Iraqi protesters are lashing out at the Iran-backed militias who sought to crush the anti-government uprisings that have roiled Iraq since early October. The protesters’ slogans and choice of targets linked to the militias demonstrate the extent to which anti-Iran sentiment now animates the protest movement.
Iraqis have taken to the streets to protest corruption, unemployment, and a lack of public services. Security forces’ violent crackdown on the first wave of demonstrations led to 149 deaths and more than 4,200 wounded, according to the Iraqi government. Unnamed Iraqi security officials told Reuters that snipers deployed by Iran-backed militias were responsible for much of the carnage. A government report found that shots to the head and chest caused 70 percent of the fatalities among protesters, although it did not blame the militias.
During a second major wave of protests that commenced last Friday, demonstrators began to vent their anger at the militias and at Iran. In Baghdad, protesters burned an Iranian flag, while in Karbala they gathered at the Iranian consulate, shouting “Iran out, out!” Days later, in Karbala, masked gunmen shot dead 18 protesters and wounded hundreds.
Enraged by the killings, demonstrators torched more than a dozen buildings associated with the Iran-backed militias or with their political wings, including those of the Badr Organization, a militia founded in the 1980s by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). According to regional media, demonstrators burned the house of Qassem al-Araji, a Badr leader and former head of Iraq’s Interior Ministry. At a minimum, there have been an additional 91 killings over the past week.
Protesters also beat to death Wissam al-Alawi, a commander in the Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) militia, after dragging him from an ambulance in Amara. Earlier, AAH fighters reportedly gunned down scores of demonstrators in Amara and Nasiriyah.
At al-Alawi’s funeral, top AAH commander Qais al-Khazali said, “His blood is on America and Israel’s hands, but I will take revenge — many times over.” Khazali’s comments reflect Tehran’s official stance. Yesterday, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei told Iranian military cadets, “The U.S. and Western intelligence services, with the financial backing of reactionary countries in the region, are spreading turmoil.”
From the onset of the unrest, Tehran has played an integral role in shaping Baghdad’s response. After the first protests, Major General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the IRGC Quds Force, the organization’s expeditionary branch, flew to Baghdad and – in place of the prime minister – chaired a meeting of Iraq’s top security officials.
The wide array of militias that comprise Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) are nominally part of the country’s official security forces and receive substantial government funding. Yet the top PMF officials are close to Soleimani, including al-Khazali of AAH and Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis of Kataib Hezbollah, a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization. The Badr Organization also dominates Iraq’s Interior Ministry, and Badr’s chief described Soleimani as his “dearest friend.”
The U.S. has supported the elected Iraqi government’s efforts to assert the rule of law over the militias, yet their parliamentary factions serve as key power brokers in Baghdad. The current protests also demonstrate Iraqi voters’ complete loss of confidence in their prime minister, in part because of his failure to resist Tehran. Until now, the U.S. government has been extremely hesitant to designate Iraq’s Iran-backed militias as terrorist organizations, fearing a potential popular backlash. Yet Iraqis’ own resentment of Iran’s proxy forces is now obvious. Washington therefore should designate these groups under human rights as well as counterterrorism authorities in order to highlight their atrocities and demonstrate that America stands with the Iraqi people.
David Adesnik is director of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Nicholas Wernert is an intern. They both contribute to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). Follow them on Twitter @adesnik and @Nickydubz21. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.