By Patricia Karam
September 02, 2020
The recent killing of activist Reham Yacoub by gunmen in Basra marks another case of why Iraq needs to get rid of Iran to save itself. Yacoub, though not a protest leader, was one of the youth voices demanding an end to a system plagued by corruption and militia violence.
After her assassination, Iranian state news accused Yacoub of working for the United States against Iranian interests in Iraq. She was a critic of the Iranian militias whose influence Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhimi has been trying to curtail since taking office this year. Evocative of Alaa Salah, the student protester in Sudan who had risen to fame after her chants against President Omar Bashir went viral, Yacoub embodies a rising awareness in Iraq of the need to assert true patriotism that is confident and deserving of support. The difference is that she was killed by Iranian militias.
As the story of Yacoub demonstrates, Iranian influence is a threat to Iraqi sovereignty, democracy, and society. Iranian actions have been a source of grievance for Iraqis since 2014, with Tehran doubling down after they mobilized last year. Iraqi society, notably the youth generation, has been openly resisting Iran, laying the foundation for Kadhimi. While not the first prime minister to promise reforms, he is the first to focus on sovereignty in the pursuit of better governance and stability. However, with elections anticipated next year, Iraq is at a crossroads. Will it fulfill the promise of a democratic country or succumb as a satrapy ruled by Iran?
The struggle is one in which Iraqis are going up against a well funded and deeply entrenched Iranian information operation aimed at debilitating the growing national awareness in the country. With allies such as the Dawa Party, Bader Organization, or Islamic Supreme Council, Iran has secured key positions in the government and security forces. But the backbone of its influence has been the militias, most notoriously core elements of the Popular Mobilization Units, which by their very integration into the Iraqi armed forces have shifted to the Iraqi treasury the cost of support, thus creating a stream of revenue for Iranian operations in the region.
Some Popular Mobilization Units control swaths of western and northern Iraq, along with some borders, earning income through roadblock tariffs, protection money from locals, and cuts from business contracts. Further, the connected economic foundations and welfare programs are routinely contracted by the government for key education and health projects. The Iranian propaganda machine and cultural initiatives, like the restoration of holy shrines and financing for charitable activities, are other penetration vectors that entrench Iranian influence over everyday affairs.
Kadhimi can start the process of reversing Iranian encroachment in Iraq. Elections next year may provide just the opportunity to restructure power in his favor and away from Iran. However, as focused on sovereignty as he is, Kadhimi came into power as the compromise candidate after Adel Abdul Mahdi resigned due to political turmoil. He will need to secure the popular mandate to move the balance in his favor. Meanwhile, his priority must be to bolster Iraqi defenses against Iranian capture.
Kadhimi so far has made bold steps in this direction, including reshuffling positions within the government and security forces. He replaced Popular Mobilization Units chief Faleh Fayad as national security adviser and sent forces to secure the border and tax revenues lost to kickbacks to groups linked to Iran. More brazen attempts to challenge Iran may have backfired when members of the Kataib Hezbollah were arrested then released.
This move signals that Kadhimi would not be bullied into subservience. He pledged to bring to justice those responsible for killing protesters and to establish an inquiry into corruption. While popular with the masses, these measures are less so with the elites and their patrons who have everything to lose from the dismantlement of the current system of corruption. Given the scant parliamentary support for Kadhimi, the elites will do all they can to prevent reforms from pulling the rug out from under them.
But change led by Iraqis is happening. What started as protests voicing discontent over corruption and the lack of jobs has become a grassroots movement reflective of a genuine desire for independence, freedom, and dignity. Because Iraqi decisions will ultimately be the factor in countering malign foreign influence, activists will need to enhance their strategy and message to reflect their true aspirations. Kadhimi may be taking a gamble by antagonizing Iran, but this may now provide Iraqis with the opportunity to reclaim their assets. Political change, as well as justice for Yacoub and other activists, will only happen if the role of Iran is confronted.