Reports of significant instability have emerged from Iraq over the last several days. Iraqi security forces have opened fire on protests around the country. Security Studies Group (SSG)’s contacts in Iraq have been forwarding claims of Iranian proxy forces seizing territory in and around Baghdad as a way of controlling protests against the government. Allegedly, Iran is backing the central government in Baghdad out of fear that it might fall in the face of the growing protest movement. Since the Iranian regime has been deeply threatened by its own internal protest movement, a successful protest against their neighboring government might create new momentum among Iran’s own protest groups.
Currently SSG cannot independently verify the reports from our contacts in the region, in part because the internet has been shut down by the central government in much of Iraq. ‘Fog of War’ issues are universal during periods of conflict, and at least one piece of the information being passed out by encrypted cell phone has proven inaccurate after SSG analysis. At this time we will not forward specific claims being made by our contacts to avoid introducing false information into the news. However, we will provide the following analysis based on verifiable facts in news reports.
Iraq has been rocked by more than two days of protests, which have led to as many as 31 deaths according to some counts. The government had at last report imposed a curfew that was open-ended, and was enforcing it with live ammunition. The curfew contains exceptions only for those traveling to the airport (meaning that what Coalition Forces called ‘Route Irish’ remains open), as well as medical vehicles, and – surprisingly – religious pilgrims.
If Iran is indeed intervening in this dispute, the pilgrim exception is a likely vector for infiltration of deniable assets. Iran has temporarily closed at least one crossing point for pilgrims, which may be an attempt to delay groups of pilgrims at its border. This would give Iran time to insert teams of irregular warfare specialists, such as members of their Quds Force. The delay will also increase the numbers that will be crossing at once, making detection of teams harder.
The BBC is reporting that Iraqi security forces blocked major roads and bridges within Baghdad, and of course have defended the fortified Green Zone where the government operates. Access to the internet has largely been suspended, supposedly to prevent protest organizers from using social media to get groups together. However, it also has the effect of preventing video of atrocities from being uploaded for the wider world to see. It is possible that, once internet access is restored, evidence to support our Iraqi contacts’ claims will emerge. If so, at that time we will discuss them and their ramifications.
Most significant is that the protests, according to all media accounts, are both widespread geographically and demographically. The BBC, again, paints it this way:
…men, women, graduates, the unemployed, the elderly – who are all airing grievances that have accumulated over the past years.”
“They have all denied the involvement of any political party. They are, in fact, extremely disenfranchised and disappointed with the political establishment here.”
Amir Taheri confirms the BBC’s description of the demographics, calling them: “Shi’ite, Sunni, Arab, Kurd, Christian, Turcoman. Official news agency in Tehran, RAJA, says: even in ‘holy’ cities!” Taheri claims the protests are against the “mullah’s presence,” although at this time other media outlets state the key issue to be corruption.
Corruption and Iranian influence are not mutually exclusive, however. Similar to spontaneous widespread but disorganized protests that have been facing Iran’s own government, which have so far been successfully suppressed. Both Iran and Iraq have sizable oil-based economies that ought to be able to provide for the needs of the country, but both are bedeviled by corruption. Iraq’s oil industry, while not run by the IRGC’s criminal syndicates, has vast corruption problems that hurt its ability to pull itself out of economic troubles.
John Davidson, of Reuters, frames it this way:
Iraqis are fed up. Two years after the defeat of Islamic State much of the country’s nearly 40 million population live in worsening conditions despite the country’s oil wealth.
Security is better than it has been in years, but wrecked infrastructure has not been rebuilt and jobs are scarce. Youth blame this squarely on what they see as corrupt leaders who do not represent them.
For now the United States Department of State, as well as the United Nations, are backing the protesters’ rights amid the violence. “The right to demonstrate peacefully is a fundamental right in all democracies, but there is no place for violence in demonstrations from any side,” the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad put out via Twitter, although at this time the protesters themselves cannot access Twitter to know of it. “Every individual has the right to speak freely, in keeping with the law,” U.N. Special Representative Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert said.
The United States Embassy in Baghdad has received threats. Iraq’s government has summoned Iran’s envoy to address threats to Americans in Iraq.