New developments have emerged on the Iraqi political scene aimed at curbing Iranian influence within the country, which has led to extreme violence as the country has been gripped by unprecedented protests that erupted on October 1st.
The United States decision to sanction three Iranian-backed Iraqi paramilitary leaders and security chief of the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) has been followed by two significant incidents that may provide a clue as to how things will unfold in Iraq in the future. The incidents involve rounds of live gunfire from unknown shooters being fired, killing protesters, and no answers as to who is behind these killings.
“On the same day we sanctioned four Iraqis for targeting protesters and stealing Iraq’s public wealth, we see new reports of violent attacks in Baghdad against patriotic Iraqis. Iraq's leaders and government must investigate and prosecute those behind these attacks,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted about the violence destabilising the country right after the announcement of sanctions.
The Iraqi death toll since the start of the protests has reached 432 people and the number of injured is 19,136 people, a source with the Independent High Commission for Human Rights of Iraq told CNN.
The first incident was on Friday; described by observers as the one of the bloodiest nights in the Iraqi protests as gunfire continued through to Saturday morning. It saw at least 23 killed and 127 others injured by gunfire and stabbings in central Baghdad, at Khilani Square and Sinak Bridge, carried out by unknown attackers. The attack on protesters is the first since the Iraqi parliament accepted the resignation of former prime minister Adil Abdel Mahdi on Sunday.
The second Incident was on Saturday, reported by Reuters. The head of Iraq's Sairoon political party, Muqtada al-Sadr, an influential Shi'ite cleric who has supported the anti-government protesters, said a drone attacked his home in the holy city of Najaf early on Saturday.
"The Sinak massacre and the bombing (of Sadr's home) are geared at pushing the acceptance of the candidate for prime minister," said Jaafar Al-Mousawi, a spokesperson for Sadr’s party, cited by Reuters.
Taking a step back
The big jump in the Iraqi death toll and US sanctions on paramilitary leaders with close ties with Iran have caused Iran-backed militia to somehow retreat from the Iraqi chaos. Falih Al-Fayyadh, head of the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), warned groups in the organisation against being “present in demonstration areas”, saying that the groups should not perform any field role, as cited by Russia Today. Al-Fayyadh threatened to impose sanctions on whomever violates the directives, a statement by the PMU said late on Saturday.
The PMU, an umbrella organisation of about 50 predominantly Shia paramilitary groups, in Iraq is infiltrated by groups that work closely with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Formed to fight Isis after a fatwa by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in 2014, it has led the recent crackdown on protesters, and its political leaders want the US presence in Iraq to end.
Documents by Iraqi Interior Ministry, obtained by Independent Arabia, have revealed that killings at Khilani Square and Sinak Bridge are perpetrated by the Iraqi Hezbollah group, led by the PMU’s deputy head, Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis. The documents detailed the attack on protesters, with the timing, equipment, and vehicles used, claiming that the number of gunmen varied between 300 and 400 individuals. Of the protestors killed on Friday night, 17 were supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr.
The attempt by PMU to curb its forces in Iraq is a sign of the fear of greater imposition of US sanctions after those imposed on three PMU leaders. The coming days, following the US sanctions and the PMU drawing back its forces from areas of demonstrations, may untangle the Iranian-backed militia’s web and the suspicions surrounding its involvement in murdering dozens of protesters, apart from other killings carried out by other members of Iraq’s complex security apparatus.
The US hopes the sanctions can be imposed on the most influential Iranian figure and the author of Iranian ambitions in Iraq, Qassem Soleimani, head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), but the Iraqi government is the only party that has the authority to sanction him.
David Schenker, US Assistant Secretary of State for Middle East Affairs, warned that more sanctions could come, including against government officials.
Schenker highlighted the fact that in spite of Soleimani having “a record of violations against Iraqi sovereignty,” the US cannot impose sanctions on him. However, Schenker told AlArabiya TV channel, “Iraqi authorities can do it as he is breaching the travel ban imposed by the Security Council… Soleimani is in Baghdad to choose the new Iraqi prime minister.”
The US continue efforts to unveil Iranian intervention in Iraq, pledging to proceed with the “maximum pressure” campaign if Tehran continued its “malicious behaviour”.
The US Ambassador to the United Nations, Kelly Craft, cited by AP, said on Friday that the US had “a lot of tools to use with Iran.” She said leaders in Iran and Iraq must understand that the US opposes violence against protesters, and believes it is crucial for their governments to step back, allow people to demonstrate peacefully, and listen especially to young people because they are the future.
Blatant Iranian intervention in Iraq and its manipulation of local Iraqi politics are becoming clearer with much proof having recently been unearthed, only lacking is an acknowledgment by the Iraqi regime that Iran is in control there.
Reuters cited some of this proof when it reported, in late October, that Soleimani had stepped in to prevent Abdel Mahdi's resignation. Also, in mid-November, the New York Times talked about secret documents revealing Iranian intervention in Iraq and its “special relationships” with Iraqi officials, including Abdel Mahdi. In early December, a report by the same paper, revealed that US intelligence agencies and the Pentagon had tracked the movement of a number of Iranian short-range ballistic missiles into Iraq in recent weeks.