This past week has seen unprecedented and seismic upheaval across the region as Lebanese and Iraqi citizens of all sects have mobilised in their respective countries to demand better living conditions, the fall of a corrupt and sectarian ruling elite, and an end to foreign interference in their nations’ affairs.
In Iraq, protesters have been gathering for the past month to call for an overhaul of deeply entrenched flaws in the ruling class, yet their legitimate demands have been met with bullets and teargas by authorities and Iran-backed militias. The backlash has not stopped people from demonstrating and on Friday, Iraq saw its largest protests since the fall of Saddam Hussein, with thousands gathering in central Baghdad. At least 250 people have been killed in the past few months. In Lebanon, the protest movement that has seen more than one million pouring onto the street have yet to dissipate, even after prime minister Saad Hariri and his government stepped down last week.
Faced with an impasse, Iraqi president Barham Salih accepted prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s resignation on condition it did not create a "constitutional vacuum". But just as Mr Hariri’s resignation did not resolve Lebanon’s woes, Mr Abdul Mahdi stepping down will not bring an end to Iraq’s crises. An overhaul of the sectarian-based political systems in Iraq and Lebanon is needed to weaken Iran’s grip on the two nations, which has contributed to the rise of clientelism and deep internal divisions that have led to today’s stalemate. But Tehran will not give up its scramble for power that easily.
On Wednesday, Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, went to Baghdad in a bid to stop Mr Abdul Mahdi’s resignation. This was not his first visit to Iraq since the uprising began on October 1. The day after protests erupted, Mr Soleimani headed a meeting with top Iraqi security officials in Baghdad, eclipsing the prime minister’s authority. The day after his visit, more than 100 people were killed at the hands of unidentified snipers and members of Iran-backed militias. The issue of militias is one that has brought troubles to Iraq for years, and today are under the banner of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF). Although they were meant to be integrated into the Iraqi military after helping defeat ISIS and supposedly answerable to the prime minister, the 40 factions that make up the PMF have varying political allegiances and often act without accountability or authority. In September, the PMF even announced it would be launching its own airforce, separate to Iraqi defence forces. Tehran is anxious to keep wielding influence via such proxies – no matter the cost to Iraqi lives or sovereignty.
Although Mr Soleimani’s presence in Baghdad signals Iran’s meddling is as brazen as ever, the fact the IRGC chief has felt the need to visit Iraq several times since the start of protests shows that Tehran is no longer as powerful as it used to be. It is scrambling to keep its stranglehold on the country as the popularity of its proxies wanes across the region. There is no better proof of this decline than the fact that Hezbollah’s elusive leader Hassan Nasrallah, who seldom makes public statements, has appeared in three televised speeches in two weeks since the start of Lebanon’s protests. Iran and its proxies are clutching at straws as their power is seriously challenged.
In both Iraq and Lebanon, citizens are waking up to the reality that sectarianism only divides nations, giving foreign powers such as Iran a chance to interfere with their sovereignty. Iran had sought to portray itself as a defender of Shiites, cashing in on sectarian divisions to finance armed proxies that terrorise ordinary civilians. But Iraq’s protests first broke out in the country’s Shiite-majority south, a sign that people in the community are tired of being manipulated by Tehran - a regime that claims to protect them but has not held back from spilling Iraqi blood in Karbala and Baghdad.
But protesters refuse to be intimidated. Despite the soaring death toll, they are taking to the streets of Iraq in even larger numbers and have attacked Iran’s proxy militias directly. Last week, they marched on the headquarters of Asaib Ahl Al Haq, a PMF militia, in Nasiriyah and were met with gunfire. In the southern city of Diwaniyah, 12 demonstrators were killed when the headquarters of the Badr Organisation, another PMF unit, was set alight.
The fact demonstrators are ready to give their lives to fight back against militias shows the extent of their rejection of these forces. These proxies have effectively stolen their right to self-determination and prevented a country with a wealth of oil, history and religious sites of significance for Sunnis and Shiites alike, from flourishing and providing its citizens with a decent living. Iraqis want a sovereign nation, one that prioritises their rights and needs above those of any other country. After decades of hardships, it is high time for Iraq’s leaders to heed these demands and stop the bloodshed.