As Iraqis protest Iranian encroachment, US may have better opportunity at engaging Baghdad

After the protests subside, Washington may have a shot at helping Iraq enact reforms.
Saturday 12/10/2019
An opportunity to act. US President Donald Trump (R) and Iraqi President Barham Salih hold a meeting in New York, September 24. (AFP)
An opportunity to act. US President Donald Trump (R) and Iraqi President Barham Salih hold a meeting in New York, September 24. (AFP)

WASHINGTON - Protests in Iraq have centred on Iranian influence in the country and may provide the United States with a “strategic opening,” experts said.

Baghdad may be forced to make a choice between Tehran and Washington as protests reflected resentment of Iranian sway over Iraqi governance. Iraq has toed a tenuous line between its relationship with Iran and its vital ties to the United States.

The Iraqi protests began after dismissal of the Iraqi counterterrorism chief, Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi, who was perceived by Tehran as not having done enough to accommodate Iranian interests.

The slogan “Iraq first, Iran out” was popular among protesters, who called for an end to Iranian influence over the Iraqi government.

Randa Slim, director of the Middle East Institute’s Conflict Resolution Programme, said this could pose a serious problem for Iran. “The fact that the great majority of these protesters are Shias, many of whom are former soldiers, including some who fought against [the Islamic State] ISIS, must be of particular concern to Tehran,” she said.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei posted on Twitter: “Iran and Iraq are two nations whose hearts and souls are tied together through faith in God and love for Imam Hussain… Enemies seek to sow discord but they’ve failed and their conspiracy won’t be effective.”

The Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), an Iran-backed militia umbrella group, rallied behind the Iraqi government in trying to quiet protests. PMF Chairman Falih Alfayyadh said it would back the Baghdad government to prevent any “coup” attempt.

There were Iraqi reports claiming the PMF was responsible for unnecessary use of force against protesters. Its excesses might lead to reactions against Iranian influence in Iraq.

Jennifer Cafarella, research director at the Institute for the Study of War, said the PMF may be using the protests as an opportunity to further control power. They are “disguising a possible PMF power grab as defending the state,” said Cafarella, who added that the PMF’s involvement indicates an escalation of Iranian proxy involvement in Iraq.

The militias’ overreach could not diminish the anger of protesters’ concerns over domestic issues such as corruption and inadequate government services.

“Protesters are demanding jobs, better services and an end to the corruption that is widespread and institutionalised in Iraq at all levels of government,” said Slim.

Approximately 25% of young Iraqis are employed and, since 2014, more than $400 billion of public funds had disappeared.

Ramzy Mardini, a fellow at the United States Institute of Peace, said “these protests are an accumulated effect of strategic mismanagement of the state and economy.”

Unrest in Iraq is common but recent protests are unique, said Anthony Plaff, a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council in an October 3 report.

“What seems to be different this time is both the protests’ size — they have spread throughout southern Iraq — and their spontaneity,” Plaff said. “The protests were catalysed by not just the perception of Iranian meddling but the fact that meddling targeted Saadi who, along with the Counter-Terrorism Services he led, was largely viewed by Iraqis as effective and non-sectarian.”

After the protests subside, Washington may have a shot at helping Iraq enact reforms, analysts said. Many are sceptical because previous attempts in Iraq were unsuccessful but Plaff said Iraqis may be ready to accept help.

“If the Iraqi government chooses to overcome inertia and make real reforms, the United States needs to be prepared to provide the right expertise and support to facilitate those reforms’ success,” said Plaff.

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