Protesters are shunning Iran’s influence
▶ Tehran is struggling to keep its stranglehold on Lebanon and Iraq amid anger of the masses
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.