Anti-poverty protests in Iraq have thrust the country’s Shia provinces into chaos since early October. They have coincided with the entry into Iraq of some two million Iranian Shia pilgrims for an annual pilgrimage known as Arba’een. The protests appear to have taken on an anti-Iranian tone as well, with demonstrators calling for an end to Iran’s influence in Iraq.
Iran’s authorities say the protests aim to disrupt the Arba’een. It is no secret that Iran holds a grip over Iraqi politics and supports different Iraqi political factions. But a large number of Iranian pilgrims visit Iraq annually and this is a painful reminder of how even Iran’s religious influence within Iraq seems to expand unhindered and this makes Iraqi people feel overpowered in their own country.
Tehran sees the latest protests as a conspiracy against it rather than as an organic uprising questioning Baghdad’s poor management of Iraqi affairs. Though Tehran initially urged pilgrims to delay traveling to Iraq, it quickly reversed its decision and blamed the protests on hostile foreign governments wanting to push Iranians out of Iraq. Iran’s news agencies have since claimed that Iraqi Sunnis and Baathists loyal to the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein have been transferred from the generally calmer western provinces to the Shia regions in central and southern Iraq to stir anti-Iranian protests.
What is known is that the protests erupted because of widespread corruption in Iraq. The Iraqi government’s mismanagement is notorious, and Iran’s open support for its Iraqi proxies is indicative of Baghdad’s incompetence. News reports showed that posters of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had been torn down in major Iraqi cities. Despite these anti-Iranian protests, Khamenei insisted in a tweet that the fate of Iran and Iraq is intertwined and that the two countries will not be separated or divided.
In a demonstration of this point, last month, Khamenei hosted the Iraqi Shia cleric and opposition figure Muqtada Al-Sadr in Tehran. Al-Sadr is known for his vocal criticism of corruption in Iraq and Iran’s growing influence there. His visit to Tehran sent a message to the rest of the world that Iran still matters when it comes to preserving Iraq’s stability and security.
However, despite this cozy relationship between Al-Sadr and Tehran, Sadrist forces oppose the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Units (PMU). During Arba’een the PMU assists Iranian pilgrims traveling to the holy Shia shrines in Najaf and Karbala. Baghdad has tried to force the PMU to disarm and join Iraq’s regular armed forces, but it has not yet succeeded in achieving this goal. During the protests, clashes may have broken out between Sadrist forces and the PMU. Though there is no direct evidence of this, the PMU is known to work closely with Iraqi military units and has played a major role in quelling recent protests in Iraq.
Baghdad ordered Iraq’s special military units out of Sadr City, where most of Sadr’s followers reside in eastern Baghdad and replaced them with regular police units, in an effort to restore calm. The police are responsible for ensuring the orderly conduct of citizens, whereas the military had reportedly resorted to excessive force based on statements issued by the Iraqi army and security forces. The statements did not indicate the PMU’s role in the crackdown.
The PMU denies suppressing the Iraqi protests. But as Baghdad struggles to restore calm, the PMU’s commanders say they are ready to prevent a coup in Iraq. The PMU’s militias have stormed satellite TV stations, and silenced protestors who demand their downfall. Unverified reports suggest that the PMU fired rockets and mortars at Iraqi demonstrators, and used sniper attacks to disperse them. Other reports highlight that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has also sent advisors and fighters to strengthen the position of the PMU.
Iraq’s protests have since turned into deadly street fights, claiming nearly 120 lives and some 6,000 have been injured. Several thousand other protestors continue to defy Baghdad’s curfews. The hardline Iranian Fars News Agency has warned that the protests will not force Iran out of Iraq. Iran also believes that the goal of the protests is to weaken Baghdad’s central authority. The Iranian-backed Asaeb al-Haq militia in Iraq blames the protests on social media and its call for protests a month earlier. Since then, Iraq’s government has disconnected Iraq’s link to the worldwide web.
Despite the protests, Iran has insisted on sending pilgrims to Iraq. Habibollah Sayyari, a coordinator for Iran’s army has said that the Iranian military is ready to restore security along the Iran-Iraq borders to facilitate the pilgrimage of millions of Iranians to Iraq. Iran has offered 9,000 buses to transport the pilgrims and has worked with Baghdad to remove visa requirements to increase the number of Iranian visitors. Disregarding the protests, Tehran has urged Iranian pilgrims to drive cars across the borders or walk by foot to Iraq.
As an indication of Iran’s support for the PMU during the Iraqi protests, the Chief of Staff of Iran’s Armed Forces Major General Mohammad Bagheri has promised to work with the PMU to ensure the safety of Iranian pilgrims heading to Karbala and other major Iraqi shrine cities.
Meanwhile, the Iranian government’s spokesperson Ali Rabiei insists that the Iraqi government has had no role in the repressive events and crackdowns in recent weeks. The statement aims to show that Tehran is keen to help Baghdad restore order. Whether this means that Iran and its proxies have given Baghdad a hand in suppressing the protests remains to be seen though reports have surfaced suggesting so. Regardless, Iran’s fingerprints are visible through the influence that it exerts over both the Iraqi PMU and Baghdad.