The Iraq Report: Anti-Iran protests over Karbala killing

The Iraq Report: Domestic instability rises as Iraq hosts Saudi - Iran talks
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Anti-Iran protests are mounting in a 'prelude to a summer of discontent and violence,' as Iraq is the staging ground for direct talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Mourner at the funeral of assassinated critic of Iran Ihab al-Wazni. [Getty]

In what is now becoming an increasingly common phenomenon, anti-Iranian sentiment has spiked in Iraq, after the murder of a prominent dissident and critic of the Iranian regime. Protests have racked Shia shrine cities in what has been described as a prelude to a summer of discontent and violence.

While Iraq deals with internal instability resulting from Iranian ambitions and interference, it is also being utilised by Iran as a "neutral" ground for conducting quiet negotiations with Saudi Arabia. Riyadh's willingness to negotiate with Tehran largely stems from the fact that it feels bereft of an ally in Washington.

The oil-rich Arab kingdom seemingly backing down in the face of Iranian ascendancy, coupled with American isolationism and withdrawal, leaves Iraq in a precarious situation in which it will struggle to extricate itself from Iran's orbit.

Anti-Iran sentiments soaring in Shia heartland

Violent protests have continued unabated in several Shia-majority cities since a well-known political activist and anti-government critic was murdered by suspected Iran-backed Shia militias in the early hours of 9 May.

Ihab al-Wazni, a coordinator of protests in the Shia shrine city of Karbala, was a vocal opponent of corruption, the stranglehold of Tehran-linked armed groups, and Iran's influence in Iraq.

He was shot to death at night outside his home by men on motorbikes in an ambush caught on surveillance tapes. His death has been confirmed by security forces and fellow activists.

The oil-rich Arab kingdom seemingly backing down in the face of Iranian ascendancy, coupled with American isolationism and withdrawal, leaves Iraq in a precarious situation in which it will struggle to extricate itself from Iran's orbit

Wazni narrowly escaped death in December 2019, when men on motorbikes used silenced weapons to kill fellow activist Fahem al-Tai as Wazni was dropping him off at his home in Karbala, where pro-Tehran armed groups are legion.

Both men were key figures in a national protest movement that erupted against government corruption and Iranian interference in Iraq in October 2019. More than 600 people have been killed as a result – many on the streets during rallies, others targeted on their doorsteps, away from the demonstrations.

Protests broke out in Karbala, Nassiriya, and Diwaniya in southern Iraq in reaction to Wazni's killing, as people called for an end to the bloodshed and rampant corruption, as well as an end to the impunity enjoyed by Shia militias.

In a video recording from the morgue where Wazni's body was initially held, a fellow activist made it clear who he and colleagues blamed for the killing.

"It is the Iranian militias who killed Ihab," said the unnamed activist. "They are going to kill all of us! They threaten us and the government remains silent."

Iraqi students take part in anti-government demonstrations in front of their university in Basra. [Getty]
Read more: 'Our youth are being shot at': Iraq's protests in pictures

The assassination of Wazni was followed 24 hours later with the attempted murder of journalist Ahmad Hassan who was shot in the head as he arrived home in Diwaniyah. Hassan has undergone brain surgery and remains in critical condition at a Baghdad hospital.

Demonstrators in Karbala were so infuriated that they set fire to property belonging to the Iranian consulate in the shrine city, leading Tehran to hand a letter of protest to the Iraqi ambassador to Iran demanding Baghdad protect Iranian diplomatic sites.

The symbolism of the attack on the Iranian consulate was not lost on many observers.

"Iran has always positioned itself as a defender of Shia rights," Ahmed al-Mahmud, of the dissident Iraqi Foreign Relations Bureau in London, told The New Arab. "However, many of the protesters since 2019 were killed by Shia groups backed by clerics who are proxies to Iran."

"The reality is that most regular Iraqi Shia have started to recognise that Iran does not want what's best for them – Iran wants what's best for Iran," Mahmud said.

