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The protests that have shaken Iraq are first about removing a corrupt, entrenched sectarian system of rule that has failed to provide jobs, services, or hope. But Iran’s outsize influence has also been a growing target of Iraqis resentful toward what they regard as Iranian arrogance.
Tehran’s overt meddling in Iraqi politics is seen as enabling a weak government as well as the rise of dozens of Shiite militias and their parties, which analysts say are corruptly engaged in every aspect of Iraq’s economy. The result is that goodwill toward Iran, which was instrumental in halting the Islamic State advance in 2014, has been falling.
Iraqis “are beginning to realize how much corruption is around,” says a man from Najaf, where a Shiite shrine recently came under attack as a symbol of Iranian power. “This is where the anti-Iranian sentiment mainly comes from.”
Is that a blow to Iran? “At the politician level, if you drank the Iranian Kool-Aid, then it really doesn’t matter,” says one Iraqi official in Baghdad. “But if you’ve got Iraqi nationalism in your blood, and you’re looking to better this country, then, yeah, you would see this as Iranian overreach.”
Outside the charred walls of a shrine complex here is ample evidence of the ferocity of a dayslong battle mounted by Iraqi protesters, convinced they were targeting a symbol of Iranian power in Iraq.
Molotov cocktails that failed to explode – their blackened fuses stuffed into bottles of gasoline or spirits – lie scattered amid a carpet of stones, bricks, and broken glass.
They were thrown by men who first stormed and torched the nearby Iranian consulate Nov. 27, chanting “Iran out of Iraq” – the first of three attacks on that building in a week.
Then they moved to the shrine, their anger fueled by rumors of an Iranian intelligence presence at this vast mausoleum, built to deify Ayatollah Mohammad Bakr al-Hakkim, leader of an Iraqi opposition group created by Iran in the 1980s.
“Iran takes all our resources, our funding, our freedom,” charges one protester, explaining why he and others fought at the complex. Beside him, a student, Zain, holds three pieces of metal shot extracted from his bandaged forehead.
“For sure, the protests will help lower this negative Iranian influence,” says Hamed, another young participant.
The protests that have shaken Iraq are first about removing a corrupt, entrenched sectarian system of rule that has failed to provide jobs, services, or hope since the U.S. military removed Saddam Hussein in 2003.
But Iran’s outsize influence has also been a growing target of Iraqis resentful toward what they regard as Iranian arrogance. Tehran’s overt meddling in Iraqi politics is seen as enabling a weak government as well as the rise of dozens of Shiite militias and their parties, which analysts say are corruptly engaged in every aspect of Iraq’s economy.
As a result goodwill toward Iran has been falling from its high of 2014, when Iran’s immediate military assistance and advisers – orchestrated by Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s elite Qods Force – were instrumental in stopping the advance by Islamic State (ISIS) militants.
Portraits of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have been defaced and torched. Across southern Iraq, offices of Shiite militias most closely associated with Iran have also been attacked.
Analysts say Iranian overreach has undermined Tehran’s influence, ambitions, and the popularity of its proxy forces in Iraq. The erosion coincides with another taking place in Lebanon, where veteran fighters of the Shiite organization Hezbollah are questioning their role fighting Iran’s wars in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.
“If I were in Ayatollah Khamenei’s position, I would put Soleimani in jail,” says Hisham al-Hashemi, a Baghdad-based security analyst with the European Institute of Peace who advises the Iraqi government.
“He failed in the mission. Iraq should be the last front line [of defense] for the Iranians,” says Mr. Hashemi. Iran’s influence in elections last year and General Soleimani brokering the government that resigned in late November under pressure, he says, means that “Iran achieved lots of things in 2018. But all that it won it has lost in 2019.”
The conversion of the Shiite militias, collectively known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, from fighting ISIS to waging political war as parties last year, meant the PMF “didn’t realize it had become part of the corruption.” But ordinary Iraqis saw it.
“They became like the gods of the temple, and see themselves as sacred people,” Mr. Hashemi says of the PMF. “Without Iran, they wouldn’t be so much in control. The problem is not with Iran, but with the proxies. People are attacking Iran because their proxies mistreated them.”
The Trump administration a week ago issued sanctions on three senior Iraqi militia chiefs, saying they acted under Iranian orders when cracking down violently on Iraqi protests.
Iran’s declining numbers
Even by 2018, Iraqis’ attitudes toward Iran were shifting, with polls indicating that those holding favorable views had declined from nearly 90% in 2015 to fewer than 50%. Those who view Iran as a threat to Iraqi sovereignty shot up from 25% in 2016 to 58% in 2018.
