Are Iraq's Protests About Foreign Iranian and Saudi Influence?

Published October 10th, 2019 - 10:34 GMT
An Iraqi protester waves the national flag during a demonstration against state corruption, failing public services, and unemployment, in the Iraqi capital Baghdad on October 5, 2019. (AFP/ File Photo)
An Iraqi protester waves the national flag during a demonstration against state corruption, failing public services, and unemployment, in the Iraqi capital Baghdad on October 5, 2019. (AFP/ File Photo)

 

Following decades of conflict, Iraqis now demand not an end to war but a new era of democracy and prosperity. A stabilisation of the country’s security situation following the defeat of Islamic State has brought Iraq’s systemic failures to the fore of public discussion.

Iraq’s burgeoning young population has welcomed the return of peace, but still sees little future in a country in which the political class uses a broken state with weak institutions to their own advantage rather than that of the national citizenry.


It is this frustration that has precipitated the outbreak of mass protests since the final week of September. The government’s response to these events has so far left 107 people dead and 6000 wounded. Though the explosion of anti-system anger feeds off the economic grievances of the country’s youth, another factor has come to the fore as protesters demand form: a desire to see the country as a unified nation, not a staging ground for regional power conflict or sectarian division.

Though the explosion of anti-system anger feeds off the economic grievances of the country’s youth, another factor has come to the fore as protesters demand form: a desire to see the country as a unified nation, not a staging ground for regional power conflict or sectarian division.

Alongside the iconic slogan of 2011, ‘the people demand the downfall of the regime’, chants of ‘Iran out’ and ‘Saudi out’ also ring out in the streets of Baghdad and Basra, as demonstrators link their own precarious economic situation and crumbling institutions to the presence of powerful foreign operators in Iraq.

Indeed, the catalyst for the present wave of protest can be traced to the sacking of Lieutenant General Abdul Wahab al-Saadi, second-in-command of the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service. Mr al-Saadi, who played a critical role in the defeat of Islamic State in the country was fired in the final week of September.

Though no official reason was given by Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi for this move, many Iraqis argue that it reeks of institutional corruption. Mr al-Saadi has long been a proponent of national unity, an opponent of sectarianism, and a critic of the expanding presence of foreign actors, particularly Iran, in the country.

Mr al-Saadi welcomed Iranian logistical support to aid in the fight against Islamic but argued that Iranian forces should not be involved in liberation operations to reclaim lost territory as Iraq’s civil war came to a close, arguing that ‘If I had accepted help from non-Iraqis, the history books will say the victory was not ours, the Iraqis’. Since this time, Mr al-Saadi has been an outspoken critic of the presence of Iranian operations in the country and the increasing institutionalisation of Iranian backed militia groups in the country’s security infrastructure.
 

Mr al-Saadi has long been a proponent of national unity, an opponent of sectarianism, and a critic of the expanding presence of foreign actors, particularly Iran, in the country.

Though Iran’s presence in the country is not to blame for its deep-seated economic malaise and the corruption of its governing institutions, many Iraqis see the presence of foreign actors and their local enablers in the domestic space as indicative of the government’s failure to put Iraqi citizens first.

As Maysam Behravesh, a political analyst at Gulf State Analytics argue, while Iran portrays itself as a liberator of the Iraqi people from Islamic State and an important ally to Iraq’s Shi’a community, ‘the fact is that Iraqi interests which don’t necessarily correspond to those of Iran have played second fiddle to Iranian ones in the process.’

Iran’s interests in the country run deep - the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ foreign arm, the so-called Quds Force, remains active in much of Iraq, a number of the country’s most powerful militias, such as Kata’ib Hezbollah and the Badr Corps are directly backed by the Iranian government, and Iranian businesses compete for lucrative reconstruction contracts and access to Iraq’s immense natural resource potential. Where protesters call for the end of the current regime, they do so knowing that its institutions have tended to acquiesce in the face of a growing Iranian presence.

a number of the country’s most powerful militias, such as Kata’ib Hezbollah and the Badr Corps are directly backed by the Iranian government, and Iranian businesses compete for lucrative reconstruction contracts and access to Iraq’s immense natural resource potential

Dissatisfaction with Iran may also stem from a wider phenomenon in Iraqi politics, one which augurs well for Iraq’s future as a united nation: a backlash against the political and social sectarianism that has long defined life in the country.

According to the National Democratic Institute, a Washington based think-tank, sectarian divisions in Iraq are slowly healing. 74% of Iraqis claim that relations between Sunnis and Shia’s are improving; Iraqis are four times more likely to identify themselves as Iraqi than by their religion or sect; and only 28% of Iraqis say the country’s biggest division is between Sunni and Shi’a.


Marwan Ibrahim/AFP

To many Iraqis, ideologies of Shi’a revivalism and Sunni revanchism have delivered little more than misery and conflict. As sectarian frames of reference decrease in their value for everyday Iraqis, so too does Iran’s claims to be an important protector of the country’s Shi’a majority. Ahmed Tabaqchali, a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Regional and International Studies at the American University of Iraq notes that during the 1990s, as the Hussein regime increasingly turned the suppression of Shi’a and Kurdish groups, Iran positioned itself as a powerful ally of these interests in Iraq.

To many Iraqis, ideologies of Shi’a revivalism and Sunni revanchism have delivered little more than misery and conflict

This relationship intensified following the American led invasion of the country in 2003 and its descent into civil war over the subsequent decade. Yet many of the political active amongst Iraq’s new generation of protesters have little memory of these events. According to the International Labour Organisation, 60% of the country’s population is under the age of 24.

As Mr Tabaqchali notes, ‘These youth have none of the demons of their parents and their grandparents’ and hope for national unity over the politics of division. Protests have centred on predominantly Shi’a districts in Baghdad and the country’s South. IIACSS, an Iraqi research firm found earlier this year that the favourability of Iran among Iraqi Shia’s has declined significantly since the end of the military campaign against the Islamic State. Whilst 86% of Iraqi Shi’a viewed Iran favourably in 2014, only 38% do now.

an Iraqi research firm found earlier this year that the favourability of Iran among Iraqi Shia’s has declined significantly since the end of the military campaign against the Islamic State. Whilst 86% of Iraqi Shi’a viewed Iran favourably in 2014, only 38% do now

Though Iraq’s present crisis has deep roots, protesters have taken to the street to demand a government that works for their own interests. Though this relates closely to stepping up anti-corruption campaigns and diversifying the country’s lagging hydro-carbon dependent economy, dealing properly with the demands of protesters requires a more serious interrogation of relationships between Baghdad and Tehran.
 

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Al Bawaba News.
 


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