Iraqi uprising explodes sectarian narrative of the ruling class

Shiite majority is rejecting isolationist rationale for Iranian patronage that has brought them little benefit

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The month-old protest movement sweeping Iraq might be the most significant Arab uprising since 2011 as the country’s Shiite majority break from their leaders’ narrative that they need protection from external forces.

By demanding the removal of the ruling class they accuse of looting the country, Iraqi Shiites are rejecting their politicians' self-appointed role as guardians of a community whose interests they define as subservient to ideology and twinned with those of Iran.

The protest movement has remained non-violent in the face of a brutal response from security forces that has claimed more than 250 lives.

Hundreds of thousands continued to turn out on the streets of Baghdad and across the south in defiance of Prime Minister’s Adel Abdul Mahdi’s order to go home.

Like Iraqi prime ministers before him, Mr Abdul Mahdi attained his office because he was seen as a figure that Iran and the US could agree to.

Otherwise, he is a minor figure in the alliance of big-city merchants, clerics and politicians that dominated Iraqi politics since the US-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, and which has been joined in the past six years by militia leaders backed by Iran.

Back-door deals between Tehran and Washington have shaped Iraqi politics for almost a decade, and Iran has not shied from the portrayal of having Iraq under its tutelage.

The protesters have sought to cast off this image of Iraqis being pawns in the hands of Iran.

From the destitute southern fringes of Iraq to the bazaar cities of Najaf and Karbala, the demonstrators no longer want the political class to remain in charge of an economy with the world’s fifth-largest oil reserves.

Iraq’s energy proceeds have been its curse. Under Saddam, the money financed his wars and repression that crushed mainly the Kurds and Shiites, although his Sunni critics were not spared.

But even ardent opponents acknowledge that, before international sanctions imposed over the 1990 Gulf War, Saddam built proper infrastructure and the bureaucracy was generally clean, as opposed to the soaring levels of malfeasance and corruption since 2003.

Many of the same politicians who now warn of lost gross domestic product because of the protesters are regarded by them as having looted the economy, leaving impoverished the people whose country gave rise to great civilisations of the ancient world.

After news reports of Iran directing its clients in Baghdad to crack down, Iraqi demonstrators tried to storm the Iranian consulate in Karbala on Sunday night and tear down the Iranian flag, while security forces killed three of them.

It was the latest in a high-profile protest action aimed squarely at Iran’s role.

The narrative of many of Iraq’s leaders that the Shiites’ plight owes to a US conspiracy may be running out of steam.

After the protests began last month, Iran’s clerical rulers responded by sending the commander of their shock troops, Qassem Suleimani, to instruct Iraq’s security apparatus not to shy away from mowing down the demonstrators and the elite not to loosen their grip.

Like Saddam, the pro-Iranian clerics, militiamen, businessman and politicians have based their power on sectarian division.

But their policy of putting identity foremost would only isolate Iraqis from fellow Arabs in the Middle East in the long term.

The same tactic has been used in Lebanon by Hezbollah, where it is being challenged to a lesser degree on the street, after the country’s financial crisis was worsened by Arab reluctance to extend aid to a political system increasingly influenced by it and Iran.

In Iraq, the only major figure to break ranks with the elite has been the cleric Moqtada Al Sadr. He has championed nationalist identity across sectarian lines and spoken strongly in favour of the protest movement, although he has failed to protect it.

Mr Al Sadr earlier criticised sending Iran-backed militias into Syria to pacify Sunni rebel regions rising up against Alawite-dominated regime of Bashar Al Assad.

Iran and Hezbollah justified their support in sectarian terms, saying they were protecting Shiite shrines.

Nonetheless, residents of Ramadi, Tikrit and the rest of Iraq’s Sunni heartland have been mostly absent from the streets, not wanting their participation to be used to show the movement as being led by terrorists, two years after the end of the war against ISIS.

This was used as a tactic by the government to crush Sunni protests in 2013.

So far, the Iraqi death toll pales in comparison with the thousands of non-violent Syrians, mostly Sunni, whom the Assad regime killed or disappeared in dungeons during the initial, peaceful phase of the Syrian revolt in 2011.

There are two men who might be preventing Iraqi Shiites being dealt a similar fate: Mr Al Sadr and Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, the country’s most senior Shiite cleric.

Mr Al Sistani gave his blessing to Shiite militias to fight Sunni militants, without using the same authority to contain them after they exceeded their mandate.

But the relationship between the two men has been characterised as one of animosity since Mr Al Sadr burst on to the Iraqi political scene in 2003.

Until the Iraqi uprising, many western specialists, especially in the US and Germany, had warned of the equivalent of Europe's Thirty Year War happening in the Middle East.

They believed that only coldly practical geopolitical deals could defuse the tension, devoid of any link to the universal values the protesters seek.

Like the rulers of Iraq and Iran, they overlooked the power of the people.