Many demonstrators see Tehran and Iranian-backed forces hand in widespread violence and support for the embattled prime minister
Baghdad—"The people demand the fall of the regime," Iraqi protesters chanted, waving the Iraqi flag high amid a cacophony of tuk-tuks, sound grenades, and fireworks on Friday. On the Jumhuriya Bridge leading into the Green Zone, protesters found shelter behind concrete blocks as security forces aimed at them with heavy tear gas canisters, killing scores in the course of one week.
Across the bridge, in the offices of government, a very different battle was taking place as politicians fought over the fate of Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, a compromise candidate whose fate has revealed the fault lines between the true power brokers in Iraq, some of whom dwell across the border in Iran.
Many protesters now blame Iran and Iranian-backed forces for the worst of the violence, and one of their key demands has been the removal of Iranian influence. Chants of "Iran out, out!" have become common within Tahrir Square in central Baghdad, and on Friday videos circulated showing protesters burning the Iranian flag.
"Iran, they are the ones who destroyed and attacked us. Iran is behind all the people who created this situation. Iran runs the country," said Ali Kasem, a 17-year-old protester.
Kasem, like many others, sees Iran as the power keeping Abdul-Mahdi in office, and the protesters blame Tehran for exploiting Iraq in pursuit of its own interests. Sixty percent of Iraq's population of 40 million is under the age of 25, and the protests have widely been spurred by the dire economic conditions facing this generation, which has reached its breaking point after years of misgovernance dating to the 2003 US invasion that toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Youth unemployment stands at a shocking 25 percent, and 1 in 5 people live under the poverty line, despite Iraq's vast oil wealth.
"There are no jobs. People graduate and stay in the house," said Mohamed Radaa, 18, who works as a street vendor and tuk-tuk driver. "I quit school to help my mother. We did not have food. We are poor people. We don't have anything. We didn't even have a quarter of a dinar. How can I go to school?"
Rumours flew on Thursday that Abdul-Mahdi would soon leave his office. That night, Iraqi President Barham Salih gave a speech saying that Abdul-Mahdi had agreed to resign, but he included an essential caveat: It depended on the Iraqi parliament finding a replacement. Choosing a new prime minister amid negotiations with Iraq's competing network of political parties is a process that could take months.
As the dust settled, it became clear that Abdul-Mahdi, who reportedly wants to resign, has very little say in the matter. He came to power through an Iranian-backed coalition, and Iranian authorities want him to stay in office. However, protesters are determined to hold on to the square and say they will not leave until they end Iranian influence and completely overhaul the governmental system. The future is unclear, as Iran faces one of the greatest challenges to its influence in the region.
Abdul-Mahdi took office after a compromise between Iraq's two largest parliamentary blocs: the Sairoun coalition, led by the populist yet mercurial cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, and the Fatah coalition, led by Hadi al-Amiri, the commander of the Badr Brigades, an influential Iranian-backed militia.
On Tuesday night, it appeared that Amiri and Sadr were poised to come to another agreement to remove Abdul-Mahdi so as to placate the growing protests. But on Wednesday, Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, the leader of Iran's Quds Force, an elite unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), arrived in Baghdad to hold a secretive meeting with Amiri, during which he reportedly asked Amiri to continue to support Abdul-Mahdi.
"Iran doesn't want what it views as something destabilizing to occur [to Iraq] because if Mahdi goes, it's unclear first of all how he goes but also who would replace him," said Renad Mansour, a research fellow at Chatham House. "He [Abdul-Mahdi] is clearly quite willing to maintain the status quo. He's willing not to speak out against violations. He's willing to use the forces under his power to stop protests. So he checks a lot of boxes when it comes to Iran."
The meeting broke the fragile agreement between Sadr and Amiri and destroyed any chances of an easy ouster. Sadr later issued an angry statement saying that without Abdul-Mahdi's resignation there would only be more bloodshed and he would never work with Amiri again.
But within Tahrir, all the political wheeling and dealing remains out of touch with the depth of the demands of protesters, who want much more than Abdul-Mahdi's resignation.
"That [Abdul-Mahdi's resignation] would not be not enough. Even if he leaves, another would come who also benefits from us. We want a republican state—we don't want a parliamentary state. All of the parliamentarians are thieves and do not serve us," said Ammar Abdel-Khalek, an 18-year-old student.
"It's like they [politicians] are trying to avoid the main problem by going after [Abdul-Mahdi]," said Myriam Benraad, a researcher at the France-based Institute of Research and Study on the Arab and Muslim Worlds. "So they then should instead come up with a plan and a strategy and some concrete measures that they can propose to the people because … Iraqis no longer believe the false promises that are made by the political class, by the elites, that they are going to change something."
The protests have been marked by widespread bloodshed and remarkable resilience from young Iraqi protesters. More than 250 people have been killed since the protests first broke out at the beginning of October, and more than 8,000 have been wounded. A recent Amnesty International report confirmed that the security forces have been directly aiming at protesters' heads and bodies with military-grade heavy tear gas canisters, piercing skulls and killing dozens.
Despite the violence, protesters say they are willing to lay down their lives in order to create a change of regime. At night, as security forces lobbed round after round of tear gas and stun grenades at protesters gathered in Tahrir Square, they responded by chanting, "Our souls, our blood for you, oh Iraq."
"I'm not afraid. I was there an hour ago on the bridge," said Abdel-Khalek, referring to the Jumhuriya Bridge, which has become a flashpoint for violence as security forces push back the protesters attempting to cross. "We're not afraid of anything. … If I go back and stay in the house, then there won't be anything."
Iran reportedly coordinated some of the worst of the violence at the beginning of October, when masked snipers shot protesters from rooftops. "We in Iran know how to deal with protests," Suleimani reportedly told Iraqi government officials in a secret meeting.
"The Iranians … are intervening in Iraq in an attempt to suppress the protest movement and solidify the central government and insulate it from a potential change in the composition of that government under the pressure of protests," said Jennifer Cafarella, an associate fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence. "In that effort, we know at minimum the Iranians have deployed IRGC Quds Force to provide intelligence and targeting for snipers."
More than 150 people were killed in the first round of violence, with an Iraqi government investigation revealing that 70 percent of them were shot down by live bullets to the head or chest. Since then, the death count has continued to swell as security forces have aimed at protesters with tear gas canisters and sound grenades. Many of the slain were in their teens, and their deaths sparked mass outrage in Iraq.
"Now there are so many martyrs," said Younes Rahim, 24. "They shot them with tear gas canisters in their stomachs, their heads, in their legs. Anyone who was at home has gone out for the rights of their brothers who fell. Even if it's not your brother, if I saw someone fall in the street, I would demand his rights like he were my brother."
Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric, Ali al-Sistani, gave a speech Friday warning foreign powers not to "impose their will" on Iraq and cautioning security forces against excessive use of force, saying it could lead to civil conflict, chaos, and destruction within the country.
But Suleimani's recent visit suggests that Iran is not willing to release its hold on Iraq, and analysts fear this may mean a return to the bullets and snipers that Iraq faced in early October. "I think it's very likely that at minimum Iran through its proxies is preparing for another round of violence to attempt to disperse and suppress the protests," Cafarella said.
As the protests enter their second month, more bloodshed looms on the horizon, and the future remains unclear. The only thing certain, it seems, is that Iraq's protesters will not go home without a fight.
Pesha Magid, is a freelance journalist based in Baghdad. Twitter: @PMagid