Months of anti-government protests across Iraq bring to mind a (slightly altered) catchphrase made famous in the 1975 film classic “Network”: They’re mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore.
The “it” in this case is rampant corruption that has caused severe unemployment and grossly inadequate public services in Iraq and unwanted Iranian influence on domestic security and politics.
Mass demonstrations are nothing new in Iraq; protests against the government have erupted every year since Saddam Hussein was ousted in 2003.
But the latest unrest is largely spontaneous, led chiefly by disillusioned youth from a cross-section of society who have used social media to organize and coordinate.
The protesters initially appealed for more jobs and basic services including clean water and electricity, but their demands quickly broadened in outlook. Using non-sectarian and nationalistic messages, they are now calling for their leaders to be held to account for corruption as well as for new electoral laws and an end to Iraq’s sectarian-based political system.
They also have another message: Iraq’s domestic policies are its own business.
That means foreign powers such as Iran must be kept out of Iraqi affairs — something that would alter the geopolitical scene in the region and finally facilitate a U.S. pullout from Iraq.
A Way Out of Iraq
The Trump administration has reportedly warmed to the idea of pulling some troops from Iraq, saying it’s ready “in principle” to discuss the issue after the Iraqi parliament voted in January to expel U.S.-led coalition troops. But Washington’s policymakers view Iraq through the lens of its wider Iran policy, and the U.S. is unwilling to withdraw all 5,200 soldiers based in Iraq — at least, not until the country shakes off the Iranian yoke.
The protest movement is the best hope Iraq has of doing that.
That’s why it’s crucial for Washington to support the protesters’ desire for sovereignty and show that it is listening to the will of the Iraqi people — especially now that the unrest also targets the U.S. following the drone strike that killed Iran’s top general, an Iraqi military leader and eight others near the Baghdad airport.
Iran has been responsible for most of Iraq’s troubles over the last decade. While Iraqi instability stems from centuries of interference from foreign powers such as the Mongols, the Ottomans, the British and the United States, the extent of Iranian interference at the social, economic and political heart of Iraq is without precedent.
Although the U.S. gave a democratic political system to Iraq, it failed to consider the consequences: There are far more Shi’a Muslims than Sunni Muslims in Iraq, so democracy brought a Shi’a government to power.
That government quickly aligned itself with Shi’a Iran — America’s longtime rival in the Middle East and a destabilizing force in the region.
The protesters, many of whom are actually Iraqi Shi’a, accuse Tehran of complicity in the country’s governance failure and corruption. Transparency International says Iraq is one of the most crooked countries in the world, with a weak capacity to absorb aid money and little political will to fight corruption.
Since Tehran’s influence over Iraqi internal affairs has only grown since 2003, Iraq will continue to be plagued by these issues unless and until it can stand on its own feet.
Regional Equivalent of the Cold War
Iran is locked in a bitter struggle for regional dominance with Saudi Arabia, which sees itself as the top Sunni Muslim power and is an important strategic ally of the U.S. Other countries in the Middle East with Shi’a or Sunni majorities look toward Iran or Saudi Arabia for support or guidance.
While the Iranians and the Saudis are not directly fighting, they are engaged in several proxy wars — conflicts where they support rival sides and religious militias — around the region.
Iraq is increasingly becoming one of Iran’s top allies, their relationship rooted in religious and ideologically based allegiances and regional geopolitics. Tehran has close links with Shi’a politicians who are part of Iraq’s ruling elite and has backed the paramilitary Popular Mobilization Forces and the Badr Organization, which is dominated by Shi’a militias.
The two countries have become worryingly close in recent months. Tehran has used Iraq’s banking system to obtain U.S. hard currency, Iraq provides a vital logistical gateway for Iran to supply goods and weapons to Syria and Lebanon, and Iraq has become one of Iran’s top trading partners.
Iran, struggling to stay afloat amidst a wave of new U.S.-led sanctions, also sees Iraq as a lifeline for its financial network.
Tehran also sees Iraq’s location and its valuable oil reserves — worth $65 billion in 2018, according to the International Monetary Fund — as both economically and militarily significant as Iran seeks to expand across the Middle East and entrench itself on the Mediterranean Sea.
Iranian entrenchment also indirectly affects foreign direct investment from wealthy Gulf Arab nations. The Gulf, cautious of its regional rivals’ control over Baghdad, is unwilling to provide vital infrastructure deals until Iraq can take control of its resources and politics.
Putting Aside Sectarian Allegiances
Sunnis and Kurds — who comprise almost a fifth of the Iraqi population — lost trust in the country’s Shi’a leadership early on.
The fact that the unrest expanded into Iraq’s southern and central provinces — usually hubs of support for Iranian influence — shows that even the Iraqi Shi’a are fed up with a political system based on ethnic and religious affiliation that allows certain people and groups to enrich themselves and expand their influence while much of the population endures economic destitution.
Given that Iranian dissatisfaction stems from a broad ethnic spectrum, it is apparent that removing Iran’s grip requires a non-sectarian and pro-sovereignty push.
Fortunately there are political organizations emerging like the anti-sectarian, pro-modernization National Independent Iraqi Front that consists of both Shias and Sunni figureheads, and the expressly pro-sovereign anti-Iranian National Wisdom Movement.
These pro-sovereignty movements in turn fall under the Sovereignty Alliance for Iraq — a governing body for all of Iraq’s increasingly popular nationalist and pro-sovereignty movements.
The anti-Iran demonstrations have gained momentum as Iran seeks to sow disquiet among the population in a bid to divide and conquer Iraq.
Security forces, with the coordination of Tehran, have responded to the protest movement with a campaign of repression that has killed more than 600 people and wounded tens of thousands.
But the protesters have been pushing back, and the fact that historically adversarial sects have come together to call for a united Iraq is telling.
On Feb. 13, hundreds of Iraqi women in Baghdad and other cities defied pro-Iran Shi’a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr by marching alongside men. This reflects social change in Iraq and the aim of demonstrators to include all segments of society in the movement.
Protesters have shown that they are willing to risk their lives to transform Iraq. The country could be on the verge of something monumental.
It’s time for the West, especially the U.S., to demonstrate that it believes Iraqi sovereignty is the answer.
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