Troll Next Door: How Iran Is Provoking Political Violence Inside Iraq
Iran's brazen meddling in Iraqi politics has provoked a parliamentary impasse and clashes between rival militias. And while Tehran may be losing influence in Iraq, it won't let go easily.
Political violence has been spreading in recent weeks in Iraq, in the form of both street clashes and targeted killings. The situation in Iran's neighboring country is explosive as a showdown between Shia factions threatens to spark a civil conflict. Yet tensions in Iraq go beyond differences over who will form the next government or a power struggle between parties that favor or oppose Iran, the Shia power next door.
In the 19 years since the fall of the dictatorial regime of Saddam Hussein, governments have failed to meet the demands of Iraqis, particularly its new generation. It is this younger generation that came out to protest in October 2019, putting its name to a movement termed the October Protest Movement or inside Iraq, the Tishreen revolution.
A revolution returns
The pandemic confined these younger Iraqis, mostly Shias from the south, to their homes for months, but could not put out a nation's smoldering discontent. The movement's most cohesive offshoot was a civilian formation, the Imtidad or the Extension Movement, which has repeatedly called for peaceful protests and an end to the power of "the corrupt in Iraq."
Iraqis resumed their protests on Sept. 2, 2022, chanting slogans against the Islamic Republic of Iran and urging it to "Get Out." In recent months, civil society protesters had kept out of the fight between partisans of the Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his opponents, which are backed by Tehran. The October movement's neutrality gave Sadr and his supporters a chance to take over the popular protests and don the garb of opposition to corruption and foreign interventions, notably by the Islamic Republic.
The Iranian regime will "fight to the end."
One prominent October activist, Mahmud Ahmad, said that the Sadr party's victory may curb Iranian influence in Iraq, but "other problems like widespread political corruption, ineffective government and the economic and social problems will remain." While the present system, "bombastically called a democracy," remains, he said, and without a meritocracy, the crisis would continue.
A nationwide curfew imposed by Iraq's military in response to ongoing violent protests left Baghdad's streets empty.
"Iran will not rule Iraq"
The influence of Iran's clerical regime is undoubtedly one of the chief agents of political corruption in Iraq. Not surprisingly, a hashtag denouncing its meddling (Iran Will Not Rule Iraq) has been trending among Iraqi Twitter users. Mahmud Ahmad believes the Iranian regime will "fight to the end" to keep its power over Iraq, with "little regard for our lives. It is ready to sacrifice thousands of people and fan a civil war."
In Iraqi political circles, the Iranian regime is rumored to have threatened to have Sadr and his supporters murdered, through informal communications. One of the messengers may have been the head of the Lebanese Hezbollah, Hasan Nasrullah.
Your No. 1 enemy.
Sadr has publicly defied Tehran, telling it to "consider me your No. 1 enemy." He has compared Iran's proxy militias in Iraq to "filthy animals" Muslims would never eat, while a deputy, Salih Muhammad al-Iraqi, has called the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' Quds force "sectarian, terrorist and brazen." The force has become Iran's military arm in countries like Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
Iran's waning influence
Pro-Iranian groups resumed drone attacks inside Iraq's Kurdistan regime, soon after the Kurdistan Democratic Party backed Sadr's bid to form an Iraqi government without pro-Iranian parties. There have also been drone attacks and rocket strikes on districts in Iraq run by the secular Democratic Party, which were launched from inside Iran.
Iraq's president, Barham Salih, a Kurd and member of the Patriotic Union, has joined calls for early elections to help end the impasse that emerged from the elections of October 2021. Many in the country view the idea of another general election as a prelude to implementing necessary reforms.
But not Tehran, which wants an immediate government led by a complaisant politician like al-Sudani or the veteran Nuri al-Maliki. While the pro-Tehran block may not be as solid as it was, the Islamic Republic of Iran will not let go of Iraq easily.
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