Protests in Iraq reveal long-simmering anger at Iran

Anti-government demonstrations are mainly directed at Iraq’s own political leaders, but they have also exposed resentment at Iranian influence in the country

A protester hits a poster showing the leader of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's foreign wing, or Quds Force, Gen. Qassim Soleimani with a shoe during ongoing anti-government protests in Baghdad, Iraq, November 3, 2019. (AP Photo)
A protester hits a poster showing the leader of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's foreign wing, or Quds Force, Gen. Qassim Soleimani with a shoe during ongoing anti-government protests in Baghdad, Iraq, November 3, 2019. (AP Photo)

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) — The shoes are coming off again in Iraq.

In years past, Iraqis have beaten their shoes against portraits of Saddam Hussein in a sign of anger and insult. In 2008, an Iraqi journalist threw his shoes at a ducking US president George W. Bush during a news conference to vent his outrage at the US-led invasion.

Now protesters in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square are using their shoes again — slapping them against banners depicting Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader.

More violent demonstrations of their fury have erupted in southern Iraq, where protesters have torched the headquarters of parties and militias linked to Iran and thrown firebombs at an Iranian Consulate.

The anti-government protests that have convulsed Iraq in the past month are fueled by economic grievances and are mainly directed at Iraq’s own political leaders. But they have also exposed long-simmering resentment at Iran’s influence in the country, with protesters targeting Shiite political parties and militias with close ties to Tehran.

People walk by an Arabic sentence writing on the asphalt reads ‘Down with Iran’ near the site of the protests at Tahrir Square during anti-government ongoing protests in Baghdad, Iraq, November 1, 2019. (Khalid Mohammed/AP)

The uprising in Iraq, and similar anti-government protests underway in Lebanon, pose a threat to key Iranian allies at a time when Tehran is under mounting pressure from US sanctions.

“There’s a lack of respect. They act like they are the sons of this country and we are beneath them,” said Hassanein Ali, 35, who is from the Shiite holy city of Karbala but came to Baghdad to protest. “I feel like the Iranian Embassy controls the government and they are the ones repressing the demonstrators. I want Iran to leave.”

That the protesters are mainly from Shiite areas undermines Iran’s claim to be a champion of Shiites, who are a majority in Iraq and Iran but a frequently oppressed minority in the wider Muslim world.

“This has embarrassed Shiite leaders close to Iran,” said Wathiq al-Hashimi, a Baghdad-based analyst.

“After these demonstrations, Iran may lose Iraq by losing the Shiite street.”

In Tahrir Square, protesters have brandished crossed-out pictures of Khamenei and Gen. Qassim Soleimani, the architect of Iran’s regional military interventions who has helped direct the response to the rallies.

Demonstrators have beaten the posters with their shoes in a replay of scenes from the ouster of Saddam 16 years ago.

As in many cultures, shoes are regarded as inherently dirty in Arab countries. Last week in Baghdad, a version of the Iranian flag was painted on the pavement with a swastika on it so protesters could walk on the image.

On Sunday night in Karbala, protesters climbed the walls of the Iranian Consulate by the light of burning tires as the crowd chanted “The people want the fall of the regime,” one of the main slogans from the 2011 Arab Spring. Security forces dispersed the protest, killing at least three people and wounding nearly 20.

The demonstration came less than a week after masked men suspected of links to the security forces opened fire on a demonstration in Karbala, killing at least 18 people.

Blaming Iran

Many protesters blame Iran and its allies for deadly violence in the southern city of Basra last year and during a wave of protests in early October, in which Iraqi security forces killed nearly 150 people in less than a week, with snipers shooting protesters in the head and chest.

The spontaneous protests resumed on October 25 and have only grown in recent days, with tens of thousands of people packing central Baghdad and holding rallies in cities across the Shiite south. The protesters have blocked roads and ports and have clashed with security forces on bridges leading to Baghdad’s Green Zone, the seat of power. More than 110 people have been killed since the demonstrations resumed.

But the grievances go way back.

Iran, which fought a devastating war with Iraq in the 1980s, emerged as a major power broker after the American invasion, supporting Shiite Islamist parties and militias that have dominated the country since then.

It also supports many of the militias that mobilized in 2014 to battle the Islamic State group, gaining outsized influence as they fought along with security forces and US troops to defeat the extremists. Those militias, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, have since grown into a powerful political faction with the second-most seats in parliament.

“People make a direct connection between the failure and the corruption of the Shia political establishment, both politicians and some clerics, and the Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs,” said Maria Fantappie, an expert on Iraq with the Brussels-based Crisis Group, a global think tank.

A billboard shows Iranian and Iraqi Shiite spiritual leaders, and volunteer fighters from the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces who were killed in Iraq fighting Islamic State militants, in Baghdad, Iraq, September 18, 2019. (Khalid Mohammed/AP)

There has been a “drastic change” in the perception of the Popular Mobilization Forces, with many protesters viewing them as an instrument of repression, she said. A broader crackdown on the protests “would backfire on them in a massive way.”

Waiting it out

Lebanon also has seen huge demonstrations in recent weeks against its ruling elite and government, which is dominated by allies of the Iran-backed Hezbollah militant group. They included, for the first time, protests in Shiite-majority communities seen as Hezbollah strongholds.

But there the response has been different.

With the exception of a brief and nonlethal attack on the main protest site in Beirut last week by supporters of Hezbollah and the Shiite Amal party, the militant group has refrained from confronting protesters, and Lebanese security forces have acted with restraint.

Hezbollah and its allies have expressed sympathy for the protesters’ demands and have called for the quick formation of a new government following the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri last week. But they have also cast aspersions on the protesters, alleging that the US and other Western powers are manipulating them to try to drag the country back into civil war.

Iran’s allies in Iraq appear to have adopted a similar response.

Iraqi President Barham Salih, a member of a Kurdish party close to Iran, said he will approve early elections once a new electoral law is enacted. Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, another veteran politician, has expressed support for the protesters but urged them to reopen roads so life can get back to normal.

Iraqi President Barham Salih addresses the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly, at the United Nations headquarters, New York, September 25, 2019. (Craig Ruttle/AP)

Qais al-Khazali, the leader of one of Iraq’s most powerful Iranian-backed Shiite militias, said this week that the US, Israel, Arab Gulf nations and unspecified local officials are working to “incite strife and chaos.”

The Trump administration, which has expressed support for the protests in Iraq, could inadvertently aid that narrative by linking them to its own efforts to curb Iran’s influence. That could provoke a similar backlash against the US, which still has thousands of troops in Iraq and is also widely seen as having meddled in the country’s affairs.

Political leaders in Iraq and Lebanon have yet to offer concrete proposals to meet protesters’ demands. The process of forming a new government in either country would take months, and without fundamental change would leave the same political factions in power.

In the meantime, Iran has sought to keep its alliances intact. Soleimani traveled to Najaf over the weekend to meet with top Shiite clerics, according to three Shiite political officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the talks.

Anti-government protesters stand on barriers set up by Iraqi security forces to close the Joumhouriya Bridge leading to the Green Zone government area, in Baghdad, Iraq, November 3, 2019. (Hadi Mizban/AP)

Iran’s allies appear to be betting that as the weeks and months go by, the public will grow frustrated at the road closures and other disruptions to daily life, and that the protests will gradually fizzle out.

There are already signs of frustration.

Saddam Mohsen, a Baghdad resident, said the closure of three central bridges after clashes between protesters and security forces has worsened the city’s already terrible traffic, causing “huge problems.”

“Shutting down three bridges means shutting down half of Baghdad,” he said.

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