Iran is working to prevent the ouster of Iraqi Prime Minister Abdel Abdul Mahdi, whose rule is threatened by the widespread anti-government protests that show no signs of slowing, the Reuters news agency reported Thursday.
Abdul Mahdi expressed willingness to step down as part of possible reforms designed to appease anti-corruption activists, headed by populist cleric Moqtada Sadr.
Sadr had been pushing for various militia groups and alliances to join forces and push Abdul Mahdi from office.
Abdul Mahdi initially resisted calls to resign, but on Thursday, Iraqi President Barham Saleh vowed to hold early elections and said the embattled prime minister would resign if an alternative was found.
However, Tehran is seeking to keep Abdul Mahdi in power, according to the report, and has directly meddled in internal Iraqi matters to that end.
On Wednesday, the head of the Revolutionary Guard’s foreign wing General Qassim Soleimani flew to Baghdad for secret meetings aimed at intervening on behalf of Abdul Mahdi, Reuters reported.
According to the report, Soleimani asked Hadi al-Amiri — Sadr’s rival and leader of an alliance of Iran-backed militias — to back Abdul Mahdi despite his decreasing popularity.
There was no comment from Amiri or Sadr, but an Iranian security official told Reuters that Soleimani traveled to Baghdad on Wednesday to “give advice” to the Iraqi leader.
“(Iraq’s) security is important for us and we have helped them in the past. The head of our Quds Force travels to Iraq and other regional countries regularly, particularly when our allies ask for our help,” the unnamed official was quoted as saying.
The arrival of Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force and the architect of its regional security apparatus, signaled Tehran’s concern over the protests, which had erupted across the capital and in Iraq’s Shiite heartland, and included calls for Iran to stop meddling in the country.
Reuters noted that while Iranian officials, including Soleimani, have close ties to the Iraqi government, the general’s direct intervention in an internal political issue was a sign of Iran’s growing influence in the region.
Israel has accused Iran of seeking to place advanced weaponry in Iraq that could be used to target the Jewish state. The US envoy for Iran Brian Hook said Thursday that Tehran has funded militia groups in Syria and Iraq to the tune of $16 billion.
The protests in Iraq are fueled by local grievances and mainly directed at political elites, but they also pose a challenge to Iran, which closely backs Abdul Mahdi’s government as well as powerful armed groups in the country. An increasingly violent crackdown in Iraq has raised fears of a backlash by Iran and its allies.
The day after the protests erupted earlier in October, Soleimani flew to Baghdad where he surprised a group of top security officials by chairing a secret meeting in place of the prime minister.
“We in Iran know how to deal with protests,” Soleimani told the Iraqi officials, according to two senior officials familiar with the meeting who spoke on condition of anonymity. “This happened in Iran and we got it under control.”
But nearly a month later, the protests in Iraq have resumed and demonstrations continue in Lebanon, both directed at governments and factions allied with Tehran. The protests threaten Iran’s regional influence at a time when it is struggling under crippling US sanctions.
The day after Soleimani’s visit, the clashes between the protesters and security forces in Iraq became far more violent, with the death toll soaring past 100 as unidentified snipers shot demonstrators in the head and chest. Nearly 150 protesters were killed in less than a week.
Overnight Tuesday, masked men who appeared to be linked to Iraq’s security forces opened fire on protesters in Karbala, a holy city associated with the martyrdom of one of the most revered figures in Shiite Islam. At least 18 protesters were killed and hundreds were wounded in bloodshed that could mark an ominous turning point in the demonstrations. In Baghdad, protesters burned an Iranian flag. Days earlier, protesters had gathered outside the Iranian Consulate in Karbala, chanting “Iran, out, out!”
Iran has been largely silent on the protests until Wednesday, when Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei accused the US and its regional allies of fomenting the Iraq and Lebanon unrest, according to his website.
Khamenei, speaking at Iran’s Air Defense Academy, was quoted as saying that US and Western intelligence services “are making chaos” in the region. He urged Iraq and Lebanon to prioritize national security and respect for law while also saying the protesters’ demands are “right.”
Associated Press contributed to this report.