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Iraqi Parliament Stormed By “Anti-Iran Protesters” — What’s Really Going On?

On Wednesday Iraqi protesters, loyal to Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, stormed the nation’s parliament in protest of the nomination of Mohammed al-Sudani for Prime Minister. Reported by the Western media as a movement of the “masses”, were the protesters truly representative of a movement opposed to Iranian influence in Iraqi affairs as Western media suggest?

Protesters stormed the US embassy ‘greenzone in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, this Wednesday, going on to storm the Iraqi parliament, making a statement against the nomination of Mohammed al-Sudani for Prime Minister. Pegged by Western-owned media as a revolutionary act, and a statement against Iran and the Iranian allied Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), the protesters are being compared to the Baghdad protest movement of 2019, which sought to call out political corruption and voice frustration with the way Iraq is being run.

Iraq has been without a government for an unprecedented amount of time, almost an entire year, following a political deadlock that came as a result of elections in October, 2021. The election results last year came to the great surprise of many — with a historically low 36% of eligible voters who even bothered to turn up — as the Iraqi party under the control of popular Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr won the most seats in parliament. With the 73 members of parliament Sadr could now claim to represent a majority of Iraqi voters and was successful at making the PMU-aligned Fatah and State of Law parties look bad after they unsuccessfully launched legal challenges against the election results. In reality, it was the PMU-aligned block that secured the most votes, 969,000 total in comparison to 885,000 votes for the Sadrists. However, the Iraqi election results are not determined simply upon the popular vote.

Another interesting element to the last election cycle was the newly found successes of Sunni and Kurdish minority parties, which still present a problem for the incoming government which will likely be the PMU-aligned parties, with a Prime Minister from their bloc also. Despite holding the largest number of seats in Iraq’s parliament, back in June Moqtada al-Sadr’s entire party withdrew from the parliament, causing a “tectonic shift that threatens to derail the post-2003 political order in its entirety,” according to Ranj Alaaldin of the Washington based Brookings Institution think-tank. Interestingly, Andrew L. Peek — the US’s former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Iraq and Iran at the State Department — wrote an article for the Washington based think-tank, the Atlantic Council, that advocated in favor of Moqtada al-Sadr as the best option for the United States and claimed that his withdrawal from parliament could potentially benefit Iran.

So why did Iraqi protesters just storm the parliament?

The Sadrists went from holding a majority of 73 seats in parliament to nothing, yet this wasn’t without reason. It is important to understand that Moqtada al-Sadr is not the “candidate for change”, as US media would have you believe. He is solely there for his own political endeavors and will be pro-whatever-is-needed, when he needs to be. The Sadrist block — prior to it having withdrawn from Iraqi parliament in June — had the potential to form a coalition government with the Fatah and State of Law parties, yet chose to pursue a course of blocking the pro-Iranian parties, opting to create alliances with the Kurdish and even Sunni parties. When this failed, Sadr decided to ditch the parliament altogether and it was expected that he was preparing his people to take to the streets.

We are now seeing Moqtada al-Sadr deploy his paid men, from the notorious Sadr city area, into the streets. According to a paid Sadrist, who spoke to The Last American Vagabond under a condition of anonymity due to security reasons, people receive salaries of around 200 US dollars per month to act when called upon, for the likes of protests. Whilst there is no way of telling exactly what portion of the protesters who stormed the parliament were paid to do so, it is clear that the large majority were most certainly Sadr loyalists, making sense of the anti-Iran chants heard from the demonstrators. Moqtada al-Sadr has been attempting to curry favor with Sunni Iraqi groups, despite the role his militia forces played in killing many Sunni’s in the past. Sadr also could be seeking financial backing from Saudi Arabia and taking the power away from Iranian allies in Iraq would greatly work to Riyadh’s benefit, in addition to the benefit of the United States, which pursues a policy of countering Iranian power regionally.

So, whilst the Western media report that the storming of the Iraqi parliament is some sort of organic uprising (out of nowhere) attempting to hold the allies of Iran to account, it couldn’t be any more obvious that this was closely coordinated by the men of Sadr. The protesters were all young males, no women, elderly, or children, and there was certainly no diversity shown there. It is clear beyond a reasonable doubt that this protest was not organic, because, in addition to the protesters holding up Moqtada al-Sadr posters, nobody from local communities even knew it was happening until it started. During the 2019 demonstrations, which lasted for around a year, it was clear that the participation was from a vast range of groups in society, and despite its hijacking, the protests were occurring out of frustration at a corrupt and failed system, which was built by the United States and run by corrupted Iraqi elites.

Whilst the United States currently views Moqtada al-Sadr as its best bet in Iraq, the Western media doesn’t make it clear who Sadr even is and what this man is capable of. Sadr was a prominent figure amongst the resistance forces to US occupation in Iraq and built up his own army, winning himself the image of an anti-US interference figure, which he has attempted to use to paint himself as a sort of Iraqi nationalist. Today, he still controls a powerful militia group, Saraya al-Salam, which formed part of the PMU in the fight against Daesh [ISIL]. Whilst the PMU is regularly referred to as an “Iranian proxy” in Western media, the primary pro-Iran groups, of the 30+ militia popular alliance, have always been the Badr Organization, Asaib Ahl Al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah. Nowadays the PMU is, in effect, the name used to refer to these three groups and smaller allied militias. However, it is telling that the West seems to have no problem with the powerful Saraya al-Salam militia that falls under Moqtada al-Sadr’s control.

The goal of the Sadrists is clear, they seek to destabilize the Iraqi political system and will possibly create a new military conflict or take the nation to another round of elections. The latter option is a risky one for Sadr, as his party may not do better at a future election. The fear is that Sadr’s men will be deployed and initiate warfare in the streets of Baghdad, which is likely why the Iraqi security forces deployed around the heavily fortified ‘Greenzone’ and did not violently repress the demonstrators — even handing out water bottles to protesters on Wednesday. Iraqi forces are scared that if they give the Sadrists what they want, the streets could turn bloody very quickly, and the fact that the protesters entered the Iraqi parliament was likely a message from the Shia cleric that he is ready to take further action.

Make no mistake, there are legitimate grievances with the way Iraq is run and there is no doubt that there are many who hold anti-Iran views in Iraq. However, these protests were not organic, they were highly controlled and this is a sign of what may be to come, depending on who exactly has Sadr’s back. If skirmishes begin occurring in the streets of Baghdad, this will quickly destabilize the country. Yet even without chaos in the streets, demonstrations may threaten to challenge the Iraqi political scene, causing a return to elections or worse. The worst case scenario here is violence, but this prospect alone should be enough for any reasonable person to see through this stunt — of storming the parliament — for what it is; a political power play by the Sadrists, one that does not seek to unite Iraq, nor to fix its problem of endemic corruption.

Robert Inlakesh
Robert Inlakesh is a documentary filmmaker, journalist, writer, Middle-East analyst & news correspondent for The Last American Vagabond.

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