The anti-corruption demonstrations have, since October 1st, left nearly 400 dead and over 18,000 injured. The protest is not just about corruption but also the Iranian efforts to control Iraq and exploit the corruption to do so. Protestors consider the current government crippled by politicians who are pro-Iran or have been bribed to do what Iran wants. Both the Iraqi and Iranian governments were caught by surprise at the size, ferocity and persistence of the protests. This eventually included the most senior Iraqi Shia clerics backing the protestors, which was a major embarrassment for the senior Iranian Shia clerics, who have been running Iran since the 1980s and had hoped to persuade their Iraqi colleagues to adopt the same system. The Iraqi Shia clerics considered the idea after the Sunni dictatorship and Saddam Hussein was overthrown in 2003, but gradually realized that this form of religious dictatorship wasn’t working in Iran and was definitely not going to work in Iraq. The Iraqi Shia clerics tried to explain to their Iranian peers that Iraqi Shia were eager to worship together with other Shia, including Iranians, but were generally opposed to Iranian politics or political control. A growing number of Iranian clergy understand and accept this. But the Shia clergy who still control the Iranian government refuse to accept that reality, despite the fact that a growing number of Iranians are out in the streets protesting the religious dictatorship running Iran into the ground.
We Will Never Surrender, Not Yet
The Iraqi government is not giving up, despite the number and determination of the protestors. Today the government shut down some media outlets and warned others that they risked the same fate unless they reported the demonstrations from a pro-government point of view. Now the government is at war with Iraqi media, which protestors see as a sign of government weakness and desperation. The media has generally been accurate in reporting on the violence but the government wants Iranian involvement left out and publishers realize that is a reality that cannot be erased by any media that wants to retain its audience. Iraqis are protesting what they have seen themselves, not read about somewhere or seen on TV news. The protestors say their government isn’t paying attention and the government keeps proving it.
Troops and police confronting the protestors had already become violent towards anyone recording the protests, even with just a smartphone camera. These videos and pictures were showing up on mass media as well as Internet social media. The security forces personnel don’t want any publicity, especially when they are behaving badly. As dictators everywhere are learning, you cannot hide when your opponents have smartphones.
The demonstrators are almost all Iraqi Shia. The Sunni Arabs and Kurds have complained, sometimes vigorously, in the past about the corruption of the Shia dominated government and are content to stand back and let the Shia sort out problems that have largely been created by Shia politicians and pro-Iran Iraqi Shia. This was obvious in 2014 when corruption in the Shia dominated security forces rendered Iraqi unable to halt the rapid advance of the Syrian-based ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). This organization was created by Iraqi Sunni, in the form of Iraqi al Qaeda leaders who sought to take advantage of the 2011 uprising in Syria. The Iraqi founders of ISIL outdid themselves but the ISIL force invading and seizing control of a third of Iraq in 2014 contained a lot of Syrian Sunnis and other foreigners. Despite being run by Iraqi Sunnis, ISIL was never very popular with Iraqi Sunni communities and tribes. By 2016 there was an active Sunni resistance to ISIL. In 2014 Kurdish forces played a decisive role in halting the ISIL advance and led the way in eventually defeating ISIL in Iraq. Now it’s up to the Iraqi Shia to clean house.
The government is trying to respond to calls for prosecution of corrupt officials. That’s a huge undertaking because there are hundreds of senior officials, many of them government ministers, who became quite wealthy after getting their job, and even if they were dismissed for bad behavior, they are still unprosecuted and enjoying their wealth. Many of the “more lucrative” ministries are so desirable those appointed to them will only have a year or so to steal as much as they can before they are replaced with another greedy politician. All these thieves are now beholden to other politicians who got them the ministerial post or lesser, but still lucrative, jobs in the state oil company or any government operation with a large budget. So much of that money disappears that the government barely functions.
Most schools, hospitals and public utilities (power, sanitation, road repair and so on) are absent or rarely operational in most parts of the country. Until a lot of corrupt officials are deprived of their freedom and stolen wealth the protestors will keep at it. It will also require all those absent government services to become operational to prevent protests from returning and escalating even more.
Iraq has been known as one of the most corrupt nations in the region, and the Transparency International corruption rankings document that. Since the Sunni (Saddam Hussein) dictatorship was removed in 2003 the free (by Middle Eastern standards) media has made Iraqis aware of how extensive and destructive their corruption is. Saddam always liked to blame foreign (usually American and Israeli) conspiracies for problems caused by corruption. It is still popular to blame Israel or the West but most Iraqis know the cause is Iraqi and they often know specific officials who have caused specific problems.
