The Iraqi government has promised reforms after a violent crackdown on demonstrations, but protesters still distrust the government and believe the blame lies with Iran.
During the two weeks after protests first swept through the country, Iraqis saw two contrasting sides of the government: a brutal crackdown launched by its militias and security forces that killed more than 180 Iraqi protesters; and the promise of reforms, with two new ministers being inducted into the government.
Instead of instilling hope in the people, the streets are still gripped with anger and disillusionment directed at the government. The Iraqi youth continue to dominate the streets and anger is not only aimed at Baghdad but also Tehran. They see Iran as equally complicit in bringing misery to their country.
“None of the ministerial reforms and promises are trusted by the Iraqi citizens. One of the main reasons is the Iranian influence in Iraq through parties loyal to the Iranian regime,” said Ali, a 27-year-old protester from Basra.
Although Ali is a resident of an oil-rich city, it's not enough to help him find work. The lack of jobs, poor public services and mismanagement of funds have pushing regular Iraqis to take to the streets on several occasions in the past five years. The recurring demonstrations since 2015 suggest the Iraqi government is unable to deliver on its promise.
Ali studied architecture in Najaf but at the age of 27 he still can’t find work as an architect. He first worked at a private company selling phones, then at a barber shop.
When a disastrous water shortage hit Basra, triggering a wave of protests in 2018, Ali played a key role in mobilising the masses. Their demand was to update the reforms the government had pledged during the first elections after the defeat of Daesh. A year later, he thinks Tehran’s influence has paralysed the government as the people at the helm give priority to pleasing Iran rather than carrying out reforms within a set timeline.
“All the Shiite militias in Iraq are supported by Iran, so these militias implement Iran's agendas in controlling the Iraqi climate— be it political, economic or social. They work with the parties in the parliament,” Ali says.
Iran’s military and political involvement in the country
For Omar al Nidawi, Programme Manager at the Enabling Peace in Iraq Center, a charity based in Washington DC, the anger directed at Iran has increased manifold following the 2018 elections.
“The political factions supported by Iran have taken the government away from what the people have desired,” Nidawi told TRT World.
A record low voter turnout was marked in the first post-Daesh election, casting uncertainty on the fate of the country. It took five months to name a new president, prime minister and to form the government.
“Iraqi government wasn't formed by the largest political block and parliament — it was formed as a compromise between two coalitions, Islah and Bina,” Nidawi said. The Bina coalition is dominated by many militia factions that are close to Iran.
It's not easy to completely erase the Iranian influence from Iraqi politics. When Daesh captured large swathes of the country in 2014, Tehran-backed Hashd al Shaabi, Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), played a significant role in defeating the Daesh. The IranianI Revolutionary Guards trained and advised a conglomerate of militia groups under Hashd al Shaabi and provided funds to more than 10,000 Hashd fighters.
The group’s commander Hadi al Ameri later ran in the 2018 elections as leader of the al Fatah alliance -- a move seen as a sign of an increasing Iranian influence in Iraqi politics.
Nidawi says that ever since the Bina coalition, which includes Ameri’s alliance, started to dominate the political process and public life in Iraq, it has "prevented the government from enacting and implementing many of the reforms that it promised”.
Demand for accountability
The Iraqi families of slain protesters have reportedly refused to accept the government's compensation until the guilty are held accountable. For some Iraqis, it’s the Iranian-backed militias that are responsible for the killings.
“It has been alleged that Iranian proxy paramilitary groups participated in suppressing and killing protesters, and rumour has it that operatives from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps of Iran were part of it,” Tamer Badawi, an Iran analyst, told TRT World. For Badawi, whether Iran directly intervened in suppressing Iraqi protesters, Tehran’s stance on the protests is clear.
“Tehran looks at this uprising negatively, largely if not entirely seeing them as an instrument of a plot aimed at undermining its influence in its nearby neighborhood, eventually menacing its 'forward-defense' strategy against the US and its regional allies at large,” he said.
Tensions between the US and Iran have been playing out more visibly in Iraq, with Baghdad finding itself trying to maintain a balance between the competing foreign policies of two rivals while pursuing its own interests.
In Iraqi’s eyes, the government's decision to sack Abdul Wahab al Saadi, a commander who is seen as a hero of the fight against Daesh in Mosul in 2017, is the result of the power struggle between Tehran and Washington. Many believed that the general, who was perceived as the US’s man in the Iraqi military, and his rejection of corruption and Iranian influence was behind the decision.
Saadi’s sudden removal from his position in the Ministry of Defence in late September created huge anger and sparked a new wave of protests, as Iraqis seen him as one of the few men in the position of power who fought corruption.
Amir Sabah, a 25-year-old protester from Baghdad told TRT World that without Saadi, those who are stealing public money while in their posts are left unmonitored. He feels the parties are not interested in representing people at this point.
“We want a non-partisan government providing decent living for all Iraqis,” Sabah said.
Badawi added: “There is a wide perception that the Iran-backed constituents of the government contribute to the sustaining weak state institutions, producing tremendous corruption.”
The latest protests come at a time when the US has imposed the toughest sanctions ever on Iran, targeting its economy. For Nidawi, that led Iran to pursue its interests in Iraq more aggressively and use the Iraqi economy to bypass the sanctions. However, it doesn’t mean the US and Iran have equal blame in Iraqis’ eyes, he said.
“People feel that it's Iran that is directly responsible for bringing that conflict into Iraq and for exploiting that tension to maximise its power in Iraq at the expense of the interest that the public,” he explained.
“The tension has enabled this, but Iran's actions are directly connected to the public pushback.”