By Ahmad Rafat
On Friday September 7, protesters torched the Iranian consulate in the southern Iraqi city of Basra. The crowd cried out against Iranian influence on Iraqi politics. They also attacked and set fire to nearly all government buildings in what turned out to be a week-long street protest. The majority Shia population of the second largest city in Iraq is angry about corruption and a lack of essential services.
The government imposed a curfew on Friday night, and by Saturday the tension had somewhat eased. However, this could be the calm before the storm. The fire is still burning hot under the ashes. Basra is struggling with water and electricity shortage and high unemployment. Also, the city is controlled by Shia militias which operate under the auspices of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
There have been more 200 small and massive protests in Basra in the past month. Militias patrolling the streets have attacked and brutalized the protesters on many occasions.
Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the Sadrist Movement, has called on the Iraqi government to resign. He has also asked the public to give the political powers in the country three weeks to draft a coherent and transparent plan to fight corruption. Mr. al-Sadr’s Sairoon Electoral Coalition (Alliance for Reforms) won 54 seats in the first Iraqi Parliamentary election in May. Mr. al-Sadr, a Shia cleric, is one of the most influential religious figures in Iraq.
Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Hosseini Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraqi Shia Muslims, has also called on the current government to resign. Meanwhile, an emergency session of the Iraqi Parliament has failed to find a viable solution to the current crisis in Basra.
Less than 15 percent of eligible voters in Basra took part in the May elections show the public’s distrust of the political parties. People don’t believe that any meaningful change could happen in their town or the country for that matter.
Abdelmoneim Darwish, an Iraqi journalist who currently lives in Basra, told KayhanLife: “Our economy depends on the sale of our oil and gas, but Basra doesn’t receive a share of the revenue. We are experiencing the same economic hardship as our brothers across the border in Khuzestan Province. We breathe polluted air, drink contaminated water and wrestle with high unemployment.”
Mr. Darwish added: “Political instability has made it next to impossible to form a coalition government in Iraq. Widespread corruption and bribery are at the root of the problem. However, we shouldn’t downplay the role of the Islamic Republic in the current crisis. Tehran has used every possible means to control the political process in Iraq, including backing the pro-Iranian Vice President Nouri al-Maliki and Hadi Al-Amiri, an influential Shia member of the parliament.”
“The attack on the Iranian consulate was a violent reaction to Tehran’s blatant interference in Iraqi politics,” Darwish explained. “People were outraged by the IRGC-sponsored Shia militias’ attack on the protesters on September 3, which killed one person. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Since returning to Iraq from the war against IS [the so-called Islamic State], Shia militias including Iraqi Popular Mobilization, the Badr Organization, and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq have tried to control all aspects of life in Basra. They terrorize the population and extort money from businesses.”
Darwish noted: “Their legitimate grievances notwithstanding, the protesters shouldn’t have torched the Iranian Consulate and government buildings. However, the militias had to have organized some of the attacks. For instance, an average person cannot get their hands on a Katyusha multiple rocket launcher to attack an airport. Backed by the IRGC’s Qods Force (IRGC-QF,) the militias are trying to take control of Basra by claiming that they can restore peace and stability in the city. Fortunately, Basra is still under the control of the regular army and Iraqi security forces.”
So far 13 people have been killed and another 300 injured during the clashes between the rioters and the militia.
Muqtada al-Sadr’s Sairoon Electoral Coalition, which among others include the Iraqi Communist Party, has accused the Islamic Republic and the IRGC of starting the violence in Basra.
One of the leaders of the coalition, Rahim al-Taee, told KayhanLife: “ Under the pretext of defending the government buildings, the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq militias, which take their orders from the commander of the Qods Force Ghasem Soleimani, fired on the protesters. This incident triggered a wave of violence against the rioters. We had warned the security forces about the suspicious behavior of various militia groups.”
Mr. Al-Taee added: “The Islamic Republic, the Shia militias and their political supporters aim to prevent the coalition from forming a government. Tehran would like to choose the next Iraqi government. If that happens, Iraq would lose its current level of political security and will revert to the despotic era of Ba’ath Party.”
Iraqi political groups are not the only forces that are concerned about the influence of Iran in the region. “We can’t ignore the presence of the IRGC in Iraq and Syria. This military force can pose a greater danger to the region than IS,” the Washington-based online newspaper Al-Monitor reported quoting General Danny Fortin, the new Canadian commander for the NATO mission in Iraq.
Translated from Persian by Fardine hamidi