In neighboring Iraq, anger boils over Iranian interference |


BAGHDAD – As Iraq heads to the polls on October 10, the spotlight is on neighboring Iran’s outsized influence, but also on the growing popular backlash against it.

The parliamentary vote takes place early as a concession to a pro-democracy movement that has railed against an Iraqi political system it has decried as inept, corrupt and beholden to Iran.

“One of the most alarming things for Iran in Iraq right now is the enormous public discontent with Iran,” political scientist Marsin Alshamary said.

“This is one of the things Iran never expected and something it has to struggle with,” the Harvard Kennedy School researcher said.

At the height of unprecedented protests in November 2019, angry protesters attacked and torched the Iranian consulate in the southern city of Najaf, shouting “Get out of Iraq!” “

When scores of protesters were killed by gunmen, activists blamed pro-Iran factions that play a major role in Iraq and that the United States blames attacks on its own interests there.

The paramilitary network known as Hashed al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Forces, formed in 2014 to defeat the Islamic State group (ISIS), includes many pro-Iranian Shiite groups. It has since been integrated into the Iraqi state security apparatus.

In the Iraqi parliament, too, political parties with close ties to the Islamic Republic have formed powerful blocs exerting major influence over previous governments.

Volatile relationships

Historically, relations have been volatile between Iraq and its larger neighbor to the east.

After the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, then Iraqi President Saddam Hussein attacked over a border dispute, sparking their brutal 1980-1988 war.

However, since the 2003 US-led invasion toppled Saddam, sparking years of insurgency, Iran has gained great influence in Iraq.

Since then, Shia Muslim pilgrims from Iran have once again been able to flock to the holy Iraqi cities of Najaf and Karbala.

Iran has also become one of Iraq’s biggest trading partners, a major boost for the Islamic republic, which has been battered by sanctions over its contested nuclear program.

Iraq imports Iranian electricity as well as food, textiles, furniture and cars.

But many Iraqis fear that Iranian influence is now too strong.

Anti-Iranian anger has flared in recent years, even in what is known as the Shia heart of southern Iraq.

“Iran has lost much of its base in southern and central Iraq, the Shiite base, which it has long assumed to be a loyal base,” said Renad Mansour of the Chatham House think tank.

“Many parties aligned with Iran are having a harder time maintaining their popularity. “

On the defensive

The 2018 election, marked by record abstentions, saw Hashed’s candidates enter parliament for the first time, following the victory against Daesh.

Today, they aim to strengthen themselves in the hemicycle, but experts are skeptical.

For pro-Iranian deputies, the relationship with Tehran has nothing to fear.

One of the leading figures of the Hashed bloc, Baghdad lawmaker Ahmed Assadi, said in a recent television interview that “our relationship with the Islamic Republic is not new, it is strategic”.

“There is no submission or alignment,” he said. “It is a relationship based on balancing the interests of Iraq and the interests of the Islamic Republic.”

Mohammed Mohie, spokesman for Kataeb Hezbollah, a powerful Hached faction, said that “relations with Iran are in the interest of the Iraqi people and must be strengthened.

“We have never seen negative interference from the Islamic Republic in Iraqi affairs.”

Looking at the demands of the protesters, he said improving public services and infrastructure must be a top priority, but he also highlighted another: the withdrawal of US troops.

Iran’s role in the “backstage deals”

Iraqi political scientist Ali al-Baidar said pro-Iranian factions were seeking to “consolidate their presence in politics and government.”

They want “to be present at several levels, diplomacy, culture, sport, change their image with the general public” which associates them with the security apparatus.

Lahib Higel of the International Crisis Group said she expects pro-Iranian parties in parliament “to retain roughly the same proportion of seats. I don’t see that there will be a significant increase for them.

Tehran, she said, hopes for “a prime minister they can work with, who is acceptable to their agenda.”

“A compromise candidate is not such a bad choice for them because that usually means he’s a pretty weak prime minister. And so in this case, they can work, if not directly with the Prime Minister’s office, then with actors around him.

Mansour said that while the elections are important, “the key lies in the behind-the-scenes deals that are made as part of forming a government.”

“In this process Iran has historically played an important role,” he said. “Iran has proven to be the most competent external actor in government formation.”

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