The attack on the consulate in Karbala is doubly significant due to the religious significance many, including Iran's leadership, ascribe to the city where it is said that the Prophet Muhammad's grandson was killed in battle

The reality is that most regular Iraqi Shia have started to recognise that Iran does not want what's best for them – Iran wants what's best for Iran

Iran places such significance on the city that, during the Iran-Iraq War in the 80s, the revolutionary Iran used the city's name on several military operations against Iraqi armed forces. One of their slogans during the war was: "The Road to Jerusalem goes through Karbala."

Pro-Iranian groups' provocations have led to outrage not only in Shia areas but also in Sunni strongholds.

Posters of Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Qasem Soleimani, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps general killed by the Trump administration in early 2020, were ordered to be taken down and removed in the Sunni enclave of Al-Adhamiya in Baghdad.

The posters had been put up next to the Imam Abu Hanifa Mosque by Iran-backed militias last week. The mosque is a famous seat of Sunni learning and houses the mausoleum of the eponymous imam who is revered by orthodox Muslims.

"Apart from a lull due to the coronavirus, these actions will likely be the start of another summer of protests that have become traditional in Iraq for more than a decade," Mahmud, the Iraqi dissident, told The New Arab.

The arrests are a way of silencing dissent against the established political elite. [Getty]
The Iraq Report: Saddam-era defamation laws used to silence dissent 

With elections looming later this year, and with increasing violence against activists and dissidents, it is likely that the scorching summer months and the customary power cuts will lead to yet another rash of protests.

Historically, these demonstrations have been suppressed using indiscriminate violence from both government and Shia militia forces. However, they are usually reignited either by continuing excesses or new abuses perpetrated by the authorities and militias.

Iraq acts as neutral ground for Saudi-Iran negotiations

Despite its internal instability, Iraq has acted as host to quiet talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia "more than once," according to remarks made by Iraqi President Barham Salih last week.

Salih made these remarks in reply to a question during a video interview with the Beirut Institute, without providing any further information, according to a Reuters report.

Iraq has been playing a key role in conducting shuttle diplomacy between the two rivals due to their lack of formal relations

Direct talks between Riyadh and Tehran occurred in Baghdad on 9 April. Until recently, however, no previous discussions have been reported, suggesting that Iraq has been playing a key role in conducting shuttle diplomacy between the two rivals due to their lack of formal relations.

To the Iranians, Iraq is a suitable interlocutor as Tehran holds huge influence over state and military institutions in the country. For the Saudis, Iraq was deemed to be neutral ground on account of its status as an Arab country.

Iran and Saudi Arabia, who broke off official relations in 2016, have been engaged in a series of proxy conflicts, some of them involving governments and armed groups in the Middle East and North Africa.

However, in an interview on Saudi television late last month, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia – stated that it was now his government's policy to seek a "good and special relationship with Tehran."

The Saudi about-face is inextricably linked to President Joe Biden's push to engage Iran and to lift sanctions in exchange for a resumption of the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, better known as the Iran nuclear deal.

The US-Iraq strategic dialogue last week promised to withdraw America's troops. [Getty]
The Iraq Report: Iran locks in its influence as US plans troop withdrawal

While the deal was negotiated by the Obama administration in 2015, it was abandoned by former President Trump in 2018 who sought a new deal that further restricted Iran's regional activities and ballistic missile programme.

Riyadh supported Washington's position during the Trump administration and desperately sought a second term for Trump. However, with Biden now in the Oval Office, Saudi's hopes have been dashed and MBS appears incapable of standing up to Iran.

Such is Iran's power that its proxies control much of the Islamic State group's former black market enterprises in northern Iraq and its militias have been incessantly attacking the interests of the world's most powerful superpower, forcing the United States to withdraw contractors and military units from Iraq.

In such an environment, and with an aloof Biden administration in office, MBS has sought Iraq's good offices to de-escalate with Iran.

Even if tensions between the two rivals calm, it is unlikely Iraq will benefit. In fact, it is likely to lose out. As Tehran's rivals fall and there is no one willing to counterbalance against its influence, Iraq will find it ever harder to maintain autonomy.

This power structure will lead to further societal instability as Iraqis continue to be infuriated by their elites for bowing to Iranian orders. Such instability may ultimately lead to civil strife, with both Sunni and Shia opposition groups taking up arms against the state in an attempt to reclaim their country from Iran's grasp.

With input and reporting from Agencies.