The wave of protests that erupted across Iraq on October 1, according to a number of reports, resulted in dozens of civilian deaths and several hundred injured protesters. As it’s been reported by Al Arabiya TV station, human rights activists claim that at least a hundred people lost their lives in the course of the protests, while some 3 thousand got injured.
The unrest that was sparked by the frustration that local residents share over the massive corruption, high unemployment rates, frequent power outages and water shortages, would soon lead to demands for the resignation of the sitting government, followed by all sorts of other political demands. In spite of the attempts that local authorities make to restore order by imposing a curfew, the intensity of the protests wouldn’t die down. There’s tires burning in the streets, demonstrators assaulting airports and government buildings.
Egypt‘s Sasapost states that Iraq has not seen a mass movement as popular since the days Iraqis tried to repell the US attack on their country. Demonstrations have swept all the large cities of the country, except for those that remain in the hands of ISIS terrorists in the northern and western parts of the country.
Even though Al Jazeera alleges there’s no leader to head the protest movement, a number of Arab observers have already expressed their doubts about the validity of such allegations. In their opinion a “rebellion of the starving” doesn’t resemble an armed assault on the police and security forces, as there’s been reports about law enforcement units suffering losses.
Most protesters are young people under the age of 20. They can hardly be described as religious conservatives and it is difficult to suspect them of being influenced by clerics. Over the past few weeks their demands have underwent a major change and it’s clear that such a transition could only occur if they were under some sort of external influence. What started out as youth’s attempt to express frustration over the existing social policies would be hijacked by an angry mob chanting extreme political demands, like the replacement of the parliamentary republic with a presidential one, stepping down of Adil Abdul-Mahdi al-Muntafiki and his substitution with the former security chief General Abdul Wahab al-Saidi. All this goes in line with protesters chanting anti-Iranian slogans and burning Iranian flags. It is also noteworthy that those protests started in southern parts of the country mostly inhabited by the Shiites, as well as in Baghdad.
It’s clear that the increasingly anti-Iranian tone of the protests serves as yet another indicator of the possible involvement of external forces in the events that unfold in Iraq these days. Against this backdrop, it’s noteworthy that the Lebanese Al Akhbar recalls that last summer an informed source in the Iraqi military department predicted what was about to happen, while stating that Washington was extremely concerned about the growing influence of Iran in his country. In his opinion, such protests would serve as a warning served to the Iraqi authorities in a bid to prevent the two countries from leaning closer together.
It’s also noteworthy that a couple of weeks ago the sitting US Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, Marshall Billingslea announced that the people of Iraq fell “victims” of the close ties that Baghdad and Tehran share.
However, the US is not the only player that would try combating Iran’s influence in Iraq, as Israel has been trying to achieve same end. Since mid-summer, both Israeli and US combat aircraft and drones have made over two dozen sorties, bombing a number of targets across Iraq from those near the border with Syria in the Al Anbar Governorate to those on the borderline with Iran. But primarily these air attacks were directed against the bases of the Iraqi Shia “people’s militia”, which has already been dubbed as “Iranian proxies” in the West.
Against this background, there was a visible increase in anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiments in Iraq, resulting in the shelling of the US embassy that was forced to suspend its work until the date when the curfew is lifted.
The moment chosen by the “external insignators” to stir the unrest is particularly noteworthy, as it coincides with the preparation for the Arba’een Pilgrimage made by millions of Iranians. This gathering is the commemoration of the memory of Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammad and the third Shia imam, who fell in combat together with his faithful comrades-in-arms in 680 at the hands of the caliph Yazid’s soldiers from the Umayyad dynasty. This year the pilgrimage to Iraq is bound to start in two weeks. The annual public gathering is no less important for millions of Shiites than the regular pilgrimage to Mecca for the rest of the Muslims of the planet: according to official Iraqi media, more than 22 million believers took part in the ceremony at the end of the 40-day mourning period following Ashura last year, making this gathering a couple of times more numerous that last year’s Hajj. To coordinate and facilitate the movement of Iranian pilgrims, Tehran sent its representatives to Iraq mere days before the protests broke out. This collaboration and other bilateral contacts between Iraq and Iran that are only getting more numerous are received rather enviously both in Washington and Tel-Aviv.
However, as protests started taking an anti-Iranian turn, Tehran was forced to close two border checkpoints with Iraq (Khosravi and Khazabekh), that are commonly used by Shia traveling to Iraq to visit the shrines of Shia imams.
There’s little doubt that by sabotaging this year’s Shia pilgrimage those forces behind the protests will increase the frustration of the populations of Iraq and Iran. But this is precisely what certain anti-Iranian forces are aspiring to achieve, primarily in the United States and Israel, in order to increase the scale of their military operations in Iraq, while Baghdad is busy dealing with the unrest.
Valery Kulikov, expert politologist, exclusively for the online magazine ‘New Eastern Outlook’