Pro­test­ers are shun­ning Iran’s in­flu­ence

▶ Tehran is strug­gling to keep its stran­gle­hold on Le­banon and Iraq amid anger of the masses

The National - News - - OPINION -

This past week has seen vast up­heaval in the re­gion as Le­banese and Iraqi cit­i­zens of all sects have mo­bilised in their re­spec­tive coun­tries to de­mand bet­ter liv­ing con­di­tions, the fall of a cor­rupt and sec­tar­ian rul­ing elite, and an end to for­eign in­ter­fer­ence in their na­tions’ af­fairs. In Iraq, pro­test­ers have been met with bul­lets and tear gas but the back­lash has not stopped them. On Fri­day, Iraq saw its largest protests since the fall of Sad­dam Hus­sein. In Le­banon, peo­ple are still protest­ing, even af­ter prime min­is­ter Saad Hariri and his gov­ern­ment stepped down last week. Faced with an im­passe, Iraqi pres­i­dent Barham Salih ac­cepted prime min­is­ter Adel Ab­dul Mahdi’s res­ig­na­tion on con­di­tion it did not cre­ate a “con­sti­tu­tional vacuum”. But just as Mr Hariri’s res­ig­na­tion did not re­solve Le­banon’s woes, Mr Ab­dul Mahdi step­ping down will not bring an end to Iraq’s crises. An over­haul of the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem is needed to weaken Iran’s grip, but Tehran will not give up that eas­ily.

On Wed­nes­day Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Is­lamic Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guards Corps, went to Bagh­dad in a bid to stop Mr Ab­dul Mahdi’s res­ig­na­tion. This was not his first visit to Iraq since protests be­gan. The day af­ter demon­stra­tions erupted, Mr Soleimani met top Iraqi se­cu­rity of­fi­cials. The day af­ter his visit, more than 100 peo­ple were killed at the hands of uniden­ti­fied snipers and mem­bers of Iran-backed mili­tias. The is­sue of mili­tias has brought trou­bles to Iraq for years, and to­day they are united un­der the ban­ner of the Pop­u­lar Mo­bil­i­sa­tion Forces, or PMF. Although the coali­tion was meant to be in­te­grated into the Iraqi mil­i­tary af­ter help­ing de­feat ISIS, the PMF of­ten act with­out ac­count­abil­ity. Tehran is anx­ious to keep wield­ing in­flu­ence via such prox­ies – no mat­ter the cost.

Although Mr Soleimani’s pres­ence in Bagh­dad sig­nals Iran’s med­dling is as brazen as ever, the fact the IRGC chief has vis­ited Iraq sev­eral times since the start of protests shows Tehran is no longer as pow­er­ful as it used to be and that the pop­u­lar­ity of its prox­ies is on the wane.

In both Iraq and Le­banon, cit­i­zens are wak­ing up to the re­al­ity that sec­tar­i­an­ism only di­vides na­tions. Iran had sought to por­tray it­self as a de­fender of Shi­ites, cash­ing in on sec­tar­ian di­vi­sions to fi­nance armed prox­ies that ter­rorise or­di­nary civil­ians. But Iraq’s protests first broke out in the coun­try’s Shi­ite-ma­jor­ity south, a sign that its peo­ple are tired of be­ing ma­nip­u­lated by Tehran.

Pro­test­ers refuse to be in­tim­i­dated. De­spite the death toll, they are tak­ing to the streets of Iraq in even larger num­bers and have at­tacked proxy mili­tias di­rectly. The fact demon­stra­tors are ready to give their lives in the fight against mili­tias shows the ex­tent of their re­jec­tion of th­ese forces. Th­ese prox­ies have ef­fec­tively pre­vented a coun­try with a wealth of oil, his­tory and re­li­gious sites of sig­nif­i­cance for Sun­nis and Shi­ites alike from flour­ish­ing and pro­vid­ing its cit­i­zens with a de­cent liv­ing. Iraqis want a na­tion that pri­ori­tises their rights and needs above those of any other coun­try. Af­ter decades of hard­ships, it is high time for Iraq’s lead­ers to heed th­ese de­mands and stop the blood­shed.

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