Iraq's citizens have been living for years with instability and corruption brought about by foreign powers interfering in their domestic politics. In the wake of the recent repression of protests across the country, it is clear that the promises of democracy from both the 2003 US intervention and the Arab Spring are a long way from being fulfilled.
This time, the blame lies largely with Iraq's neighbour and historic foe, Iran. Iraq needs the support of the international community to recover its sovereignty and dedicate public resources to improving the well-being of its citizens rather than supporting Iranian interests.
In October last year, protests erupted in Baghdad and other major cities to demand better living conditions as well as an end to Iranian meddling in Iraqi politics. The protests were met with violence from the police and various Iran-backed militias, and a two-week internet blackout was imposed by the government. However, even after hundreds have reportedly been killed and thousands more wounded, protesters have not backed down. The brutal crackdown displayed many of the same violent hallmarks that Iran deployed when its own citizens were advocating for an end to corruption and economic stagnation months earlier. Unsurprisingly, Shia militias that suppressed protesters in Iraq were trained by Iran.
It is not difficult to pinpoint the causes of rising public discontent. Approximately two million people remain internally displaced in Iraq as a result of the war against Daesh, and nine million depend on humanitarian aid. Despite this, Baghdad has allocated its resources to Tehran instead of serving its own people; funds are often directed to pro-Iran political actors and militias instead of the Iraqi people.
Around half of Iraq's population is under 21 years of age, and many have spent their entire lives in the shadow of war and conflict. All they know is unemployment, non-existent or inefficient public services, corruption and ever-increasing meddling by their hostile neighbour. If their demands are not met and Iran continues to sow division along sensitive sectarian lines, Iraq could yet again be pushed down the path of violence and civil war.
Iraq's troubling sectarian conflict was never completely resolved after the US invasion of 2003, and Iran has managed to capitalize on the inherent instability. After American troops started their withdrawal, Iran began to fill the power vacuum left behind. Tehran was able to infiltrate Iraqi politics by co-opting former CIA spies and later intervening to arm and organise militias to combat Daesh. The destructive forces of the so-called "Islamic State" have now largely been defeated and pushed out of Iraqi territory, but Iran's influence continues to grow.
The deal that brought Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi to power in Baghdad in 2018 was brokered by Iran, and for him to remain in power after the start of the protests he apparently needed external support. Iran has great interest in keeping Iraq's power in the hands of the Tehran-loyalist Shia leaders. As the Islamic Republic expands its presence in the region by turning Iraq's government into yet another one of its proxies, it moves closer to its goal of creating a corridor to the Mediterranean through its other allies in Syria and Lebanon. This land bridge is often referred to as the Shia Crescent; it strengthens Iran and pushes its enemies — mainly Saudi Arabia and Israel — to take measures against the growing threat, possibly destabilising the region even further.
If Iran is not pushed back to the confines of its own borders, Iraq will continue to be immersed in war and poverty and serve as a breeding ground for extremism and an international safe haven for terrorist organisations backed by Tehran.
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Apart from actively supporting the protesters on Iraqi streets, the UN should back the numerous pro-sovereignty and non-sectarian groups that are working to rid the government in Baghdad of Iranian influence. Under the umbrella of the Sovereignty Alliance for Iraq, which advocates for the protesters' demands of sovereignty and nationalism, sits the anti-sectarian and Sunni-Shia led National Independent Iraqi Front and the National Wisdom Movement. Another group, Sovereignty Alliance for Iraq (SAI) was established recently to bring together splinter groups into one cohesive movement to remove foreign powers in order to regain sovereignty.
These movements, whatever their ethnic makeup, all advocate for the end of Iranian domination over Iraq and seek to bridge the country's internal ethnic divides through a renewed sense of patriotism and national identity.
Moreover, when Iraq rids itself of Tehran's grip and controls its own territory and institutions, valuable investment deals from Gulf and Western powers can flow in and help rebuild infrastructure and economic advancement. Economic assistance, not political entrenchment, is key to stabilising Iraq. Simply replacing the Iranian presence with that of another nation would not be viewed favourably by Iraqis.
The protesters have every reason to demand that their country's resources be devoted to Iraq and Iraqis instead of paying off pro-Iran militias and political groups. Pro-sovereignty groups will ensure that tax revenue will go into the public coffers and not to foreign powers, and — crucially — decisions will finally be made in Iraq's best interests and not Iran's.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.