Iraqi protestors return to streets as US forces targeted

What happened: Thousands of anti-government protestors in Iraq returned to the streets on Sunday, in a show of defiance after an increasingly bloody crackdown by security forces and pro-Iranian Shia militias late last week. The main centre of the demonstrations remained Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, although key cities in Iraq’s south – predominantly Shia – also saw protests.

  • More than 450 demonstrators have been killed, and thousands wounded, since a mass protest movement erupted in early October against unemployment, rampant corruption, and general government ineffectiveness.
  • In the face of escalating violence and political paralysis, Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi resigned in late November, although no successor has yet been named.
  • The demonstrations have increasingly taken an anti-Iranian tone, seeing Tehran as unduly influencing Iraqi politics. Protestors have on three occasions set fire to the Iranian consulate in Najaf.
  • Yesterday, four rockets reportedly hit a joint US-Iraqi military base near Baghdad, injuring six Iraqi personnel. It was the ninth rocket attack on US facilities in the country in the last five weeks, with senior US officials blaming Iran and its proxy militias inside the country.

Context: Despite being the second largest oil producer in OPEC, Iraq’s oil wealth has not benefited most of the population. According to Transparency International, Iraq is the 12th most corrupt country in the world – a damning indictment for the post-Ba’athist order built after the 2003 US invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

  • The protest movement is largely spontaneous, bottom-up, leaderless and cross-sectarian. Most worrying for the Iraqi central government, the protests have centred primarily in majority Shia areas of the country.
  • Pro-Iranian militias used live fire against demonstrators late last week, leading to the deployment of nationalist Shia militias led by cleric Moqtada al-Sadr as protection for the demonstrators. A drone subsequently crashed into al-Sadr’s home in Najaf.
  • Recent reports have also indicated that Iran is moving short-range ballistic missiles into Iraq which could threaten US forces in the country as well as neighbouring states like Saudi Arabia and Israel.
  • The Trump administration last week sanctioned several pro-Iranian militia leaders and other Iraqi government officials responsible for the bloody crackdown.

Looking ahead: With violence escalating and no political solution in sight, the intra-Shia nature of the recent clashes – pro-Iran versus nationalist – maybe a harbinger of wider state fracture. Sunni tribes in central and western Iraq will have to pick sides, as will the relatively stable Kurdistan Regional Government. The Islamic State may also be able to mount a sustained comeback in Anbar Province given the general chaos, especially if Western military forces decide to withdraw from Iraq given the increasing violence.

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