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How Iraq’s Political Turmoil Could Embolden Iran

Image: Iranian Military Photo Handout.

Over the weekend, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi citizens swept the streets of Baghdad in support of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. The Shiite populist leader’s party won Iraq’s general election in October on the premise that it would work tirelessly to preserve the country’s sovereignty by countering Iran’s influence within Iraq’s political sphere

However, the cleric demanded his lawmakers resign last month after the group had failed to form a government. This unprecedented move has shaken Iraq to its core and the residual protests are reminiscent of the demonstrations that turned violent back in 2019. Al-Sadr has publicly denounced Iranian-aligned groups for meddling in Iraq’s polity. The outcome of the cleric’s withdrawal does not bode well for the future of Iraq’s independence from its malign neighbor. 

Al-Sadr Led Opposition to Saddam and U.S. Forces

Prior to al-Sadr’s resignation, the cleric called for an Iranian-free “national majority government” with Kurdish and Sunni allies. While the cleric now stands staunchly in opposition to Iranian influence in Iraq, he gained notoriety for his vehement anti-American sentiment following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of the country. 

Al-Sadr’s family history is rooted in political discourse, his father and cousin were assassinated in 1980 and 1999, respectively, for expressing disapproval of then-dictator Saddam Hussein. When the U.S. invaded Iraq, al-Sadr formed Shiite militias to counter American troops on the ground, which emerged as the Mehdi Army. By 2004, the U.S. occupation authority issued an arrest warrant for the cleric. 

As Iraq’s political situation has evolved in the last decade or so, Al-Sadr’s reputation also shifted. The cleric began to criticize the rampant corruption plaguing Iraq’s institutions, specifically calling out Iranian influence. Iran’s clout In Iraq extends through every sector of society, including its economic, political, and military arenas. 

Over the years, Iranian-aligned groups and politicians have infiltrated Iraq’s government by partnering with Shiite parties to put forth Tehran’s agenda. The regime and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) are able to export their Revolutionary goals so efficiently in Iraq due to the presence of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). The organization of militias became well known following the rise of ISIS, when the fighters aided in the international community’s fight against the terror group. Once ISIS was largely defeated, however, various PMF splinter groups began provoking sectarian tensions in Iraq. The group is legally part of Iraq’s security forces but openly defies Iraq law and functions to support Tehran’s interests. 

Iran Continues to Find Its Way Into Iraq’s Leadership Centers

In 2019, mass demonstrations broke out on the streets of Iraq aimed at countering Iran’s growing influence in the country. Hundreds of thousands of civilians marched through Baghdad demanding a return to Iraqi sovereignty, sporting anti-Iranian slogans. In response to these protests, PMF members were recorded brutally cracking down on demonstrators. In some videos, militia members are seen using snipers to attack protesters. 

Mustafa al-Kadhimi was appointed prime minister of the country amidst the political turmoil at the height of the protests. Kadhimi pledged to center his premiership on holding Iran and its proxies accountable for the turmoil they had caused. Just months after Kadhimi took office, Iran’s proxies began launching incessant rocket and drone attacks in Iraq. Certain PMF umbrella groups, like Kataib Hezbollah, have claimed responsibility for the dozens of barrages launched at Baghdad’s Green Zone since the beginning of 2020. Home to the U.S. Embassy, the Green Zone also hosts U.S. military personnel, assets, and other diplomatic sites. While Kadhimi did make unprecedented steps to counter Iranian-linked attacks, the proxy groups continued to wreak havoc on Iraqi soil. 

In November 2021, the prime minister survived a drone attack on his residence in Baghdad which injured six of his bodyguards. While no group has outwardly claimed responsibility for the attack, Iranian proxies are widely understood to be the perpetrators. As reported by The Washington Post, “Among the many armed groups operating in Iraq, they alone have access to drones, supplied by the Islamic Republic to its proxies across the Arab world, from Lebanon to Yemen.” Iran’s brazen attack on Iraq’s prime minister is indicative of the regime’s unwavering ambition to fully infiltrate its neighbor’s political structure. 

Following al-Sadr’s departure from Iraq’s parliament, the cleric pointed the blame on Iran’s undying influence in the country. As explained by The Times of Israel, if any seat in Iraq’s parliament becomes vacant, “the candidate who obtains the second-highest number of votes in their electoral district would replace them. In this case, it would make al-Sadr’s opponents from the so-called Coordination Framework, a coalition led by Iran-backed Shiite parties and their allies, the majority. This would allow pro-Iranian factions to determine the makeup of the next government.” Al-Sadr has called on his allies to avoid holding a parliament session for this reason. 

While Iraq grapples with its latest political upheaval, Iran’s regime is digging its claws further into the country’s governance. The state of Iraq’s sovereignty is at risk. 

Maya Carlin is a Middle East Defense Editor with 19FortyFive. She is also an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel.

Written By

Maya Carlin, a Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, is an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel.