More thanÂ 200 peopleÂ have been killed in protests in Iraq during October, many ofÂ them targetedÂ by paramilitary forces linked to Iran. The protesters, who are mostly from Shiite areas of Iraq, have also sacked the offices ofÂ pro-IranianÂ political parties,Â challengingÂ 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. becauseÂ there are thousandsÂ 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 countryâ€™s Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish communities, has placed Iraq astride the fault line of Iranâ€™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 Iranâ€™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 initiallyÂ as armed gangsÂ 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 areÂ tired of low wagesÂ and a government that appears more interested in Tehranâ€™s policies than in infrastructure in places such as Iraqâ€™s southern city of Basra.
It isnâ€™t just the protestersâ€™ imaginations that believe an Iranian hand is behind their suffering in Iraq. Although government officials,Â such as PresidentÂ Barham Salih, condemned the security forcesâ€™ attacks on protesters, and political and religious leaders such as Muqtada al-Sadr and Ayatollah Ali Sistani supported the right to protest, Iran sentÂ IRGC general Qasem SoleimaniÂ to Baghdad to monitor the crisis. WhileÂ 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 Iranâ€™s media have moved into high gear, blaming the protests on theÂ U.S. and Israel. Al-Amiri and another militia leader, Qais Khazali, first blamed the U.S. and Israel onÂ October 26, and this narrative has grown as part of a way to delegitimize the demonstrations. Pro-Iranian media in Iraq calls the protests â€œsedition,â€ using the Arabic term â€œfitnaâ€ to describe the â€œstrife.â€
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 theÂ Americans they were notÂ 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 useÂ Iraq to â€œwatchâ€ Iran, an idea the White House had floated. This is a big elephant in the room now in Iraq. While there areÂ up to 4,750 U.S.Â military personnel andÂ 312 diplomaticÂ 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, hasÂ been used to condemnÂ the U.S. The brutality directed at the protesters, documented in videos online and inÂ 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.-supportedÂ Al-HurraÂ 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 â€œmaximum pressureâ€ campaign the Trump administration has pushed. It would make a desire for a new Iran deal that is in Americaâ€™s favor even less likely and greatly increase threats to Israel by opening up Iranâ€™s ability to transfer weapons across Iraq and Syria to Hezbollah.Â Iraqis are comparingÂ the recent massacre of the protesters to one of Saddam Husseinâ€™s crimes, illustrating just how serious a turning point in Iraqâ€™s history this could be.