The 1980s Iraq-Iran War formed the foundation of the Iranian regime’s transnational military policy. The war cost the regime more than a million casualties, including 300,000 fatalities. The war cost Tehran as much as US$645 billion and left its economy and infrastructure in ruins. The regime realised that if it was to prevail against stronger powers, it needed to rely upon different domestic defence and external militant proxies. Iran uses these proxies to export its revolution. Since the success of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran’s Supreme Leaders have self-appointed themselves as leaders of the Shiite Muslim in the world, in particular, the Shiite populations in Iran’s near neighbours.

The invasion of Iraq by the US-led coalition in 2003, provided Iran with first opportunity to establish a compliant Shiite-led government in Baghdad. Tehran saw the invasion as an opportunity to pressure Iraq’s neighbours and subdue them.

Despite majority Shia in Iraq are not adherent of Khomeinism, the Iranian regime made a sufficient number of  Shiite partners providing them with financial inducements and social incentives exploiting the political and security chaos caused by the invasion.

The 2003 invasion offered Tehran a great opportunity to deploy Iraqi military groups that it had provided with refuge and training in the 1980s such as Badr Corps (later Badr Organisation) into Iraq’s Shiite population to establish subdued Shiite governance in Baghdad.

By 2005, the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) successfully dominated Iraqi government and Iraq’s significant security apparatus providing Shiite surrogates with more advanced weapons to target Iran’s adversaries such as coalition troops and anti-government opposition groups. Tehran was also keen to resolve disputes among Shiite militias and empower Iraq’s PM Nuri al-Maliki who did not challenge militias’ influence and remained close ally to Tehran.

Iran’s influence over Baghdad grew precipitously in 2011 with the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq, making sure that those who opposed Iran’s interests were either side-lined or eliminated. Encouraged by escaping international retaliation for its support for terrorism,  there were no red lines for its use of unconventional forces and nor for its interference in Iraqi affairs, Tehran continued with its strategic goal of forming Iraq which should pose a military threat.  By relying on third-party militias in Iraq, Iran wanted to control Iraq and minimise its own losses.

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) offered Iran political and military support for its interests.

The ongoing anti-government protests in Iraq pose a significant challenge to Iran’s strategic policy in Iraq. The protests have compelled Qasem Suleimani, the head of Quds Force to play a key role in suppressing them by directing ally militias to aggressively crash them to sustain Iraqi allies and prevent the collapse of the Shiite-dominated governance in Iraq.

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.