Dozens have been killed and hundreds injured in the ongoing wave of street protests in Baghdad and the predominantly Shia provinces of southern Iraq. Protesters are demanding jobs, reform, and a real shake-up of the political system. The political ruling class is undoubtedly unsettled by the nature and identity of the leaderless—yet energetic—protest movement (Aljazeera, October 24).
At the center of the predominantly Shia protesters’ anger is the Iran-backed Shia militias. Several bloody clashes have occurred as protesters attacked local branches of the militias and other Shia parties in predominantly Shia cities in southern Iraq. Militiamen were accused of being heavily involved in the shooting of protesters in Baghdad. This wave of protests represents the most daring and serious challenge to not only the powerful Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq, but to the whole Iranian domination of Iraqi politics since 2003. In post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, the political system has centered on the sharing of senior positions and resources among the three main sectarian factions—Shias, Sunnis, and Kurds. Shia parties allied with Iran, however, received the lion’s share. Iran also has historic influence over the Kurdish parties, and more recently some Sunni groups. The protests demand an overhaul to the whole political system, which would likely destabilize the power sharing arrangements that benefit Iran’s interests.
Although the protests did not begin as an anti-Iran movement, Iran and its allies in Iraq have been the most anxious about the protests and their likely implications. Shia militia leaders have vehemently opposed the protests, which they labeled a U.S.-backed conspiracy. Reports even suggested that General Qassim Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – Quds Force (IRGC-QF), visited Baghdad in early October to lead the crackdown on the demonstrations (Arab News, October 23).
On October 30, Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, called on authorities in Iraq and Lebanon to deal with what he described as riots driven by the United States and Israel. Khamenei also claimed the protests were funded by some “regressive nations”—referring to Arab Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia (al-Ansaar, October 30).
A Broken System
Since the formation of the new Iraqi political system after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, Iraqi parties have been running a patronage system on multiple levels. Senior members of these parties dominated public administration on every level, and jobs were given to followers and loyalists. Corruption is also endemic in Iraq, which has long been one of the most corrupt countries in the world. It was inevitable that fundamental problems with the system, which have existed since its formation, would lead it to a crisis point.
The Iraqi Shia-led government allowed Shia militias to operate and access the political system more visibly after the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011. After the Islamic State’s (IS) advances in 2014, the Shia militias gained more prominence under the Popular Mobilization Units (Hashd al-Shabi—PMU), which were endorsed by the government and blessed by a Fatwa from the most senior Shia cleric, Ali al-Sistani. Although most of the leaders and members of the Iranian-backed militias religiously follow Khamenei rather than Sistani, they have emphasized Sistani’s Fatwa and promoted it as a mandate.
Figures such as the deputy leader of the PMU—a historic ally of Iran’s IRGC—Jamal Jafar al-Ibrahim (better known as Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis), operated freely and effectively on both battlefields and in Baghdad. He previously had to operate covertly, as he has been on the U.S. list of designated terrorists since the 1980s. In the June 2018 elections, the PMU’s political arm, al-Fatah, came in second after the Sairoon party led by anti-U.S. Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Al-Sadr’s militia, Saraya al-Salam (Peace Brigades), also belongs to the PMU, but operates with a high degree of independence.
The protesters have been peaceful and unarmed in most cases. When the first wave of protests began on October 1, they suffered casualties as security forces and militias opened fire in multiple locations in Baghdad, Nasiriya, and other cities. At least 150 people were believed to have been killed, with thousands more injured and hundreds arrested in the first week of October (Al Arabiya, October 23).
Despite the violent response, protesters heeded calls on social media to resume demonstrations on October 25 and returned energized and in higher numbers. This time the protesters managed to occupy Tahrir Square in central Baghdad. Clashes between protesters and the militias in southern Iraq have since grown even more violent (Asharq al-Awsat, October 26).
The anti-U.S. cleric Moqtada al-Sadr faces a particularly challenging position in this crisis. He is more independent of Iran in comparison to other militia leaders. Yet, when the protests first broke out, al-Sadr was visiting Iran. He attended the ceremony celebrating Ashura—the most important day in the Shia calendar—in Tehran as a special guest of Khamenei. A picture of al-Sadr sitting on the floor with Khamenei’s aids, including General Soleimani, while Khamenei sat on a chair did al-Sadr a further disservice. That occasion was weeks before the protests, and al-Sadr was in fact looking for greater Iranian recognition of him as a senior leader and powerbroker in Iraq (al-Arab, September 12).
Despite his rhetoric on Iraqi independence and Iraqi nationalism—some of which is likely genuine—al-Sadr would not join any effort that might destabilize Iran or threaten its own national security. The recent protests are perceived as a threat. Ahead of the second wave of the protests, which was going to start on October 25, al-Sadr told the protesters to focus their condemnation on the United States and Israel (MC Doualiya, October 15).
Al-Sadr does not want to appear out of touch with Iraqis. He played a major role in the previous wave of mass protests in 2015-2016, when he personally led his followers in the movements’ call for reform. In last year’s elections, his party, Sairoon, won the most seats in parliament. His argeement with the leader of al-Fatah, Hadi Al-Amiri, and Badr led to the appointment of Abdul-Mahdi’s government. Part of the public resentment is now directed toward him for failing to deliver on his promises of reform.
However, al-Sadr’s suggestions seem to be one of the few that could lead to defusing the tension. He called for the resignation of Abdul-Mahdi and early elections under international supervision. Other militias have very little chance to survive as political parties if they are dissolved or defeated. Al-Sadr, however, will always have his mass movement, which is significantly larger than his militia.
The leaders of the Iranian-backed militias were about to start their own rallies, but they were seemingly aborted by Sistani. During the weekly Friday prayer, a representative for Sistani said that no party should use his pictures or claim to represent him. More importantly, he called for the security forces and any other part of the Iraqi armed forces, including the PMU, not to use violence against the protesters. The speech also called for foreign countries to not attempt to impose their will on Iraqis. The reference was interpreted by protesters as directed against Iran. Yet, beyond general principles, Sistani has not yet supported immediate change of the government and constitution. The most important point was his opposition to the deployment of security forces to repress the protesters (Azzaman, November 1).
The situation is still evolving and the end result is unclear, but the Shia militias are under immense pressure on how to deal with the protests and how to avoid emerging as losers at the end of the crisis. Iranian domination of the Middle East at large is being challenged too, as the protests in Iraq coincided with protests in Lebanon. Unlike in Iraq, there have been no casualties and almost no violence in Lebanon, but the power of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah is being challenged in an unprecedented manner.