In the shadow of Iran-US showdown, Iraq's protest simmers

In the shadow of Iran-US showdown, Iraq's protest simmers
Comment: The endemic problems that sparked the October protests in Iraq have not gone away in the aftermath of Soleimani's assassination, writes Ibrahim Al-Marashi.
5 min read
10 Jan, 2020
Iraqi students take part in an anti-government demonstration in Najaf, 12 January, 2020 [AFP]
In October 2019, demonstrations erupted across Iraq against the ineffective and corrupt political elites, in what could be characterised as the protest of Iraq's "left behind" - a people opposed to the one percent who enriched themselves on coming to power in 2003.  

Nearly two months later, on 31 December, a crowd stormed the US embassy in Baghdad's Green Zone to protest American air raids that killed 25 members of the Kataib Hezbollah, an Iraqi Shia militia that forms part of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU).

It's important to note that these two protests were of very distinct natures. The first was a spontaneous, leaderless and cross-sectarian movement, while the second was orchestrated by Kataib Hezbollah, with little popular support. In fact, elements of the PMU had used violence to crack down on the ongoing mass protests.

Nonetheless, Trump's order to assassinate Iraqi General Qassem Soleimani, which also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the Iraqi leader of Kataib Hezbollah, has served to bolster Iraqi nationalism, and ironically united the rival Shia currents - albeit temporarily - in opposition to the US violation of Iraq's sovereignty.

But the endemic problems that sparked the October protests, while neglected by the news coverage in the aftermath of the Soleimani assassination, have not disappeared, and neither will Iraq's protest movement.

Iraqis demand reform

Since October, protesters have been expressing frustration that the country's billions of dollars in oil revenues have been squandered, instead of providing jobs and reliable basic services, such as electricity, water, adequate health care and schooling. They have focused their ire on the systemic corruption that prevents these demands from being met.

Significantly, these protests in Baghdad and across the south of Iraq saw Shia Iraqis - who have been left behind by the economic system - revolt against their own elites. 

Since October, protesters have been expressing frustration that the country's billions of dollars in oil revenues have been squandered

Primarily, they were calling for an end to the entire post-2003 political system, but also for and end to foreign interference; both Iranian and American. The protests were more emblematic of a new Iraqi nationalism, led by a young generation who came of age after 2003.

Nonetheless, this rallying call threatened the legitimacy of pro-Iranian elements within the PMU, such as Kataib Hezbollah. Never had Iran's influence in Iraq been so precarious since the 2003 Iraq war. Adel Abdul Mahdi, the Iraqi prime minister - who Iran supported - resigned in the face of the angry protests and the burning of Iran's consulate in Najaf. 

In response, Iranian affiliated PMU factions allegedly targeted the protesters, who for the most part are their Shia co-religionists. Katiab Hezbollah not only used force against these protesters, but organised a counter-protest at the American embassy. 

Storming the American embassy

On 27 December 2019, Kataib Hezbollah attacked an Iraqi military facility that killed an American contractor assigned there. This strike resulted in an American air raid that killed 25 members of the Iraqi militia.

In protest, Iraqi demonstrators affiliated with Kataib Hezbollah stormed the US embassy in Baghdad's Green Zone on 31 December, but did not get past the reception area.

With the storming of the US embassy, the PMU affiliated protesters seized the opportunity to shift the narrative of the October reform protest movement towards the US, and American violations of Iraq's sovereignty.

The protesters at the embassy left the following day on 1 January 2020, nonetheless the Trump administration used this event as its rationale to target Soleimani and al-Muhandis

Trump's decision offered a lifeline to the Iranian-affiliated militias within the PMU, as well as the Islamic Republic, further shifting the agenda from the pro-reform demonstrators' anger about domestic corruption, to violations of national sovereignty.

The future of the protest movement

While Iraqi reform protesters may have objected to the PMU's influence, they would take even more umbrage at the US attacking one of their own leaders, known for leading the fight against Islamic State (IS).

In the aftermath of the assassination, Iraq's parliament asked for the 5,000 strong US military contingent in Iraq to leave. While the vote is non-binding, its significance is that it reveals a renewed intra-Shia unity. 

The PMU is not only an official military unit of the Iraqi armed forces, but part of the parliament. While the PMU-linked MPs constitute the second largest bloc in parliament, the first consists of MPs affiliated with Shia cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr.

While Sadr has always been wary of Iranian influence in Iraq, he opposes American influence even more

In the past they have emerged as rivals in an intra-Shia competition, but these latest events served to unite them. While Sadr has always been wary of Iranian influence in Iraq, he opposes American influence even more. After all, he emerged to prominence in 2003 leading a militia fighting the US. 

Second, this action demonstrates that the Iraqi MPs are now more focused on this immediate issue, and will neglect dealing with reform as demanded by the October protest movement. Even Sadr's bloc, which is sympathetic to the reform protesters, has shifted attention to the American presence in Iraq.

Ironically, Trump helped Tehran and the pro-Iran factions in Iraq outflank the protest movement that had objected to such Iranian influence there. Second, while the Iranian elements within the parliament were weakened due to the reform protests, they will most likely feel emboldened in selecting Abdul Mahdi's successor. 

The assassination has overshadowed the reform protests, for now. Iraqis are outraged by Trump's recklessness, but they also continue to be furious at Iraq's poor governance, which continues to mar their daily lives.

Ibrahim Al-Marashi is an associate professor of history at California State University San Marcos. He is co-author of Iraq's Armed Forces: An Analytical History and The Modern History of Iraq.

Follow him on Twitter: @ialmarashi

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.