Until Trump ordered the drone strike that killed him, mass protests posed a threat to Iranian influence. That could now change.
Early Sunday morning, Sarkawt Shams, a Kurdish member of the Iraqi parliament, received a text on his phone from the political bureau of the Kataib Hezbollah militia, which had just lost its leader to a US drone strike. The parliament was due to vote on whether to expel US troops from Iraq following the US assassination of the Shiite militia leader, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, and his ally Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani early Friday morning.
The text Shams received was an unmistakable and personal threat: Vote to oust the Americans or else. "They were saying either you are going to side with the people or you will be considered traitors and your houses will be burned," Shams said.
Shams ultimately stayed away, along with at least 150 other legislators who boycotted the vote. But inside the parliament, the atmosphere resembled a political rally, with lawmakers chanting, "Yes, yes Soleimani. No, no America." The irony is that until US President Donald Trump violated Iraqi sovereignty by killing Soleimani and Muhandis with a drone strike on Jan. 3, Iran faced a serious threat to its influence inside Iraq in the form of thousands of Iraqis protesting against the corrupt politicians propped up by Tehran, often through Soleimani's machinations. The Iraqi protests had posed the greatest challenge to Iran's influence over Iraq in years. Mass outrage was mounting against leading politicians whom demonstrators accused of serving Iran before they served Iraq.
And so Soleimani may now be closer to achieving in death what he was unable to produce in life: a countermovement to the demonstrations, one that pivots Iraq back toward Iran and solidifies its political establishment. Soleimani's assassination by the Americans has provided a much-needed shot of legitimacy to Iraq's unpopular—and Shiite-dominated—leadership, who have not only close links to Iran but also a vested interest in suppressing the domestic popular movement against them.
"I think the assassination has given the Iran-aligned elements in the Iraqi government and the Iraqi political system what they've been looking for since October, namely a counter-cause, a counter-protest, and a way of creating counter-pressure to push back against the protests," said Fanar Haddad, a senior research fellow at the Middle East Institute think tank.
Renad Mansour, a research fellow at Chatham House, another think tank, believes that in the coming days many of the pro-Iranian groups will try to use any new US airstrikes to fuel anti-American sentiment. Many of the mostly youthful protesters were raised in the wake of the 2003 US invasion and have made clear that they support neither the United States nor Iran, but that does not stop them from being branded with a pro-American brush.
"There will be a purge I think—this is the biggest threat—of anti-establishment protesters or leaders and now they have the ammunition of using anti-Americanism," Mansour said. "So anyone who is critical of them they can just say is an American spy."
Thus, for the first time since protests against the Iraqi government began late this past year, protesters find their demands for a new government have been sidelined into a desperate push against foreign interference from the United States as well as Iran. Now they hold up signs declaring they do not want Iraq to become a battleground, rather than ones with their demands for fair elections, education, and work opportunities.
"This is impacting the protests in a very negative way," Haddad said. "It's bumped them off the news cycle. It's created this counter issue. It's directly juxtaposed against what the protesters have been saying, at least where Iran is concerned."
The US airstrikes that killed Soleimani and Muhandis have been roundly condemned as a violation of Iraq's sovereignty by almost every Iraqi leader, from acting Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi to Iraq's foremost cleric, Supreme Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. But some members of parliament such as Shams and many of his Sunni and Kurdish colleagues remain worried about the repercussions of expelling US troops—especially the power vacuum it could cause, giving the Islamic State a chance to mount a resurgence in their home provinces. Shams said he was outraged by the threats from Iran-affiliated groups such as Kataib Hezbollah: "We told them we will not accept a threat, we didn't accept it from Saddam [Hussein], and we didn't accept it from [Islamic State leader Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi, and we will not accept it from anyone else."
Ultimately, the parliament passed a nonbinding resolution recommending the government expel US troops on Sunday afternoon. The move does not actually require US troops to leave, as that decision is in the hands of the Iraqi government, but Sajad Jiyad from the Al-Bayan Center for Planning and Studies, an Iraqi think tank, said he thinks "the government is likely to press on," adding, "If they can't be protected and they risk violating sovereignty, it's best for them to leave, because we don't want to see things escalate in our country due to their presence."
Late Monday night, US troops seemed posed to do just that. The noisy whir of helicopters filled the sky as security escort helicopters started to leave the Green Zone, and the United States issued a statement to the Iraqi Ministry of Defense saying that in compliance to the parliament it would be "repositioning forces." In a chaotic series of events, Department of Defense officials later said the letter was a draft and US forces would remain in Iraq. Myles Caggins, the spokesperson for US Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq, confirmed to Foreign Policy that the helicopters were indeed US troops repositioning, although he did not give further details.