Those views have been magnified by the publishing last month of 700 Iranian intelligence reports by The Intercept and The New York Times, detailing Iran’s systematic and successful efforts to co-opt Iraqi leaders, cultivate former CIA informants, and infiltrate every aspect of Iraqi life.
Part of the backlash has played itself out in the attacks on Iranian consulates of Najaf and Karbala – cities with close ties to the Islamic Republic that welcome millions of Shiite pilgrims each year, many from Iran, to visit the shrines of Shiite Islam’s two most important seventh-century saints.
“For sure Iran had a positive stance against ISIS, but it came at a cost,” says Ali Hussein Aboud al-Dhuwayhir, a local activist and head of the Al-Rafidaein Society for Human Rights in Najaf.
He cites Iranian officials speaking as if Iraq were an asset of Iran. Among them, in a speech last April, Hassan Abbasi, a strategist and former Revolutionary Guard officer, said that for every dollar Iran had spent in Iraq and Syria fighting ISIS, “it is now returning $1,000” in contracts.
“In the current government we see the influence of Iran, and Soleimani comes and gives orders like we have no sovereignty,” says Mr. Dhuwayhir.
“Let me ask this question: Can we put any picture of Iraqi politicians or religious figures in Iran, or hold the flag of Iraq in Imam Reza’s shrine [in Mashhad, Iran]? No,” he says, referring to the ubiquitous Iranian flags and portraits of Iranian clerics across Shiite areas of Iraq.
“We can see and are sure that Iraq is about to become a suburb of Iran,” says Mr. Dhuwayhir. “All these things have created hatred against Iran and anyone affiliated with them. ... Because of the bloodshed, there is no way back.”
Video of one nighttime battle at the shrine and prayer complex dedicated to Ayatollah Hakkim, head of the Iran-backed Badr Brigade militia, shows the shrine’s defenders firing heavily amid flames, as the protester recording the scene shouts: “They [the gunmen] are coming from the grave of al-Hakkim, the Iranian!”
Another online video shows one man shouting during the battle: “These people killed our sons! We want revenge.”
“Talking and gossip”
Fueling the bloodshed in Najaf were rumors about Iranian use of the sprawling Hakkim complex, which includes the vaulted shrine chamber itself, a mammoth marble mosque, and extensive seminary grounds still under construction.
One rumor was that the complex hosted a secret center for Iranian intelligence. Another was that Mr. Soleimani himself was inside. Or, at the very least, protesters say, captured demonstrators had been imprisoned in the basement.
Hassan al-Hakkim, vice president of the Shahid Al-Mihrab Foundation, which runs the complex, dismissed the rumors as “talking and gossip.”
On a tour of the complex a week after the fight, only one assault rifle is evident, the smell of burning still hanging in the air.
Like many political families in Iraq, the Hakkims maintain their own militia. Dozens of young Iraqi men wearing black balaclavas, to mask their identity during a rare visit by a foreigner, sit anxiously on mattresses laid all around the gilt, ornate cage that encloses the ayatollah’s coffin.
There were no Iranians inside during the battles, they say, adding that they were waiting for a new attack by those bent on turning the legitimate grievances of Iraqi protests into an anti-Iran wave.
Mr. Hakkim, speaking by phone from northern Iraq, says the rumors were meant to tarnish the reputation of the center, which is “just a school” that does charity work and feeds 20,000 “people in need.” But local anger has been developing over the project’s scale saying it appears to portray the late ayatollah as on par with the 12 recognized Shiite imams.
“They managed to create this constant irritation for locals, even locals who are close to them,” says one Najaf native in Baghdad whose grandfather’s house is 100 yards from the Najaf complex. “It was an irritation that was created by the Hakkims out of arrogance.”
He also notes a shift among Iraqis away from sectarianism, such that by 2014 Iraqi Shiites were asking why Shiite-dominated governments had done so little for them.
After ISIS’s defeat, people found corruption and lack of services, and the emergence of a “new class of nouveau riche” that was “heavily associated” with the PMF, says the Najaf man.
“So people are beginning to realize how much corruption is around,” he adds. “This is where the anti-Iranian sentiment mainly comes from.”
Is that a blow to Iran?
“At the politician level, if you drank the Iranian Kool-Aid, then it really doesn’t matter,” says one Iraqi official in Baghdad, who asked not to be named. “But if you’ve got Iraqi nationalism in your blood, and you’re looking to better this country, then, yeah, you would see this as Iranian overreach.”