Observer says US drone strike that killed top commanders could also prove fatal for Iraq’s anti-government protests
The Iraqi parliament has passed the first reading of a bill compelling Baghdad to formally disinvite the 5,000 US troops now in the country, with caretaker prime minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi having called for “urgent measures” in this regard.
Sunday’s move comes after a US drone strike killed Qasem Soleimani, the powerful leader of Iran’s elite Quds Force; Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a top commander of Iraq’s pro-Tehran Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) militias; and at least six others at Baghdad’s international airport in the early hours of Friday.
The strike followed an attack in northern Iraq that killed a US contractor, and the partial sacking of the US Embassy in Baghdad, with both being blamed on Muhandis’s militias.
Iran and Iraq have become closer as a result of the 2003 US-led war that ousted Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, their relationship deepening with the drawdown of American troops. The Islamic Republic’s reach into Iraqi affairs, along with public sentiment against corruption, is what prompted anti-government protests that swept the country starting in October, leading to Abdul-Mahdi’s resignation.
Renwar Najm, a journalist based in Iraqi Kurdistan, believes the protests could become another casualty of the US strike against Soleimani and Muhandis.
“Even though most of the protesters in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities are Shi’ites, they are against the Iranian influence in Iraq,” he told The Media Line. “If the situation becomes worse and a proxy war takes place on the soil of Iraq, these protests are unlikely to continue – and that is the worst part of the killing of Soleimani.”
Farhad Alaaldin, a former advisor to Iraqi presidents and now chairman of the Iraq Advisory Council, a Baghdad-based non-profit, agrees.
“It is not clear yet how the protestors would react to any escalation of the conflict, but one can say that it will be difficult to sustain [the protests] in the same manner… amid a possible war,” he told The Media Line. “Iraqis fear a great deal that [their country] will become an arena for this conflict [and that they] will pay a heavy price.”
Alaaldin contends, though, that everyone, and not just the protesters, would suffer the consequences of an escalation.
“In the case of war, there will be no clear winners and losers,” he said. “[Any] war would mean instability in the region [and a] hike in oil prices due to a disruption of the oil flow from [the Strait of] Hurmuz… which could cause a shock to the world economy.”
Dr. Seyed Ali Alavi, a senior teaching fellow in the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, says the US drone strike will strengthen Iraqi-Iranian unity.
“Joint demonstrations and commemorations [against the drone attack will] bring both Iran and Iraq psychologically and emotionally closer than before,” he told The Media Line. “Baghdad is moving [nearer] to Tehran as a result of the strike.”
Sunni and Kurdish legislators boycotted the January 5 vote in the Iraqi parliament, where Shi’ite parties hold a majority.
“The Kurds believe this Iranian commander [Soleimani] was the main perpetrator of the Popular Mobilization Forces attack on the Kurdish city of Kirkuk in 2017,” the journalist Najm explained, referring to the so-called Battle of Kirkuk, during which Iraqi troops took control of the area following a wildly successful Kurdish referendum on independence from Baghdad.
“The Sunnis were subjected to persecution by the PMF in their home cities,” he continued, “and they see Soleimani [as having been] responsible for the acts of the Shi’ite militias.”
Zinar Demeni, a Kurdish political activist, told The Media Line: “Many Kurds across the world welcome Soleimani’s killing…. He became famous for his brutality against the Kurdish people.”
Despite their parliamentary majority, Iraq’s Shi’ite parties have been split on many issues, including the anti-government protests. Yet they are now unified in their opposition to the US drone attack.
“Muqtada al-Sadr’s faction in parliament supports the protesters’ demands, but Hadi al-Amiri’s faction rejects [them], calling [the protesters] agents of the US and Israel,” Najm said, noting that the former have an anti-corruption platform while the latter comprise the political wing of the Iran-allied PMF.
“The US violated Iraqi sovereignty…. Apart from Soleimani, they killed a high-ranking Iraqi commander,” he explained. “Both factions today… are on one side when it comes to asking US forces to withdraw from Iraq.”