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As Iraqi protests turn deadly, what’s at stake for a new government?

Haidar Mohammed Ali, AFP |Iraqi security forces are deployed in a street in the southern city of Basra on September 5, 2018, after six died in the bloodiest day of protests over poor public services in the southern city.

Iraqi forces opened fire on Wednesday during fresh clashes with protestors in the southern city of Basra. FRANCE 24 spoke to Myriam Benraad, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Leiden, about what the protests mean for Iraq.


The unrest comes as negotiations drag on over the formation of the new government. Moqtada al-Sadr, a populist Shiite cleric, and his bloc won the most seats in the national elections held in May, and he is trying to form a new government with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. He pledged to abolish the post-2003 sectarian political system and has opposed both American and Iranian interference in the country. Many voters saw him as a last chance for change. However, anger has exploded during the brutal summer months since the election. Protests in southern Iraq have grown over poor government services, corruption, and contaminated drinking water, which saw 20,000 people hospitalised.

FRANCE 24 spoke to Myriam Benraad, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Leiden, about what the protests mean for Baghdad and for Iran-Iraq relations.

What’s at stake for the new government?

“The election was a success for new movements and movements that previously haven’t had much power, like the Sadrist movement [followers of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose alliance with the communists won the most seats in May’s election] or the Shiite militias attached to the Popular Mobilisation Forces [who fought the Islamic State group alongside the Iraqi army]. [But…] they have not been able to translate this electoral success into credibility.”

“It’s really marked in the southern provinces where the situation has deteriorated considerably over the last year. The popular anger has been simmering for years. The fact is that the protestors don’t think the government will improve their lives. For years, they were promised structural changes in terms of public services […and] in terms of reforms to fight corruption.”

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“The problem is that […] no one was paying much attention to the southern territories during the fight against [the Islamic State group]. Everyone was focused on the Sunni provinces and the military battle against [the IS group] at the expense of other dynamics which are extremely important in terms of balancing Iraq politically. […] The south has undergone a massive deterioration. People no longer believe in the political elite or in the capacity of the central government to change anything.

Will the protests prevent the formation of a new government?

“These protests started months ago and they haven’t been taken into account. The reaction in Baghdad is mostly one of repression. The army is cracking down on the protest movement.

“[But now, Sadr] is no longer in the opposition. He is part of the system. People will blame him and his coalition. He won’t be able to run away. He made a lot of promises to the people and so if he doesn’t fulfill them and show his goodwill to change the situation for people in Basra and other southern provinces, people will turn against him.”

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“At the same time, his argument that the protests have been infiltrated by criminals is likely true. As a result of disenfranchisement, criminal networks have built themselves up against the backdrop of no opportunities, no jobs, mass unemployment… All of these are favourable conditions for criminality to thrive. This has been the case for years.”

Do the protests have implications for Iran-Iraq relations?

“For now, it’s a mostly Shiite problem. Shiite populations from the south are contesting their Shiite counterparts in Baghdad. In this respect, Iran has never really involved itself in intra-Shiite rivalries and tensions.”

“[But Iran] has benefited from those tensions and divisions among Shiites. [Iran] doesn’t really want the big Shiite family united. [… They could] oppose Iranian interference in the country.”

“[The Iranians] could very well see the weakening of Sadr as an opportunity to […] promote Shiite actors who are closer to them.

“Sadr isn’t really liked or appreciated by the Iranians because he is very changable. He has been close to Iran and at the same time he has rejected Iran on multiple occasions in favor of Iraqi nationalism. So the Iranians might see the weakening of his government in a positive light and see it as providing them the opportunity to […] support other actors more favorable to their interests, like [former Iraqi prime minister Nouri] al-Maliki and [pro-Iran militia commander Hadi] al-Ameri.

How is Iran exerting influence in Iraq?

“Iran has been exerting a multifaceted influence. First, in the economy: Iran has injected a lot of money and is trading with Shiite communities in the south. They have very close and deep financial ties to post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. [Saddam was deposed in 2003 when a coalition led by the United States invaded Iraq]. Despite the [US sanctions against Iran, those ties are] not going away any time soon.

The second aspect of [Iran’s] influence is political. […] They have been playing on the rise of the Shiite movement to extend their influence. They were behind the rise of many Shiite sectarian parties which historically had been formed and survived clandestinely in Iran. For instance, [former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s] Dawa party was established in Iran when many Shiite opponents to Saddam Hussein fled the country and relocated to Iran. So these are really deep historical and political ties.

Ideologically, there are forces favorable to the Iranian regime and the ideology preached in Iran […]. A lot of Shiite forces, especially Islamists, would like to establish an Islamist state and government on the model of what Iran has been for several decades.

The last aspect of [Iran’s influence] is socio-cultural. Iran has been actively helping Shiite communities by providing services, hospitals, and education. Iran has opened a number of charities and cultural centers. They are providing a lot of help to local communities, especially those who are disenfranchised. In a way, the Iranian influence in some places has replaced the state. This is why Iran has no real interest in the re-establishment of a functional Iraqi state.

It’s the same logic as [Iran’s funding of Hezbollah] in Lebanon. It’s just that in Iraq, you have many more parties and actors, because Iraq has been historically predominantly Shiite, so it’s just a more pluralistic scene. In Lebanon, Hezbollah is dominant whereas in Iraq there are more players. This is why in the case of Iraq, Iran is following a strategy of divide and rule instead of [trying to] reconcile Shiite groups.

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