LONDON: More than two months after nonstop anti-government protests prompted Iraq’s ethnic Kurdish president to offer a public letter of resignation, the fate of one of the Middle East’s most fragile states hangs in the balance.
If President Barham Salih eventually steps down, his replacement will have to contend with two destabilizing and diametrically opposed forces: A grassroots political movement that shows no sign of abating and the deeply entrenched influence of Iran’s discredited Shiite revolutionary regime.
The human cost kept rising every month until the protest sites of Baghdad emptied out amid fears over the coronavirus. According to the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights, more than 600 people have died and more than 20,000 people have been injured since the protests began in earnest on Oct. 1, 2019.
Rights activists and organizations on the ground say that Iraqi security forces have become increasingly prone to using lethal force to disperse protesters, evident in the widespread use of deadly, military-grade tear-gas grenades and live ammunition.
While they may be brutalized, Iraq’s protesters are not cynical. The demographic makeup of the average protest group testifies to the shared spirit of activism sweeping the country, with the typical protest group made up of the young and the old, men and women, Sunni and Shiite.
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This unlikely coalition of protesters has come up with an array of demands, including the resignation of the current legislative representative body, the transparent prosecution of corrupt political representatives and the establishment of fairer electoral laws.
Additionally, the protesters want an end to Iranian interference in Iraqi elections and policymaking, and the replacement of the current political set-up with a government better aligned with the needs and aspirations of the people of Iraq.
Unsurprisingly, one of the key objectives of Sunni protesters is the disbanding of the Popular Mobilization Forces, a politically influential paramilitary organization that is dominated by state-sponsored Shiite militias and strongly resembles Iran’s IRGC.
Of late, another vulnerability has emerged in the form of Iraq’s cultural and religious ties with Iran, which is one of the countries worst hit by coronavirus infections outside of China.
All 13 cases detected so far are linked to Iran, according to Iraq’s health ministry. After decades of war and sanctions, Iraq is believed to have fewer than 10 doctors per 10,000 inhabitants.
On the bright side, there is no dearth of political groups that champion Iraq’s sovereignty and disapprove of the spread of Iran’s tentacles into every area of Iraqi life.
From the anti-sectarian National Independent Iraqi Front, which consists of both Sunni and Shiite leaders, and the Sovereignty Alliance for Iraq (SAI) to the National Wisdom Movement led by Ammar Al-Hakim, Iraqi political entities are increasingly asserting a pro-nationalist identity.
Dr. Herman Schmidt, of the London-based Global Distribution Network, says that Sunni-Shiite groups are beginning to emerge as a counterweight to Iran’s hegemonic ambitions.
“What we are seeing is the emergence of Iraq-first organizations, comprising Iraqi nationals and expats who’ve awoken to the dangers of foreign, specifically Iranian, interests, that seriously hamper Iraq’s ability to maintain control over its borders,” he told Arab News.
“The emergence of groups such as Sovereignty Alliance for Iraq and National Independent Iraqi Front is showing the world that Iraq wants to be a country for all its people, not merely a battleground for global Sunni-Shiite rivalry or a pawn in Iran’s game to control the Middle East.
“Establishing a unified Iraq with law and order is also indicative of a willingness to attract foreign capital into Iraq in order to rebuild its infrastructure after decades of conflict.”
For anyone following Iraq’s political trajectory over the past three years, the upsurge in tensions probably came as no surprise.
The anti-government chants that have reverberated across Iraq are prompted broadly by three sources of discontent: An unending cycle of hostilities; Iran’s perceived malign influence and economic dominance; and Iraqi politicians’ reputation as a corrupt elite out of touch with reality.
Despite the withdrawal of the bulk of US military forces and the defeat of Daesh as an organized terrorist group, Iraq continues to be wracked by terrorist insurgency, political unrest, extrajudicial abuses and killings, sectarian disputes and transnational criminal activity.
Notwithstanding Iran’s success in playing off one sect against another, Iraqi protesters are in no mood to let provincial or national government officials off the hook for the inadequate provision of basic public services, endemic government corruption and lack of employment opportunities.
During the war against Daesh, the Iraqi government managed to evade responsibility for the dismal state of administration and public finances. But now, after years of broken reform promises and declining living standards, it has become impossible for the authorities to contain the pent-up frustration and anger across the country.
Iraqis have no reason to be upbeat about the political outlook.
Since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003 by a US-led invasion, they have helplessly watched Iran grow its political, intelligence and military footprint across their country.
Over the past three years especially, Iran’s intelligence apparatus has exploited Iraq’s endless cycle of war and violence to amass unprecedented levels of influence over its political and financial institutions.
Rather than leverage its newfound influence to tamp down violence and heal Iraqi wounds, Tehran has chosen to aggressively tighten its grip over Baghdad and sow discord and chaos.
Iran’s agents have bought out parts of Iraq’s civil bureaucracy and established what amounts to a foreign intelligence network — stacked with personnel from both the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) — inside the country’s most populous provinces.
Leaked reports indicate that the objective of many of these operations is the perpetuation of Iraq’s role as a client state of Iran. So far, this has been achieved by carefully stoking ethnic and sectarian tensions and fostering a culture of corruption and incompetence.
Analysts say that unless Iraq succeeds in distancing itself from Iran’s geopolitical orbit, stronger economic relations between the country on the one hand and, on the other hand, the US and the wealthy GCC bloc will remain a pipe dream.
These potential allies are reluctant to pour investments into Iraq’s funds-starved economy mainly because of the entrenched presence of Iran and the attendant geopolitical risks.
“Iran’s penetration of the Iraqi security services has scared away foreign investment,” said Michael Doran, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington DC.
“An end to Iran’s influence would remove the greatest obstacle to developing the country for the benefit of its own people. Washington has not fully woken up to the benefits that the sovereignty movement can provide to US interests and regional peace and stability.”
With the level of discontent likely to rise in the future due to falling prices of the commodity (oil) on which the state heavily depends for revenue, the Iraqi government does not have the luxury of time.
Independent observers say that Baghdad has two options: To remain a puppet of Iran and employ state security forces in a doomed attempt to repress the protests; or to adopt a pro-sovereignty doctrine that takes the demands of the Iraqi people seriously.
If they wish to preserve their country’s status as a sovereign nation, the Iraqi ruling elite must choose the second option or surrender power.