Protests undermine Iranian influence in Iraq

Iraqis increasingly see Tehran seen as obstacle to better governance

Iraqi men shout slogans during a protest in front of Basra provincial council building, demanding jobs and better state services, in Basra, Iraq July 31, 2018. REUTERS/Essam al-Sudani

The protests in Iraq over a lack of basic services have dealt a blow to Iran’s influence in the country, experts say.

Residents of southern Iraq have taken to the streets since mid-July to vent their anger over the government's failure to provide clean water, reliable power supply and jobs. The unrest spread to cities across the south from Basra and even reached the capital, Baghdad.

Ordinary Iraqis see Tehran's support of the country’s political elite as an obstacle to reform in the country.

But many Iraqi Shiite politicians have also become anti-Iranian, leaving Tehran in a very delicate position, said Renad Mansour, senior research fellow at Chatham House.

The protests erupted after Iran cut off its electricity supply to Iraq in early July - the height of summer - over unpaid bills, leading to accusations that Tehran was seeking to create unrest in the country.

"Protest movements in the country have been anti-Iranian, they view Tehran as the occupying power and strongest foreign actor in Iraq," Mr Mansour told The National.

He said some Iraqis suspect the Iranian move was an attempt to influence the formation of Iraq’s next government following the May 12 general election.

Voters seeking change rejected many established political figures and gave the alliance led by populist Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr the most seats but not a majority, leaving the country in a political limbo.

“It seems every summer since 2003, with brutally hot temperatures, Iraqis take to the streets because the government can’t keep the electricity on," said Andrew Parasiliti, director of the Rand Centre for Global Risk and Security.

“This year the protests are more intense, and growing, coupled with frustration over corruption and inadequate social services."


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In Basra, demonstrators held signs calling for Iran to "get out" and set fire to the headquarters of the Badr Organisation, a political party with close ties to Iran.

Protesters also attacked offices of Dawa, Hikma, Fadhila, Kataeb Hezbollah and other parties that have close links to Iran and have electoral strongholds in the country's centre and south.

In Najaf, they stormed the airport, briefly halting air traffic. In Karbala, they set fire to the offices of Asaeb Ahl Al Haq, another party with close links to Iran.

"For the first time, protesters targeted the full spectrum of the [mainly Shiite] ruling elites, from former exiles backed by either the US or Iran to those who survived Saddam’s regime and have developed strong nationalist orientations," the International Crisis Group said in a report.

It said the unrest underlined the Iraqi population’s deep alienation from the political system.

"Iranian-backed groups did stir up existing resentments ahead of these protests, but as usual, Tehran failed to keep control of something it started in Iraq," Michael Knights, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told The National.

"Tehran’s own allies like Asaeb Ahl Al Haq and Badr look bad because it is their own guards who are shooting civilian protesters dead," he said.