Mass Iraq protests are opportunity for US to confront Iran in Baghdad

On Monday, July 16, Iraqi protesters in the southern oil city of Basra burned a poster of Iranian leader Ayatollah Khamenei, shouting “Iran out!”

It was the culmination of a week of protests targeting Iraqi government and party offices as well as Iran, as people expressed anger over lack of jobs, electricity, water and infrastructure in southern Iraq. Now Baghdad has suppressed the protests with Iranian-backed militias and the U.S.-trained Iraqi army. U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have warned that these Iranian-backed militias are a threat and the crackdown should serve as a wake-up call.

The protests offer an opportunity for Washington, after years of working with Baghdad, to reappraise its policy and stop giving a “blank check” to Iraq, which has empowered Iranian interests and harmed U.S. allies on the ground.

Demonstrators began by blocking roads to oil fields in the south, demanding jobs. Then protesters in Najaf occupied the airport, and others blocked the Safwan border crossing with Kuwait. In response, Baghdad sent the elite Counter Terrorism Service to the south, alongside the army. The government cut off the internet and blocked social media and messaging services — utilizing a tool from Tehran’s playbook to quell protests.

Most significantly, the protesters targeted political parties backed by Iran. They burned down party offices of the Dawa party, Kata’ib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq. The latter two are affiliated with the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) of Shi’ite militias that are officially part of the Iraqi government security forces. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has called them the “hope of the future” of the country. On videos, protesters accused these parties of being part of an Iranian agenda that is strangling the Iraq economy, cutting off electricity and water and sponging up Iraqi oil while the locals suffer.

The protests illustrate that hope for Iraq’s future stability is in question. In February, the United States urged members of the anti-ISIS coalition toextend Iraq a $3 billion credit line, among the billions of dollars that Iraq seeks for its rebuilding. But there are serious concerns about where this money is going.

A U.S. Inspector General report published in May noted that “Iranian-aligned elements of the PMF remained one of the major security challenges in Iraq.” The report detailed how Baghdad was integrating these Iranian-backed units into the security forces and had granted them equal pay as the regular army. In his May speech to the Heritage Foundation about withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, Secretary Pompeo noted, “Iran sponsored Shia militia groups and terrorists to infiltrate and undermine the Iraqi Security Forces and jeopardize Iraq’s sovereignty.”

The protests offer Washington a chance to support people in Iraq who are confronting Iran’s disastrous influence on the country. Without meddling in the country, Washington can find ways to support residents in the south and anti-Iranian groups. It can work to monitor and expose the ways that oil, water and electricity are being siphoned off to Iran, and examine the degree of Iranian influence over the nascent coalition government. Specifically, Washington can work more closely with the Kurdistan region in the north, a safe and more stable area in Iraq.

In the north, the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) recently sent its armed forces, the Peshmerga, to help hunt down ISIS cells in a mountainous area. Since the Peshmerga were forced out of Kirkuk last year by the Iraqi central government, instability has returned to the area. Near-daily attacks make the road from Kirkuk to Baghdad unsafe. This is a result of Baghdad’s inability — despite billions of dollars invested by the United States over the years — to use its security forces effectively. Instead, Baghdad sends them to confront protesters.

The United States has proactively supported minority groups targeted by ISIS in Nineveh plains, investing in more than 60 projects, according to a 2017 report. This is essential to stabilizing the Mosul and Sinjar areas where ISIS carried out bloody assaults and genocide just four years ago. Stabilizing these areas, along with the Kurdistan region and Kirkuk, will help Iraq recover. And sending a message to Baghdad that Washington will not continue to work with anti-American, Iranian-backed militias would be in line with warnings from U.S. officials.

The United States invaded Iraq in 2003 to get rid of its dictator, Saddam Hussein — and succeeded. There is no reason to keep pouring resources into Baghdad to prop up an Iranian-backed government when the United States has allies elsewhere in Iraq.

Seth J. Frantzman spent three years in Iraq and other countries in the region researching the war on terror and Islamic State. He is executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis. A former assistant professor of American Studies at Al-Quds University, he covers the Middle East for The Jerusalem Post and is a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is writing a book on the state of the region after ISIS.


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