One year after Iraqi protests, pro-Iran militias’ clout is growing

Observers believe that the current real showdown in Baghdad is not between the demonstrators and the government but between the government and the pro-Iran militias.
Monday 26/10/2020
Protesters wave national flags during anti-government protests in Basra, Iraq, Sunday, Oct. 25. (AP)
Protesters wave national flags during anti-government protests in Basra, Iraq, Sunday, Oct. 25. (AP)

BAGHDAD – An Iraqi politician opposed to Iran's presence in his country spoke of how hard it will be for the popular protests, which have returned to public squares in Baghdad and other provinces, to achieve what he referred to as liberating “kidnapped Iraq” from its Iranian abductors.

Popular protests demanding the restoration of Iraq’s sovereignty  have returned to Iraqi streets on the first anniversary of the largest wave of protests that erupted in various parts of Iraq on October 25 last year.

In this context, the Iraqi politician told The Arab Weekly that “the kidnapped will eventually be freed from the kidnapper, but I do not expect that the current uprising will be able to do that just now. It will be the blood already spilled and which is going to be spilled in the future that will pave the way for the next wave of anger that will free the kidnapped from the kidnapper's grip.”

The politician, who heads a parliamentary bloc, wondered aloud: “When and how kidnapped Iraq will be freed” and then answered wishfully, “it won’t be long.”

On Sunday, Tahrir Square in the Iraqi capital filled up once again with demonstrators who flocked from different parts of the capital and other  provinces from the early hours of the morning. Minor skirmishes took place between protesters and security forces in two secondary sites where demonstrators had gathered, near Allawi Garage and al-Sinak Bridge in central Baghdad.

The protest sites were filled with pictures of many politicians, with an “X” mark plastered on them to mark protesters’ opposition to them continuing to be at the forefront of the Iraqi scene. Groups of students flocked to Tahrir Square, in scenes reminiscent of a year ago when thousands of youth in university uniforms marched demanding the return of their homeland.

Although the October protests toppled the government of former Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi and forced the pro-Iranian Shia political forces to let go of their traditional control over appointing the prime minister, allowing Mustafa al-Kadhimi, a non-partisan figure, to head the government, the resulting vacuum turned into an opportunity for new Iranian hegemony over Iraq, represented this time by the growing influence of militia leaders, most of which came under the banner of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF).

At some point, the October 2019 protests seemed to have forced the leaders of the pro-Iranian militias providing a safety belt for Abdul-Mahdi's government to take one step back. This was confirmed by the emergence of Kadhimi, a person from outside the circles of the political class, which is accused of corruption, mismanagement and embezzlement of public money, as a candidate for the most important position in the country.

Although Kadhimi’s appointment raised hope for change, his experience at the helm of the government has so far proven that change in Iraq is difficult to achieve. Events during his term have revealed the scope of pro-Iranian militias' influence and the grave dangers involving open confrontation with them.

Since the formation of the Kadhimi government last May, Iraqis have been waiting for action to be taken against the militias allied with the most corrupt leaders in order to restore the country's sovereignty, but this has yet to happen.

The problem is that pro-Iranian militia leaders, such as Qais Khazali, leader of the Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia, Abu Ali al-Askari, leader of the Kata'ib Hezbollah militia, Akram al-Kaabi, leader of the Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba militia and Abu al-Wala'i, leader of the militia of the Kata'ib Sayyid al-Shuhada Brigades, have succeeded in filling the vacuum left by the departure of the traditional Shia political figures, such as Nuri al-Maliki, Muqtada al-Sadr and Ammar al-Hakim, who faded into the background ounder pressure from the October protests.

A female Iraqi demonstrator takes part in  a gathering to mark the first anniversary of the anti-government protests in Baghdad, Iraq, October 25. (REUTERS)
A female Iraqi demonstrator takes part in  a gathering to mark the first anniversary of the anti-government protests in Baghdad, Iraq, October 25. (REUTERS)

When Kadhimi tried to act in his capacity as commander-in-chief of the armed forces and deal militarily with the militia groups that were firing Katyusha rockets at foreign missions, airports and army camps in various parts of Iraq, Khazali advised him to “look the other way,” in a clear indication that the chief executive in Iraq must know his limits.

But Kadhimi ignored Khazali's advice and ordered a counterterrorism force to raid a militia headquarters near Baghdad Airport used for launching Katyusha rockets, where they caught a group of militia members planning to attack the US Embassy red-handed.

This operation was an indication of Kadhimi’s defiant approach but it was a short-lived victory. In an impressive show of force, the militias threatened to liquidate the families of the officers and investigators who were dealing with the case, and the arrested individuals eventually walked free.

The whole incident was a telling example of the growing influence and power of the pro-Iranian militias and of the impossibility of dealing with them with the tools at the government’s disposal.

Those events occurred during the first few weeks of Kadhimi’s premiership, and since then all hope for profound change in Iraqi politics has gradually faded, in parallel with militias' transformation into the most powerful representative of political Shi'ism in Iraq, supported by Iranian momentum fuelled by Tehran's need for a violent ally in Baghdad to serve the purposes of its showdown with the United States.

Analysts believe that the current real confrontation in Baghdad is not between the demonstrators and the government, against which they are supposed to protest, but between the government and the militias that insist on keeping their weapons outside the framework of the state, threatening diplomatic missions, controlling government projects and the allocation of their related contracts and implementing demographic change projects in many regions of the country.

In the protest squares now, confusion prevails regarding the nature of the demands that the renewed protest movement must adopt.

Over the past year, it has become clear that a change from within the regime will not be the solution to Iraq’s piled up crises, making the protesters certain they were right to have demanded the end of the whole regime. All Iraqis agree that their country is under Iranian domination. Iran, for its part, has dealt with the Kadhimi government as a front to move to a new stage of its hegemony, which ushers in the rise to power of militias as a substitute for political parties.

Observers considered that the truce between the Kadhimi government and the militias reflects the prime minister and his government's acknowledgement that they operate in one space while the militias have the right to move freely in another space, which is the state and all of its institutions. The upshot of this arrangement is that the government is effectively stripped of its ability to run the state and driven by fear of being overtly overthrown by the militias