While the current unrest in Iraq is mainly about corruption there is also an anti-Iran undertone. The Iranians have taken advantage of the many corrupt government officials in Iraq. In fact, Iranian “advisors” rely on corrupt Iraqi officials to survive and thrive. For this reason, one thing the rioters and the government could agree on was how important it was to retain American troops in Iraq to discourage Iran from trying to take over the government by force. Iran already has a lot of influence in the Iraqi government. For example at the end of October the head of the Iranian Quds Force, general Soleimani flew to Baghdad and presided over a meeting of senior Iraqi officials on how to deal with the growing violence. Soleimani was there to show Iraqi officials how Iran had suppressed similar mass protests in Iran.
Soleimani did not reveal any details to the media. That would have been interesting because the situation in Iran is quite different. For example, Iraq is a democracy while Iran is a religious dictatorship pretending to be a democracy. Moreover, Iran has a “royal guard” force in the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps), which Quds is a part of. While Quds specializes in disrupting or controlling foreign governments, most of the IRGC personnel exist to prevent the Iranian armed forces or the Iranian people from overthrowing the religious dictatorship. Iraq is a democracy and there is nothing similar to the IRGC. If there were such a force would be very unpopular because it would remind many Iraqi Shia of the Saddam Hussein era Republican Guard. This was a carefully recruited and well-paid force of Sunni Arab troops whose primary job was to keep the majority (80 percent who are not Sunni Arab) from taking control. Quds has been trying to create an Iraqi IRGC in the form of pro-Iran PMF (Popular Mobilization Force) militias. That has backfired as many Iraqis in the Iran-backed PMF brigades have changed their minds about supporting Iran. A growing number of Iraqis are convinced that most of the protestors killed were murdered by Iranians or pro-Iranian PMF members. Time and again the killings are carried out either by snipers (which Quds is a big fan of) or groups of uniformed masked gunmen firing on protestors. PMF members wear military uniforms; the masks and killing demonstrators are a Quds thing.
Iraqi elections and opinion polls document how Iran is losing support in Iraq and the Iranians are desperate to turn that around and will do dangerous things as part of that effort. Iraqi government efforts to stop the verbal threats to American facilities and forces as well as the actual violence are hampered by the fact that while a shrinking minority of Iraqis support Iran, those supporters still occupy key political and security force jobs. This is why the army was accused of opening fire on protestors although most Iraqis believe the shooters were pro-Iran PMF, who also wear army uniforms.
The entire PMF is seen as another form of corruption and that was confirmed when the 2019 military budget was announced, it showed a quarter of the budget was going to the PMF, which is supposed to be part of the army but still answers to the Interior Minister rather than the Defense Ministry. Iran also “owns” many Iraqi politicians. This loyalty is obtained via bribes, threats and a shrinking element of belief in the value of Iran having a lot of control over Iraqi affairs.
Iran and the Quds Force face a similar problem in Lebanon. There, Hezbollah enjoys the allegiance of fewer and fewer Lebanese. The core Hezbollah support is the Shia minority (normally about a third of the population) and some political allies, in the form of Christian factions. Thanks to the influx of so many Syrian Sunni Arabs since 2011, the Sunnis in Lebanon are no longer dwarfed by the Lebanese Shia numbers. The violence Iran brought to Syria and support of the hated (by most Lebanese) Assad dictatorship created record levels of anti-Hezbollah and anti-Iran attitudes. That is demonstrated weekly by large and loud anti-Iran demonstrations. General Soleimani has been spending a lot of time in Lebanon as well. There he confers mainly with Hezbollah leaders because most Lebanese politicians want nothing to do with Quds or Iran.
Soleimani tends to offer the same advice in both Lebanon and Iraq; if persuasion or threats don’t work, anonymously open fire and keep shooting, especially at known or suspected leaders, until the unrest subsides. That often works in a police state, which Iran is, but not so much in democracies, which Iraq and Lebanon are. You can see why Iran opposes true democracy. Iran has a democracy but there is a group of senior clerics who can veto anything the Iranian parliament tries to do and even block “unsuitable” Iranians seeking to run for office.
Israel is also being blamed for weeks of violent protests in Iran and Iraq that have left hundreds dead in both countries and caused nearly a billion dollars in damage so far. The Iranian government mobilized over 100,000 IRGC reservists to help control the continuing protests. Millions of Iranians are protesting government mismanagement of the economy and the resulting growth in the cost of living and the percentage of Iranians slipping into poverty. Desperate to reduce expensesthe government eliminated fuel subsidies. This meant Iranians suddenly had to pay three times as much for petroleum products. That meant 25 cents a liter ($1.10 a gallon), which was a painful burden to small businesses as well as families. It was the last straw for many Iranians and the violent demonstrations began. The crowds called for an end to the religious dictatorship and establishment of a real democracy. Again there were also calls for an end to Islam in Iran but the majority of rioters wanted economic relief. The government blamed the United States and Israel but the government has been doing that for decades and Iranians have noted that the problems are the work of their own corrupt and incompetent leaders.
November 27, 2019: In the south (the Shia shrine city Najaf), protestors seized and burned down the Iranian consulate. The anti-Iran Shia protestors called the consulate a center for terrorism and Iranian efforts to dominate Iraq. That was no secret in Najaf and the surprising thing is Iran was not able to muster enough pro-Iran Iraqis to defend the consulate.
