Monday,16 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1262, (10 - 16 September 2015)
Monday,16 July, 2018
Issue 1262, (10 - 16 September 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Why Iran hates the Iraqi protests

Tehran has reacted with thinly disguised animosity to the anti-government protests in Iraq, writes Salah Nasrawi

Al-Ahram Weekly

For weeks, disenchanted Iraqis have been taking to the streets every Friday to protest against their government’s corruption and ineptitude. Basically, the protesters are demanding better public services, more accountability and the decentralisation of power.

The demonstrations may have served as a warning to the country’s political leaders, but the demands of the peaceful protesters can hardly be seen as a threat that could rock the Shia-led government of Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi.

The protesters’ calls for reform and better government management have even received a boost from Iraq’s top Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, who has backed the protesters and urged Al-Abadi to speed up the necessary changes.

In response, Al-Abadi has unveiled plans for a series of reforms designed to fight the rampant corruption in the country and vowed to escalate efforts to improve public services. He also promised to protect the protests, which he described as an “alarm bell” for his government.

Nevertheless, it has been Iran, Iraq’s powerful neighbour, which has shown signs of increasing disdain for the popular protests. Many of its senior officials and media outlets have condemned the protests as either “instigated by foreign embassies” or for being “anti-Islamic.”

Since the US troop withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 Iran has dominated the war-torn country’s political landscape. Iran is widely believed to be involved in nearly every aspect of Iraqi life, and many Iraqis believe Tehran has permeated deeply into the Baghdad government’s structures.

Still, Tehran’s scathing criticisms of the Iraqi protests is unprecedented. Iran’s scornful reaction to the protests appeared first in media coverage and in commentaries that said that the demonstrations were being misused to “sow sedition, create chaos and derail the political process” in Iraq.

Senior Iranian officials soon joined the chorus by lashing out at the pro-reform protests in Iraq. Chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces Hassan Firouzabadi accused the Iraqi protesters of being “non-Muslims.”

Iran’s former ambassador to Iraq Hassan Kazemi Qomi also alleged that “some suspicious movements in Iraq are involved in illegal activities under the guise of popular protests.”

“At first the slogans chanted in the protests were against corruption in the Iraqi government, but later they turned out to be against the ruling political groups and the religious leadership,” Qomi was quoted as saying by Iran’s Tasnim News Agency. “They seek to cause chaos,” he said.

Iran has spent considerable time and energy building influence in Iraq since the collapse of the Sunni-dominated regime of President Saddam Hussein in the US-led invasion in 2003.

In fact, much of Iran’s current influence in Iraq can be traced back to its role as a key power-broker in Iraq, which has helped Shia political groups to consolidate their grip on power in the beleaguered country.

Iran is Iraq’s main trading partner, and Baghdad’s mostly one-way trade with Tehran hit $17 billion last year, according to Iraq’s Ministry of Commerce, with plans to increase it to $25 billion in the coming few years.

In addition to growing political and economic ties, Iran has reinforced its religious ties with Iraq, with thousands of Iranian pilgrims flocking to the Shia holy sites in Iraq every day. Many Iranian Shia clerics have moved to Iraq in recent years, and now wield considerable influence.

In recent months, Iran has also played a key role in the country’s security. Since the Islamic State (IS) terror group seized large areas in Iraq in summer last year, Iran’s influence has increased as it continues to provide the Shia militias fighting the militants with weapons and other resources.

On many occasions Iranian officials have made it clear that Iraq’s domestic politics are central to Iran’s strategic interests and are testing Tehran’s core regional policies. Iran’s close engagement with Iraq’s Shia-led government has generated immense opposition inside Iraq, however.

Many protesters have rallied against what they see as Tehran’s interference in Iraq and demanded that “Iran be expelled” from the country. Iran’s stumble over the Iraqi protests, however, seems to be directed more at Al-Abadi than the protesters, and his handling of the demonstrations is seen by Tehran as a threat to the rule of its Shia allies.

Indeed, Iran has gone as far as to convey its worries directly to Al-Abadi, warning him against giving in to the protesters’ demands after he seemed to have resisted Iran’s attempts to block his minimal reform plans.

Several Iraqi media outlets reported last month that Al-Abadi had told the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Al-Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, Tehran’s point-man in Iraq, that Iran should stop criticising the reforms he has initiated in response to the protesters’ demands.

According to these media reports, a row between Al-Abadi and Soleimani during a meeting of the ruling Shia alliance in August over the prime minister’s reform plans prompted the powerful Iranian official to storm out in anger.

Tehran’s attempts to put pressure on Al-Abadi are apparently driven by a desire to protect what it considers to be its allies in Baghdad. One of the main reasons for Iran to try to derail Al-Abadi’s reforms is to save former prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki, whom the protesters blame for many of Iraq’s woes.

Al-Maliki faces charges of being held responsible for the fall of Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul to IS in 2014, when he was premier. A parliamentary report blaming him and top commanders was referred to Iraq’s prosecutor-general on 17 August. Al-Abadi has also sacked Al-Maliki as the country’s vice-president.

There are also increasing concerns that Tehran has been pushing its agenda in Iraq beyond the current confrontational anti-protest rhetoric. Last week, the leaders of two of the most influential Tehran-backed militias gave their backing to the chief of the Iraqi judiciary, Midhet Al-Mahmoud, who faces accusations by the protesters of covering up corruption and other cases of misrule by senior government officials.

A statement following a rare meeting between Hadi Al-Amri, leader of the Badr Organisation, and Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, leader of the Kata’eb Hezbollah, said the two leaders had expressed their confidence in Al-Mahmoud.

Meanwhile, gunmen kidnapped 18 Turkish construction workers in one of the most daring abductions carried out in the Iraqi capital in recent years. The kidnapping occurred on 2 September at a stadium construction site in a predominantly Shia district of Baghdad.

Gunmen in military uniforms grabbed the workers while they were sleeping in makeshift caravans on the site. No one took immediate responsibility for the attack, but reports have identified Shia militias as possible suspects.

On 4 September, Iraqi security forces investigating the abduction of the Turkish workers raided the offices of Kata’eb Hezbollah in eastern Baghdad in search of the missing men. One government soldier was killed and three others were wounded in clashes with the guards.

Fears are also rising over signs of procrastination by Shia militias fighting IS militants. Media reports have suggested that Shia militiamen have been reluctant to fight alongside the government security forces in Baiji and Ramadi, two of the main battlefronts in the war against IS.

Army commanders who have no control over the militias acknowledged that the fighting has been slowed down in the two areas, but say their forces are operating according to schedule.

If confirmed, the reports of delaying tactics by the Iran-backed militias in the war against IS means that Tehran is using the Shia paramilitary forces to hurt Al-Abadi, whose political survival hinges on fulfilling a promise to retake territories lost to the militants last year.

In the light of this Iranian propaganda war against the protesters and the mounting political and security pressure on Al-Abadi, the extent to which Iran will stick to its policy of interference in Iraq’s affairs remains critical.

The situation in Iraq has reached a stalemate. The anti-government protests are fuelling public anger against Iraq’s Shia political class, which many fear could trigger a wider popular revolt.

If Al-Abadi fails to implement the reforms demanded by the protesters by fighting the endemic corruption, ending waste and working to pacify the country, he will be seen as cosying up to Iran and will lose credibility and public trust.

Worse, if Al-Abadi does not show that he is distancing himself from the Iranian attacks on the protests, the fate of his government will hang in the balance and even the country’s institutions could slip out of his control.

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