Control and Violence in Atypical Iraq

The events surrounding the resignation of Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi were atypical. His country witnessed uncommon protests against not only the dysfunction of Iraq’s government and political life but also the stake Iran has in the running of the neighbouring nation.

Iran’s consulates were burned and its influence denounced, even in holy Shia cities such as Karbala and Najaf. Iraq’s government responded with extreme violence, which caused the death of an alarming number of protesters.

Although the methods used to kill many of those who demonstrated were reminiscent of the forces of an autocracy suppressing popular protest – snipers, the aiming of tear gas canisters at the heads of protesters and the kidnapping and killing of activists by militias – the Iraqi military said it was not involved, blaming unknown elements.

The oddities continue. After weeks of demonstrations and hundreds of deaths, Abdul-Mahdi offered his resignation to Iraq’s parliament. Even though it was accepted, such is the state of things that the internal bargaining required to form a new administration has not been completed and Abdul-Mahdi remains in office.

While he does, the interventions of others in Iraq’s political triangulation signal new strangeness. Not only is Major-General Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) al-Quds Force, the commander and symbol of Iran’s constellation of proxies across the region and a focal point of Iraqi protests, in Baghdad to influence the formation of a new government; Iranian interference has been implicitly denounced by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a leading Shia religious figure.

‘We hope a new head of government and its members will be chosen within the constitutional deadline’, Sistani’s emissary said at Friday prayers in Karbala. ‘It must also take place without any foreign interference.’

Abdul-Mahdi’s stepping down and continued protests in Iran as well as Iraq exist in a strange state internationally. Even a few years ago, the political manoeuvring of Iraq’s leaders was debated in Western capitals but Iranian involvement was not taken to be decisive. Now Iranian domination is effectively acknowledged.

While protests in Iraq used to receive extensive international coverage in global media, now they are reported less as a popular campaign animated by real grievances but rather incrementally, with deaths rounded up by the day or at the end of a week.

‘Iraqis are simply asking the international community to pay attention – to shine a spotlight on the heavy-handed and deadly tactics being used by the Iraqi Security Forces and the militias tied to Soleimani’, said Michael Pregent, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.

Iraq’s government formation continues and although it matters who becomes Iraq’s prime minister, Iran’s position remains strong despite the protests.

‘It doesn’t matter who the prime minister is as long as Soleimani’s people maintain influence in Baghdad’, Pregent said.

Iraqis who have a special relationship with Iran “have primacy in Iraq’s political, security and economic sectors. As long as [Nuri al-]Maliki, [Hadi al-]Ameri and [Abdul Mahdi al-]Mohandes remain kingmakers … Iraqis from all sects will continue to die for their freedom from Tehran loyalists’, added Pregent

Phillip Smyth, Soref fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said: “[Muqtada al-]Sadr has put forth a bunch of people that he likes and he’s also demonstrated that he wants things to go a certain way. Obviously, Tehran would not like it that way but it depends on what kind of deal is cut in the background.

‘In terms of preserving power – and I mean at more than institutional levels – the Iranians have a very good handle on it.’

Iran’s handle on Iraq is subject to strangeness. It is both accepted – and blamed for Iraqi dysfunction – paying the cost for involvement in normal, rather than covert, politics.

‘You have to remember this is not a great power; it’s a regional power’, Smyth said. ‘Baghdad was not providing services for people and the country is in a mess. Now that the Iranians are in power there, they take some responsibility for that.’

‘If they are encouraging that, the groups that they support are supporters of their own theocratic style of revolution and that they are quite literally answering to God, like Hezbollah in Lebanon – that they are above corruption – and the people just see that they’re part of the same corrupt mass, that doesn’t help them. When it comes down to being overtaxed, Tehran can only do so much’, Smyth said.

Although Iran’s open involvement in dominating Iraqi politics remains hugely unpopular, it is unlikely to end with the exposure of its influence or in a change of government.

Also atypical is ‘the posturing that you see out of the IRGC and particularly the IRGC-Quds Force’, in recent years, as they overtook the Iraqi state and consolidated Iranian control. Previously, Smyth said, ‘they are much slower long-term movers’.

‘I’m not saying they’ve gotten rid of that strategy but I think in the meantime they may have taken a few too many shortcuts to attain certain power projection abilities and also other political and economic abilities within Iraq and, if you do that, it costs you’.

This piece was originally published in The Arab Weekly.

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