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Iranian Troops Are on a Deadly Collision Course With Iraq’s Protesters as Tehran Tightens Its Grip

To keep its grip on power in Iraq and beyond, Tehran is ready to quash its neighbor’s protests

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Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds force of the Revolutionary Guards, is probably the most worried man in Iran today. The veteran officer who controls the planning, oversight and operations of Iranian influence systems abroad is facing one of the most difficult challenges of his long career. Two flash points, one in Lebanon and the other in Iraq, jeopardize the huge amount of money, knowhow and manpower that Iran has invested in those two countries for decades and threaten to erode its influence, if not smash it to bits.

In fact, the most dangerous eruption could happen in Iraq, which is controlled by a Shi’ite majority and headed by a pro-Iranian coalition. If it isn’t stopped quickly, it could undermine Iran’s most important base of control in the Middle East. This is because as opposed to Lebanon, which is not of great strategic importance, Iraq, whose trade with Iran reaches about $12 billion a year, is essential for Iran to evade American sanctions, is a bastion of territorial and political control to stop Saudi hegemonic designs, and establishes Iran’s status as a regional power. It also supposedly maintains the ideological mission of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic revolution who sought to export it to Muslim countries. In Lebanon Iran relies on the power of the organization it established there, but it is also dependent on the good services of Syria, which has been politically and militarily “occupied” by Russia, to maintain its Lebanese outpost. But Iraq is an ally to which Iran has total and direct access.

But what seems like a natural Shi’ite brotherhood of economic and diplomatic interests between Iran and Iraq is much more complicated than the way it’s usually depicted in Israel and the West – the Shi’ite crescent. Almost two thirds of Iraq’s citizens are Shi’ites, less than one third are Sunnis and the rest are Kurds, Turkmens and other ethnic groups. Most of the political power is wielded by the Shi’ite parties, but they are not cut from the same cloth when it comes to policies toward Iran. The 329 members of the Iraqi parliament elected in 2018 represent about 45 parties organized in blocs, each with its own religious, diplomatic and political agenda. Some have “private” militias and their own sources of income in addition to what they receive from the state budget in keeping with the ministries they won. These rifts and rivalries meant that it took five months from the election for the blocs to agree on the appointment of Adel Abdul-Mahdi as prime minister.

The electoral system, which grants power to the relatively large parties and excludes smaller parties and groups, has so far ensured that the usual elites continue to hold the important and well-funded ministerial portfolios. In contrast, reformers, movements to advance democracy and civil rights, anti-corruption groups and representatives of ethnic minorities, especially the Sunnis, have been pushed out of the political arena to make sure they don’t threaten the economic monopolies of the main centers of power.

This system could perhaps continue to exist if the government saw to the needs of the weaker segments of the population, created several tens of thousands of jobs, provided reasonable public services and showed determination to fight the deep-seated corruption in Iraq, which consistently tops the list of the most corrupt countries worldwide.

With the outbreak of demonstrations in early October, and only after about 100 people were killed (since then the number has gone up to over 200, with some 4,000 wounded), the government presented a series of changes intended to calm the protesters. Among these, the government pledged to build about 100,000 inexpensive apartments, allocate lots to the poor to build homes, give them interest-free loans, pay the unemployed protesters $147 a month for three months, build factories to provide jobs and establish a high court to deal with corruption. But these offers came too late; they seemed to only spark more anger because they were seen as throwing bones to the public and not as moves intended to fundamentally address the deep economic gaps and the culture of corruption.

The protesters changed their slogans from demands for electricity, education, water and jobs to calls to remove of the prime minister and continued regime changes, especially ending the division of political power along ethnic and religious lines. Last week, Iraq’s president, the Kurdish Barham Salih, announced that he understood from Mahdi that the latter was willing to resign on condition that a replacement be found. The president pledged to act to change the electoral system and appoint a government that would prepare for an early election. But the public is having none of it, and rightly so. A change in the election law would require the support of those same political and religious elites that enjoy the law as it is now, and they can’t be expected to give up the source of their power. Some of the political leadership agrees that it would be better to sacrifice the prime minister, but they see such a step only in terms of reconciling the protesters, not as leveraging regime change. This question also reveals the deep rifts between the supporters and the opponents of Iran in the Iraqi government and parliament.

Soleimani, the Quds commander, who has taken part is some of the government’s meetings and speaks daily by phone to the heads of the parties, is trying to keep Mahdi in office – and not only because it was Iran that helped put him there two years ago. Iran is afraid that if Mahdi steps down, it will be seen as weakness on the part of the leadership, which will encourage protesters to ratchet up their demands once again, to the point of a collapse of the regime that gives Iran its holds on power in Iraq. Soleimani has proposed and even demanded that the Iraqi government use greater force against the protesters. He has pitted the Shi’ite militias against the protesters, and was even strongly backed by the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who called the protests “disturbances of the peace instigated by America, Israel and Saudi Arabia” and told the Shi’ite militias to deal with them. At the same time there are reports that Iran is planning to send Soleimani-trained Iranian militias to Iraq to quell the protests if the Iraqi Shi’ite militias are unable to get the job done.

But this is where Khamenei and Soleimani come up against the determined resistance of Iraq’s senior Shi’ite leader, the Ayatollah Ali Husseini Sistani, who opposes the use of force against the protests and has warned of the “intervention of foreign and international powers that intend to subvert the will of the Iraqi people” – mainly referring to Iran. Sistani, among the most influential leaders in Iraq as well as in the Shi’ite communities outside it, is relying on the atmosphere among the protesters, who are demanding the removal of Iranian influence in Iraq and the dissolution of the Shi’ite militias funded and supported by Iran. Sistani’s position joins that of the separatist Muqtada Sadr, who heads the bloc that received the relative majority in the 2018 election. That position has clashed in more than one occasion not only with Iran’s intentions, but also that of Hadi Amiri, the leader of the Fatah faction that is very close to Iran, who proposes replacing Iraq’s parliamentary regime with a presidential one. Such proposals send chills up and down the spines of Sunnis, Kurds and other smaller groups, who fear that a presidential regime will further corral them politically.

These disputes clearly show that Iraq finds itself at a dead end as the struggle in the streets continues to gather steam, the protesters’ demands grow greater and more insistent and the threat to Iran’s position in Iraq could develop into a direct clash between Iranian forces and the Iraqi public.