More than 200 people have been killed in protests in Iraq during October, many of them targeted by paramilitary forces linked to Iran. The protesters, who are mostly from Shiite areas of Iraq, have also sacked the offices of pro-Iranian political parties, challenging more than a decade in which Tehran has sought to increase its influence in Baghdad. While the U.S. is rightly focused on the successful raid on ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the crisis in Syria, the blood flowing across the border in Iraq may have wider implications for the Middle East and for the U.S. because there are thousands of American forces and other personnel in Iraq.
Iraq was supposed to be on the right track after ISIS was largely defeated in the country in 2017. But corruption, stagnation, and continuing ISIS attacks, as well as disputes between the country’s Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish communities, has placed Iraq astride the fault line of Iran’s aggressive policies in the region. Spontaneous protests that erupted in the first days of October targeted ruling political parties, most of which tend to be pro-Iranian. This includes the Fatah Alliance, run by Hadi al-Amiri, who worked alongside Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in the 1980s and then ran the Badr Organization. It also includes parties linked to former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki and the offices of Shiite paramilitaries known as the Popular Mobilization Units. These groups, some of which emerged initially as armed gangs fighting the U.S. in the early 2000s, have sponged up state assets after they were incorporated as an official security force in 2018. Protesters say they are tired of low wages and a government that appears more interested in Tehran’s policies than in infrastructure in places such as Iraq’s southern city of Basra.
It isn’t just the protesters’ imaginations that believe an Iranian hand is behind their suffering in Iraq. Although government officials, such as President Barham Salih, condemned the security forces’ attacks on protesters, and political and religious leaders such as Muqtada al-Sadr and Ayatollah Ali Sistani supported the right to protest, Iran sent IRGC general Qasem Soleimani to Baghdad to monitor the crisis. While snipers shot the protesters, balaclava-clad men raided TV stations that were critical of Iran. The body count tells the tale: Hundreds killed, thousands injured. When the protests began anew on October 25, initial restraint by the security forces quickly degenerated into mass killing again.
Now Iran’s media have moved into high gear, blaming the protests on the U.S. and Israel. Al-Amiri and another militia leader, Qais Khazali, first blamed the U.S. and Israel on October 26, and this narrative has grown as part of a way to delegitimize the demonstrations. Pro-Iranian media in Iraq calls the protests “sedition,” using the Arabic term “fitna” to describe the “strife.”
A dangerous tinderbox is emerging in Iraq that overshadows the U.S. role throughout the Middle East. When President Donald Trump first sought to move U.S. troops from Syria to Iraq in early October, Iraqi authorities told the Americans they were not welcome. Iraq says it wants only a small number of U.S.-led Coalition troops to train units in anti-ISIS operations. Iraqi authorities told the U.S. in February 2019, after Trump first sought to leave Syria, that the U.S. could not use Iraq to “watch” Iran, an idea the White House had floated. This is a big elephant in the room now in Iraq. While there are up to 4,750 U.S. military personnel and 312 diplomatic staff in Iraq, the U.S. has reduced its diplomatic footprint since May due to Iranian threats. In addition, a series of airstrikes against Iranian militias in Iraq, which Baghdad blamed on Israel, has been used to condemn the U.S. The brutality directed at the protesters, documented in videos online and in local media, shows that pro-Iranian parties and their militias will do anything to prevent a challenge to their rule. They will use both legal and extrajudicial means to do this, for instance banning the U.S.-supported Al-Hurra network.
The end result, if the protests fail, will be an Iraq even more hostile to the U.S. and potentially seeking to evict U.S. forces, something Iraqi political parties have been pushing for more than a year. Although the U.S. has allies in Iraq, in the autonomous Kurdistan region, the erratic policy in Syria has left Washington exposed in Iraq. It would be a disaster for the U.S. role in the Middle East to both withdraw from Syria and be forced out of Iraq. For Tehran this would be a major win, one that weakens the “maximum pressure” campaign the Trump administration has pushed. It would make a desire for a new Iran deal that is in America’s favor even less likely and greatly increase threats to Israel by opening up Iran’s ability to transfer weapons across Iraq and Syria to Hezbollah. Iraqis are comparing the recent massacre of the protesters to one of Saddam Hussein’s crimes, illustrating just how serious a turning point in Iraq’s history this could be.