From Baghdad to the Shiite Muslim shrine city of Karbala and farther south, Iraqis are pushing for a revolution. They fill central squares to sing and dance from daybreak, and face down riot police when night falls.
Iraq’s streets are no stranger to power struggles. They’ve been a stage for sectarian conflict and for the Islamic State’s emergence. But the crowds are different this time, and so is the threat now posed by the largest grass-roots movement in Iraq’s modern history: a new generation raised in the shadow of the U.S.-led invasion is rising, and politicians from Baghdad to Tehran have been caught on the back foot.
“To the generation of the sixties and seventies,” reads a sign flying high above Baghdad’s central square. “We have more courage than you.”
Although the unrest is confined to mostly Shiite areas, leading clerics for once have not marshaled it, and Shiite-dominated Iran, a powerful political and security force here, has been openly excoriated. The Iranian Consulate in Karbala has been torched, and its national flag ripped down. In scenes reminiscent of the fall of Saddam Hussein, protesters have also used their shoes to beat photographs of Tehran-backed militia leaders.
“If anything, these protests have challenged the sectarian formula of governance, which has reduced Iraqis to their ethnic and religious identities,” Harith Hasan, a nonresident fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center, wrote in a research note. Under Iraq’s political system, power is split among parties based on sect, and economic spoils are divided accordingly.
Fearful that its influence could erode, Iran is stepping in to marshal a brutal response. In an earlier wave of protest last month, Iran’s leading general, Qasem Soleimani, flew into Baghdad late on the second day, to make clear Iran would be adding muscle to the security forces’ response, according to Iraqi officials. They say an Iran-backed militia commissioned snipers to shoot protesters in the streets.
This time around, government officials say, Iran has pressured Iraq’s weakened and embattled prime minister not to step down, and fueled his belief that the protests are a foreign conspiracy. [Continue reading…]