Iraqis are celebrating the death of the man who they blame killing of more than 500 protesters. But as the country finds itself becoming a playground for another proxy fight, Iraqis fear what might come next: a new war.
On the third day of 2020, Iraq is full of mixed emotions. The man whom an overwhelming majority of Iraqis hold responsible for the killing of more than 500 protesters during the last three months of anti-government protests was declared dead after two US drones struck a target outside Baghdad airport.
At the break of dawn, Baghdad's Tahrir square wore a festive look, with slogans of victory echoing and people waving Iraqi flags. By noon, the whispers of war that spread from ear to ear became a trending topic on Twitter with many speculating — is this the beginning of World War III?
Almost everyone who witnessed the unprecedented violence inflicted by the Iran-backed militias and Iraqi security forces upon the protesters is aware: Qasem Soleimani's death is a victory that most likely Iraqis will have to pay the price for. Tehran has vowed a rigorous revenge for the killing of Soleimani, who led many wars in the Middle East.
“What we feel is joy and fear, but more fear,” Lina, a 25-year-old Iraqi researcher tells TRT World, in reference to the news of Soleimani’s death. She says every Iraqi citizen against Iranian interference in the country is happy, but they’re not naive.
“There are those who consider the United States a saviour - some of the young people celebrated in Tahrir square. But there are also those who see that every American intervention has a catastrophe and a deterioration in the situation, as happened in the year 2003 and beyond,” she says.
When the American invasion in 2003 devastated the country, its arch-enemy Iran saw an opportunity to fill the power vacuum. Tehran's influence grew day by day, as the US occupying forces failed to actualise their two main goals in Iraq — one was to counter Iran and the other was to defeat Al Qaeda, which later emerged as Daesh.
In 2014, Iranian influence in Iraq reached its peak after Tehran-trained and funded militias threw their weight behind the struggling Iraqi forces who were unable to defeat Daesh. The combination defeated Daesh and declared a de-facto Iraqi state.
But long-lost prosperity didn’t return to Iraq even when it could have-- the failure many Iraqis attribute to Iran’s unprecedented influence in the country. Iraqis, frustrated over not making any progress and lacking basic services due to corruption, protested against the government on several occasions after Daesh was defeated in the region. In October 2019, what was a movement to demand a political change turned into a revolt with tens of thousands of Iraqis demanding more: a complete change in the government, and the end of Iranian influence in the country.
For three months, intimidation with the killings, kidnappings and threats reached a peak, but now a different kind of apprehension began to haunt Iraqis — they feared their country was openly becoming a battleground for two foreign powers, the US and Iran, while they were stuck with an ineffective government that is unable to protect its citizens.
“The people celebrate this development but they are angry at both because they have provoked chaos in our country -- we are really afraid of the Iranian response,” Abdul Razzaq, an Iraqi university student from Baghdad told TRT World.
“The US and Iraq should solve their problems outside Iraq.”
But indebted to both countries, this was something that the Iraqi government couldn’t manage. It tried to strike a balance between them until the enmity became more visible on the Iraqi land with the protests.
Three days ago, supporters of Iran-backed militias entered Baghdad’s heavily fortified green zone, which requires a special permit to enter, and torched the US consulate amid a power show between Iran and the US in Iraqi soil. This time around, the Iraqi security forces who used lethal force to prevent protesters from entering the area before didn’t stop Soleimani-loyalists from marching towards the consulate. But they also didn’t confront the US to withdraw its forces from Iraq, as the militia has been requesting.
Consequently, the US launched its operation to kill the Quds force general Soleimani, along with the head of Kataib Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militia group that converged on the US embassy with its supporters.
Two days after the militia supporters attempted to suppress voices that objected to Iran’s intervention in Iraq's internal affairs, Abdulaziz, a protester, says the news of Soleimani's death filled his heart with joy. But suspicion haunts him.
“We learned not only looking at what's under our feet. It might not be different from the US invasion in 2003, which led to the emergence of Daesh,” he told TRT World, adding that the possible consequences could be far more frightening.
Abdulaziz said apart from the US, other global powers should also respond to Iran and hold it accountable to the crimes they have committed through their proxies in Iraq.
Portraying a macabre description of what will be left in the country where men are butchered every now and then, he said: “Like one of the young men who were killed in a peaceful demonstration said: 'In the end, only Iraq remains.'"