Mass protests sweep Iraq, target pro-Iran militias and parties

Baghdad shuts Internet, sends US-trained elite counter-terror units to quell economic unrest.

Protesters gather near the main provincial government building in Basra, Iraq July 15, 2018. (photo credit: ESSAM AL-SUDANI/ REUTERS)
Protesters gather near the main provincial government building in Basra, Iraq July 15, 2018.
(photo credit: ESSAM AL-SUDANI/ REUTERS)
Najaf airport has been sacked. The border with Kuwait has been occupied by protesters and roads to major oil fields blocked in southern Iraq. The base of a Kata’ib Hezbollah pro-Iranian militia was set on fire.
In response Baghdad has cut off access to Internet and social media apps, and sent elite counter-terrorism units, as well as the army, to quell the spreading protests.
A year after the Iraqi security forces liberated Mosul from Islamic State, the country was supposed to be getting back on its feet. In February, Middle Eastern powers, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey, promised to help Iraq meet the $80 billion it wanted in reconstruction credit lines and aid. The US and western powers sought to support Baghdad as well. The US is plowing $250 million into Foreign Military Financing in Iraq, $850m. into “train and equip” funds, and $150m. toward stabilization and development programs.
However, the funds have not trickled down to average people throughout Iraq.
Signs emerge of Iraq"s next coalition, May 20, 2018 (Reuters)
In May, voters in Iraq turned out for Muqtada al-Sadr’s Sairoon party, in a populist vote that helped the opposition Shi’ite cleric come in first. In second place was an alliance of Shi’ite militia-backed parties, many of them close to Iran. In third place was Iraq’s prime minister and his “victory” party which sought to capitalize on perceptions he had helped defeat Islamic State.
Since the election, however, a government has not been formed and ISIS attacks have increased throughout many central provinces in Iraq. To tackle the ISIS threat, Baghdad sent half a dozen major military units fanning out into Salahuddin, Diyala, Kirkuk and Nineveh provinces on July 7, in an operation dubbed “Revenge of Martyrs.” Three days later, protesters in the southern city of Basra began assembling on roads leading to major oil fields. The police shot at the protesters, wounding and killing several.
THE NEXT DAY, the protesters were back.
They set up tents; public strikes spread to the neighboring provinces of Dhi Qar, Wasit, Maysan and Babil. Reports spread online saying that dozens of security forces and protesters were killed in southern Iraq near the Iranian border at Amara. Oil workers were evacuated by helicopter. In the holy city of Najaf on July 13, protesters stormed the airport and locals claimed they ransacked planes belonging to Iran. Many Shi’ite pilgrims come from Iran to Iraq, and although many of the protesters were also Shi’ite, they were complaining that Iran’s influence in Iraq was overbearing.
On Friday, protesters also targeted militia and party offices of Kata’ib Hezbollah in Najaf as well as of Dawa, Badr and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, all of which are closely connected to Iran and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. According to Iraq expert Haydar Al-Khoei, the protesters chanted “the Iranian Dawa party, the Safavids,” a reference to the Persian Empire and an attempt to portray modern day Iranian-backed parties in Iraq as a form of Iranian takeover of the country.
There is boiling anger in Iraq at economic stagnation and blame is being cast on the parties that are connected to Iran. Like the protesters in Iran who have been angry at Tehran wasting money on foreign wars in Syria, Iraqis have accused their government of wasting time and resources on foreign connections while abandoning the people.
For instance, the arrival of foreign mediators, including IRGC leader Qasem Soleimani from Iran as well as Hezbollah members from Lebanon – to discuss the new governing coalition – have been seen as foreign meddling.
Baghdad has responded to the unrest by sacking police officials and dispatching the security forces, including the elite coalitiontrained Counter-Terrorism Service, to maintain order. Sending the elite units to deal with rioters is seen as Baghdad’s way of sending a non-partisan unit, rather than militia-aligned ones, to tackle with the problem. The CTS personnel are supposed to be perceived as neutrals and heroes of the war on ISIS. However, it is a heavy-handed tactic that could backfire. The CTS and other forces were in the middle of fighting ISIS north of Baghdad; redeploying them will take the pressure off the extremists.
BAGHDAD ALSO sought to cut off the Internet and social media apps to stop the spread of the protests. This is the same tactic that Tehran has used against protests in Iran.
Across Iraq there is outrage at the government actions. “Iraqi government asks the protesters to be reasonable after they have stripped them of the simplest rights: Electricity, water, Internet, job opportunities – and 60% of Iraq’s oil is being exported from the poorest cities in the country,” Ali Al-Baroodi, a photographer in Mosul, tweeted on Sunday. There is talk that the protesters will make a new “Arab Spring” in Iraq.
Iraq is now in a state of emergency, with the government considering what will come next. Shifting forces from the north to the south and attempts to re-route electricity from Nineveh to Basra to placate demands are the few things left in Baghdad’s arsenal.
Protesters have sacked government offices, and have succeeded in closing the border with Kuwait and shutting down air travel at an airport. Pro-Iranian media speaks of “infiltrators,” claiming the protests are being stoked from abroad, including social media in Kuwait. But powerful indigenous voices, such as Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani have supported the demonstrators.
Notably silent on the unrest are Western officials, with the US and UK embassies not tweeting since July 10. No expressions of concern for the cutting of Internet or shooting of protesters. Demonstrators may see that as quiet support for Baghdad’s heavy-handed tactics. Lacking support from the West and blaming Iran for their economic problems, Iraqis face another potential round of violence in a country that has seen decades of war and conflict.