In Iraq, Iran’s big neighbor faces growing backlash

Baghdad (AFP)

As Iraq goes to the polls on October 10, the spotlight is on the disproportionate influence exerted by neighboring Iran, 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-Iranian factions that play a major role in Iraq and whom the United States accuses of attacking their interests there.

The paramilitary network known as Hashed al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Forces – formed in 2014 to defeat the Islamic State group – 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 with major influence in 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, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein attacked over a border dispute, sparking their brutal 1980-1988 war.

In November 2019, angry protesters attacked and torched the Iranian consulate in the southern city of Najaf Haidar HAMDANI AFP / File

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 the 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 find it more difficult to maintain their popularity,” he added.

– “No submission” –

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

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

The Hached al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Forces, formed in 2014 to defeat the Islamic State group
The Hached al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Forces, formed in 2014 to defeat the Islamic State group Sabah ARAR AFP / File

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, told AFP 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.

– ‘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 – to change their image with the general public” which associates them with the security apparatus.

Iraqis in Najaf register for voting cards ahead of parliamentary elections
Iraqis in Najaf register for voting cards ahead of parliamentary elections Ali NAJAFI AFP / File

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 think 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 as that usually means he’s a fairly 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 election is 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 a big role,” he said. “Iran has proven to be the most competent external actor when it comes to government formation.”

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