Deprived of power, Iraq’s Shiite protest against Iranian influence

Deprived of power, Iraq’s Shiite protest against Iranian influence

As temperatures in southern Iraq soar above 50C and mothers cool down their children in buckets of dirty water, it is little wonder the population of Iraq’s Shiite heartlands are riotous. On July 8, Iran cut back energy supplies, triggering protests in Basra as residents struggled to keep themselves cool. For a country with the world’s fifth largest oil reserves, the fact that it relies on other countries for its energy supplies is indicative of the travesty that is modern Iraq. Having grown overly reliant on its neighbor, to whom Iraq’s leading politicians owe their allegiance, the Iraqi people have begun to mobilize en masse in protest at the ineffectiveness of the government.

Months after disputed elections in May, Iraqi officials continue to manually recount ballots amidst allegations of fraud and widespread irregularities. The election which propelled the popularist Muqtada Al-Sadr and his “Sairoon” alliance into mainstream Iraqi politics, was a shock to the Iranian-backed leadership that has dominated Iraq since the 2003. Indicative of the malaise plaguing Iraqi politics, the vote was the fourth since the 2003 US-led invasion, yet saw the lowest voter turnout in 15 years due to widespread anger.

With no improvement in sight, whilst Iraqi politicians haggle over ministerial positions in Baghdad’s air-conditioned Green Zone, the south of the country is up in flames. What differentiates these protests from others in Iraq’s recent past is that the country’s Shiite community, the biggest supporters of the fall of the Baath regime, are those now demanding a change in the status quo. As the lack of electricity has intensified the effects of a brutal heatwave, protests have spread to the Shiite heartlands of Najaf and Karbala. The demands of those on the streets have grown to now focus on other issues that also undermine quality of life, such as growing poverty, water shortages, unemployment, rampant corruption and of course, Iran’s ever-present hidden hand.

The protests have been hugely destabilizing despite Baghdad’s belief that they will subside once temperatures cool in September. To them, the summer unrest is business as usual, after all the revolution against the British Mandate in 1920, the overthrow of the Hashemite monarchy in 1958 and the Baathist coup d’état of 1968 all took place during the hot month of July. However, current protests are different as demonstrated in Basra, where protesters have blocked roads to paralyze the strategic Umm Qasr seaport and West Qurna, Iraq’s largest oilfield, forcing the closure of the Safwan border crossing with Kuwait. In the holy city of Najaf, protesters stunned officials by storming airport terminals and moving onto the tarmac, diverting flights and halting air traffic.

To many, to live in squalor besides some of the world’s largest oilfields is no longer acceptable, and the politicians who have fanned the flames of sectarianism are to blame for Iraq’s ineffectual government

Zaid M. Belbagi

The anti-Iranian sentiment of the protesters has been the most surprising development in a political system that has been hitherto heavily influenced by Tehran. Spurred by Iraq’s incomprehensible reliance on 1,400 megawatts of Iranian-produced electricity, Iraq’s Shiite community has begun to call for Iraqi independence from Iranian influences. To many, to live in squalor besides some of the world’s largest oilfields is no longer acceptable, and the politicians who have fanned the flames of sectarianism are to blame for Iraq’s ineffectual government.

The Iranian-backed Dawa Party, to which Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi belongs, has had its buildings sacked, blamed by the protestors for looting oil revenues worth hundreds of billions of dollars in the 15 years since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Images of Iranian leaders such as Ayatollah Khomeini and current Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei have been burnt amidst chants against Iranian interference.

In a marked departure from the norm, the trying conditions in southern Iraq have led protesters to be vocal in their anger towards the entire Iranian-backed political class, singling them out as unpatriotic and kleptocratic.  According to Iraq expert Saad Al Douri at Chatham House, “Whilst one can argue that identity politics was not the main focus of Iraqi politics in recent times, including the recent election, I think what we are seeing with these protests is an increasing gap between the ruling political class and the average citizen. It is that fault line which ultimately need to be addressed.”

Amidst the chaos, Al-Sadr has only been too keen to bolster his position. Once the head of a sectarian militia responsible for the deaths of thousands of Iraqis, he has encouraged his followers to organize protests against government corruption since 2015. Though too tempted by power, he has played a key role in rabble-rousing. With the Americans uninterested in propping up the current government and observing the anti-Iranian nature of the protests with glee, it is more likely that a strongman like Al-Sadr will have the opportunity to seize power amidst the chaos. As Iraqis grow more aware of the self-serving calculations of their politicians, the window for Al-Sadr to take control will be very small as the patience of his Shiite working-class power base wears thin.

  • Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
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