Now chaos and uncertainty reign over Iraq's relationship with the United States, while Iran-backed politicians appear to have closed ranks. In mid-October 2019, Soleimani reportedly met with top militia leaders in Baghdad and instructed them to increase attacks on US targets. He wanted to engineer anti-American sentiment to distract from the popular protests against Iranian-backed politicians and militia groups. He hoped that these provocations would spark a US military response, giving Iran the opportunity to try to shift the narrative and refocus public anger on America's violation of Iraqi sovereignty.
While he was alive, these efforts largely failed. Even after the attack on the US Embassy that began late last month, protesters held steadfast to their demands of an independent Iraq and an end to corrupt governance.
"What happened with the protests for the last few months is that they increasingly turned against the system, against the Hashd [the mostly Shiite militias] as part of that system, and against Iran as a foreign external backer of that system," said Chatham House's Mansour.
The three months of massive popular protests also swept through southern Iraq, which is Shiite-dominated, as young people poured into the streets demanding an end to corruption and the ousting of the political elite. Due to the entanglement among major political parties, politicians, and Iranian-power brokers such as Soleimani, many in Iraq's protests saw Iran as the power behind the throne. Protesters regularly chanted "Iran, out, out," and held up signs with red Xs etched across the face of Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Iran continues to hold great influence over the current government. After Abdul-Mahdi announced late this past year he was stepping down as prime minister, Soleimani flew to Iraq to help oversee the negotiations for his successor. Many of the major political parties are supported by Iran, including the influential Fatah Alliance headed up by Hadi al-Amiri, the commander of the Badr Organization, another Iran-backed militia.
Protesters accuse the Iranian-aligned militias and politicians of using brutal campaign of kidnapping, torture, and assassinations to suppress Iraq's popular demonstrations. Soleimani himself helped engineer the crackdown, telling top officials, "We in Iran know how to deal with protests," during a visit to Baghdad at the outbreak of the demonstrations.
"Iran is responsible for interference in Iraq, they suppressed and created an agenda to steal from the country," said Mithal Alaa, a 35-year-old protester. "Those people destroyed everything through killing and arrests."
The crackdown did not silence the protests, which continued for three months despite the killing of 500 people and the injuries of thousands more. Now protesters are acutely aware of the attempts to co-opt their efforts, as well as the cost of keeping them independent. In Nasiriyah, Iran-backed militia supporters attempted to carry a symbolic coffin into the center of the city's protests, but protesters prevented them. In response, the militia supporters opened fire on demonstrators.
On the same day as the march on the US Embassy, protesters issued a statement through loudspeakers in the square disassociating themselves from those actions and reasserting their commitment to peaceful protests.
But Soleimani's killing has unquestionably united Iraq's southern political elite and reignited the nationalist language that frames those who are anti-Iran as pro-American. Shams said that ahead of the parliamentary session, pro-Iranian members of parliament warned him that a vote against the US withdrawal would be considered close to treason. "Our WhatsApp groups were saying we will publish all the names, whoever didn't attend the session will be considered a traitor or someone working for foreign powers," Shams said.
Trump himself didn't make things easier for the protesters when, in response to the Iraqi parliament's resolution, he threatened sanctions on Iraq, something that brings back haunting memories to Iraqis who remember the devastating sanctions of the 1990s. "We are so worried, we don't want to be like before 2003 when we were isolated from the world," said Nour, a young activist in the street who didn't want his full name used for fear of government retaliation.
"It strikes me that at the moment America's tools are all coercive," said Haddad, "There's the might of American military power, there's coercive economic measures that they can take. But it strikes me that America is really lacking in soft power and political assets within Iraq."
He added the Iranians, on the other hand, are leveraging their full arsenal of soft power. "They're using their leverage in Iraqi politics to mobilize the Iraqi political classes in their favor in order to try and consolidate their control over Iraqi politics and marginalize the Americans to the greatest extent possible," Haddad said.
As repercussions of these massive geopolitical decisions ripple throughout the country, Iraqi protesters fear that the revolution they fought so hard for may get left behind. A feat Soleimani was unable to engineer through crackdowns or attempts at infiltration may be caused by US airstrikes that ended his life when he was barely out of the airport.
"We just want our Iraq," Nour said. "I really worry about it. I don't want to lose my country again and travel to another. After this revolution, after the biggest and strongest revolution that happened in Iraq, if Iran and America restart war in Iraq with their bad beliefs and stupid thinking … I will leave Iraq."
Pesha Magid is a freelance journalist based in Baghdad. Twitter: @PMagid