In Baghdad three bombs went off overnight, leaving six dead and fifteen wounded. ISIL did not take credit but Sunnis are suspected.
November 24, 2019: The nationwide demonstrations became even more intense, despite escalating efforts by the security forces to halt and disperse protestors. The security forces are using more force and a record (for one day) protestors were killed today.
November 23, 2019: In the south (Dhi Qar province, north of Basra province), protestors blocked a main highway. Dhi Qar is predominately Shia and where most of the “Marsh Arabs” lived. It is also the poorest province with the highest unemployment and poverty rates.
In the south (Basra province), a major border crossing with Iran was reopened to travelers after being closed for a week by Iran. Commercial truck traffic was still allowed, but individuals just traveling between the two countries was banned. Iran did not give a reason for the one week closure.
November 21, 2019: The government announced it was lifting the bans it had imposed on Internet social media. Since early October the government has tried, unsuccessfully, to block the use of the Internet by Iraqis to coordinate their demonstrations and keep each other informed. The efforts to censor the Internet backfired, giving protestors more to protest and the government realized this.
Parliament voted to repeal some of the special privileges that senior elected officials had. This made little impression on the demonstrators because there are so many special privileges, both formal and informal, that elected officials have. What parliament repealed today was a tiny portion of those privileges and a lot more would have to be eliminated before demonstrators were satisfied.
November 20, 2019: The prime minister invited key tribal leaders from the southern city of Karbala to meet with him and the tribal leaders refused to do so until demonstrators’ demands were met. In times of crisis such meetings are often held and what amounts to a bribe is offered. The leaders go back home and try to calm things down. That is not working anymore. Karbala is full of Shia shrines and the local tribal leaders have long criticized the government for tolerating crippling corruption.
November 19, 2019: In the north (Nineveh Province, 120 kilometers west of Mosul), a Turkish UAV used a missile to attack a PKK base near Sinjar. There were dead and wounded.
November 18, 2019: Leaked Iranian intelligence files from 2014-15 detailed how much Iran had infiltrated the Iraqi government and Security forces. Names were named, both Iraqi and Iranian. Many of the names, especially the Iranian IRGC commanders and religious leaders, are still around and still actively interfering inside Iraq. This was inflammatory material in Iran and Iraq, as both countries are undergoing nationwide protests against corruption and the misbehavior of the IRGC and Iran’s religious dictatorship. For a lot of Iraqis and Iranians, the leaked documents just confirmed what was already suspected, but that both Iranian and Iraqi governments denied.
November 17, 2019: In several southern provinces government office workers joined the demonstrators and shut down their offices. Shia cleric Muqtada al Sadr had been calling for this and the office workers responded.
November 15, 2019: Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most senior Iraqi Shia cleric, announced his support of the demonstrators and their goals of eliminating corruption, especially in the government. In effect, Sistani was also supporting the very anti-Iran attitudes of the protestors.
November 8, 2019: The Israeli government went public with its support for the Syrian Kurds. Israel had long unofficially and discreetly supported the Syrian (as well as the Iraqi) Kurds. The Americans are willing to go to war to protect Israel but not to assist the Syrian Kurds in fighting Syria, Turkey and Iran.
October 31, 2019: ISIL confirmed the death of their founder and leader Abu
Baghdadi and announced a successor; Abdullah Qardash, a former officer in the Saddam era Iraqi military. The new leader is generally unknown outside of ISIL and is now being actively sought for capture or killing. Former officers and officials who worked for Saddam Hussein have long provided most of the leadership for Islamic terror groups in Iraq. This includes both local al Qaeda groups as well as ISIL.
October 29, 2019: In Iraq (the Shia holy city Karbala), groups of masked men in civilian clothes opened fire on demonstrators and killed or wounded over a hundred. Nearby soldiers and police did not interfere thus most Iraqis believed the gunmen were Iranian. In Lebanon, the prime minister (Saad Hariri) resigned a job he was forced to take by Hezbollah. The 12 days of anti-Iran demonstrations have reduced the impact of Hezbollah intimidation.
October 28, 2019: The U.S. has moved several hundred troops from Iraq to the Kurdish occupied oil fields in eastern Syria. This was apparently in response to Kurdish assistance in finding, and recently killing, ISIL leader
October 27, 2019: In central Iraq (Hilla city), the pro-Iran militia fired on demonstrators killing seven and wounding 38.
October 25, 2019: In Iraq, the mass anti-corruption protests resumed after a brief pause. The violence is now nationwide. The anti-Iran element was more prominent than ever. Anti-Iran chants were heard often. Security forces and Iran-backed militiamen opened fire on many demonstrators, killing at least 25 and wounding nearly 2,000. This increased violence is partly because senior Shia clerics in Iran and Iraq are feuding now, which is rare as the Shia clergy usually stick together.