Iran/US clashes in Iraq
Domestic tensions in Iraq are closely associated with Iranian influence and the Hash al-Shaabi Shiite militias.
The regional standoff between Iran and the US sharply deteriorated in late 2019 with US air strikes on a Shiite militia and an assault on the US Embassy in Baghdad. Many observers were concerned that they marked an escalation towards open conflict.
Death of Soleimani
Those fears were crystallised when the US killed Qassem Soleimani on 3 January 2020 in a drone strike. Many observers saw this as tantamount to a declaration of war and expected a strong Iranian response, albeit an ‘asymmetrical’ one; the response could take place in an unexpected country and might target assets of US allies rather than the US itself.
Iran announced the end of its compliance with limits on its nuclear programme agreed under the 2015 nuclear deal, although it said it would continue to co-operate with the International Atomic Energy Agency. The UK and the EU have called for de-escalation.
After demonstrations in which at least 400 people have died, the Iraqi Prime Minister resigned in December 2019. Iranian consulates have been attacked repeatedly, underscoring the anti-Iranian tone of much of the protest.
Iranian influence is associated with the present system, where election fraud, corruption and failure of governance leave ordinary Iraqis suffering and indignant.
In the absence of a candidate willing to try to form a majority in the existing parliament, fresh elections will be called, less than two years after the last round. Protesters have demanded a new electoral law and a new electoral commission.
Many protesters have chanted anti-Iranian slogans and Iranian consulate have been attacked. Iran has invested time and money in strengthening its influence over Iraqi politics and security in order to prevent a nationalist drift that might threaten Iranian interests.
Demonstrators have accused unidentified Iranian-backed militiamen of attacking them.
Iran-backed individuals are in control of several Shiite militias and several are in powerful positions within the official security forces.
Iran backed the second most powerful coalition at the 2018 parliamentary election: Fatah.
Qassem Soleimani, head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps overseas branch, had been seen in Iraq several times since the Iraqi Prime Minister’s resignation, trying to influence the formation of a new government.
At the same time as the demonstrations have been growing, the jihadi group ISIS/Daesh (also known as the Islamic State) has re-grouped and is now increasing its terrorist activities, from a mountainous region near the Kurdish Autonomous Region of Iraq.
One analyst describes Iraq as “slowly failing”. Iraq needs to improve the lot of its population, and quickly, but how to replace a system born out of bitter sectarian and ethnic conflict with one less corrupt and more responsive to the people is not an easy question.