Iraqi protesters burning Iranian flag during demonstration in Karbala, Iraq, November 6, 2019. (AP)

By Track Persia

September 29, 2020

These days, Iraqis mark one year since the 2019 October protests erupted in Baghdad against the failed political system of post US-led invasion Iraq. These days, the young activists will rally in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square to mark the anniversary of the October Protests. Iraqis have been taking into the street for a year now because they feel their country is taken by the ruling elite which is primarily Shiite political parties and  Shiite militias more loyal to Tehran than to Baghdad. The protesters also slam unemployment, poor public services, rampant corruption, and lack of infrastructure investment.

Iraqis came out to protest last year and were met by bullets, usually fired by the pro-Iranian militias, killing more than 600 protesters and activists and wounding thousands more over the past year.  Most of those killed or kidnapped were young men and women hunted downed by these militias and security forces integrated by these militias.

Last year, the protesters were responsible for bringing down the government of Adel Abdul Mahdi. After several designated prime ministers failed to form a government, the former intelligence chief, Mustafa al-Khadhimi, was designated for the premiership by an agreement among the ruling elite dominated by the Shi’ite parties along with leaders of their powerful Iran-backed militias which have been integrated into security forces and al-Hashd al-Sha’abi (Popular Mobilisation Forces).

The Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilisation Forces, is an umbrella of the Shiite militias dominated by pro-Iran paramilitaries. They were recognised by the parliament as being part of Iraq’s armed forces.  These militias include Kata’ib Hezbollah,  Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, Badr, and Saraya al-Khorasani. They are estimated around 150,000 men. Some of them have political parties and several seats in the Iraqi parliament.

The most notorious Iran’s militia proxy in Iraq is Kata’ib Hezbollah which the American strikes on PMF fighters targeted their members. These militias have been the main culprit in the wave of assassinations and kidnappings targeting activists. Last January, members of this militia and its supporters stormed the gates of the US embassy and set ablaze the reception area of the US embassy in revenge for US airstrike that killed the Iranian Gen Qassem Soleimani and the deputy of PMF and leader of Kata’b Hezbollah Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis near Baghdad Airport in early January.

A day after the embassy storming, pro-militia accounts on social media began circulating a list that had allegedly been found on laptops seized from the U.S. embassy. The list of Iraqis supposedly collaborating with Americans was poorly designed, and its clumsiness soon became an internet meme, but the overarching message was worrisome. The list included names and personal details of hundreds of anti-government activists, many of whom have since received death threats. The seized-laptops story was an obvious fabrication; the anti-American crowd at the embassy did not get past the reception area. But suggestions that the anti-government protests were being fostered by the US embassy echo accusations previously made by several Iranian and Iraqi officials.

When protesters stood up against rampant corruption and poor living conditions, they were met with brutality from Iraq’s security apparatus and Iranian-backed militias. The tone of the protests quickly turned against Iran. After the killing of Soleimani—often said to be the second-most-powerful man in Iran— and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, there were celebrations in Tahrir Square and provinces of southern Iraq. However, many Iraqis are also worried about where the escalation will lead. In the southern province of Nasiriyah, marchers in a symbolic PMF-organized funeral for Soleimani and Muhandis were denied access to the main protest gathering, which was calling for both Iran and the United States to respect Iraq’s autonomy. The PMF convoy shot live ammunition, killing one protester and injuring others.

Kadhimi’s government promised hope and pledged to integrate protesters’ demands into his transitional government’s plans such as persecute the killers of more than 600 protesters and also put an end to corruption. However on the ground, little has been achieved. Iran, for example, has increased its efforts to undermine Khadhimi’s government by activating the militias to attack US forces and their logistics supplies in the country. Khadhemi has set an early parliamentary vote for June 6, 2021, but there are still issues that have not been agreed upon by parliament.

So far, Kathimi has not been able to rein in these pro-Iran militias. Back in June, when he sent counterterrorism forces to detain militiamen suspected of firing rocks, dozens of  Kata’ib Hezbollah members paraded Baghdad streets and surround the heavily fortified international Green zone where Kadhimi’s residence, headquarters of the Iraqi government and international diplomatic buildings situated, forcing Kadhimi to release the suspects. The young protests realise the urgent need for credible leadership and that Khadhimi has not been able to solve the multiple crises of Iraq.

To decrease the risk of the continued attacks by Iran’s militia proxies in Iraq, the US has handed over eight facilities to Iraq. The US action has been the main demand of the pro-Iran militias. However, these Iran-backed militias have continued to fire rockets at the Green Zone, in addition to Baghdad airport. Last Wednesday, the Shiite militias even attacked an airport used by US forces in the Kurdistan autonomous region. This came one day after the Iran-backed militia had fired a rocket at Baghdad airport, killing seven members of a family living nearby.

Iraq has witnessed several waves of protests since the collapse of Saddam’s regime in 2003. There were sporadic protests in 2009 and 2010 to challenge former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government’s inability to deliver basic services, in particular, electricity during summer. The nation-wide protests in 2011, particularly in Baghdad, Kurdistan and the south indicated that there was strong opposition to this sectarian-based governing system. In 2015 protests erupted in the southern city of Basra and spread to Baghdad when a protester was shot dead in Basra. It was for the first time that the protesters blame the Iraqi politicians’ use of religion as a vehicle for seizing power. However, the 2019 protests are the largest in terms of size and coherence and seem to have had a distinct impact on the political process. They do not only criticise the post-invasion political system, but also the state failure and weakness in fighting Iran-backed militias and corruption.

The political system of post-US invasion Iraq is an elite pact system based on sectarian apportionment. This political system which is dominated by the ruling elite, primarily Shi’ite Islamists backed by Tehran, has disastrous consequences on Iraqis. It is reflected in the brutal civil war raged the country form 2004 until 2008. Another negative consequence of this political system is widespread of systematically sanction political corruption. This consequently has led to a lack of the ability to deliver basic state services.

The protest movement in Iraq represents the greatest challenge to the post-2003 order of the ruling Shiite elite which have responded by using high levels of violence against the protesters to silence them and demobilise them. The protesters responded by burning down headquarters of these parties in the south and mid of Iraq.

The manifesto of the protests is the assertion of equal citizenship and rights and secular Iraqi nationalism.  These protesters are mainly young who grew up when Iraq was occupied by the US forces and riven by the violence of several forms of al-Qaeda militants and Shi’ite militias. They grow up to see their homes and schools lack water and electricity and sewage in the streets. They see their post-invasion successive governments import electricity and goods from Iran, despite the fact that their country sits on more than 5 percent of the world’s oil reserves.

The protest movement in Iraq challenges the policy of sectarian division developed by exiled Shiite Islamists in early 1990. It presents a broadly secular nationalist theme. Amid all this, the protest movement maintains its core demand of changing the Iraqi political system, despite the probability of growing repression, the protests continue and are unlikely to die out soon. The real Iraqi protesters risk being side-lined or forgotten amid the recent escalations, but their hopes have not been extinguished.

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.