ANALYSIS - Is Iraq descending into civil war thanks to Iran?

Are Iranian-backed militia groups responsible for attacks on US bases in Iraq, and killings of demonstrators during mass uprising?

Tags: Iraq Iran
Yochanan Visser ,

Protesters on the outskirt of Kerbala, Iraq
Protesters on the outskirt of Kerbala, Iraq

Who’s killing Iraqi demonstrators and who is firing at US bases, asked Middle East expert Jonathan Spyer in his latest analysis of the chaos and popular unrest in Iraq where demonstrations are now in their 10th week.

Spyer says the official Iraqi government response to the first question is that ‘mundisun’ are committing the killings which translate into English as “provocateurs” or “reform-minded Arab people”.

Evidence suggests that the perpetrators are Iran-backed Shia militias, according to the Israeli expert.

Indeed, shortly after the current uprising in Iraq began Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) traveled to Baghdad to advise the Iraqi government about means to stamp out the demonstrations.

Soleimani reportedly told Iraqi leaders they should use tactics the Basij militia of the IRGC employed to suppress demonstrations in Iran, meaning killing demonstrators by using snipers or by stabbing them.

Shortly after Soleimani held consultations with Iraqi leaders snipers belonging to the al-Hashd al-Shaabi umbrella organization of predominantly Shiite militias were deployed on rooftops from where they began their killing spree.

Members of al-Hashd al-Shaabi in plain-clothes also mingled with the demonstrators and then sowed discord or tried to arrest them.

This weekend two Iraqi security officials confirmed the Iran-founded and backed organization of Shiite militias is behind the sniper killings

Since the beginning of the uprising in Iraq, which was first directed at bad living conditions and rampant corruption but quickly turned into demonstrations against Iran’s influence over the country, roughly 500 people have been killed while tens of thousands of others have been injured or arrested.

The Iraqi government officially doesn’t order the killings but facilitates them by imposing temporary internet black-outs during the deadly protests, according to a new UN report.

Apparently al-Hashd al-Shaabi also acted on Soleimani’s orders in increasing the attacks on bases and other facilities in use by the US army.

Last week, for example, five rockets landed near the Ain al-Assad airbase in the Anbar Province in eastern Iraq while the American embassy in the so-called green-zone in Baghdad is a favorite target for the Iran-backed militias.

The attacks led US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to issue a stern warning to the Iran-backed militias in Iraq and to the Islamic Republic itself, last Friday.

The attacks would from now on be answered “with a decisive US response” said Pompeo without elaborating. Pompeo’s warning came after two rocket attacks against the Baghdad International Airport which also serves as an important logistics hub for the US army in Iraq.

"Iran must respect the sovereignty of its neighbors and immediately cease its provision of lethal aid and support to third parties in Iraq and throughout the region," Pompeo said.

Al-Hashd al-Shaabi leaders have repeatedly warned that the US army should leave Iraq or face force.

The Trump Administration apparently realizes it must change its strategy in light of Iran’s provocations and should restore deterrence vis a vis the Islamic Republic and its proxies if it wants to retain influence over what happens in the Middle East.

Iraq is a key country in the joint Israeli-American maximum pressure campaign that aims to bring the Iranian regime to its knees without resorting to the use of conventional military force.

The Iranians, on the other hand, cannot afford to lose Iraq since it would jeopardize their plan to establish a Shiite crescent in the Middle East and would cause additional economic hardships since Iraq is an important trade partner of Iran.

For this reason, the Iranians also interfered in the process to form a new Iraqi government after their lackey Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi was forced to step down due to the continuing protests.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei recently again dispatched his close confidant Qassem Soleimani to Baghdad in order to ‘help’ with the forming of a pro-Iranian cabinet something that resulted in the candidacy of Mohammed Shiya al-Sudani, a former leader of the Dawa party.

Al-Sudani became a serious contender for the post of Prime Minister after two pro-Iranian political parties in Iraq announced they would back his candidacy, but the public doesn’t trust the former minister and governor of the southern Misan Province.

On Saturday, angry protesters set fire to al-Sudani’s house in the city of Ammara in Misan while they made clear they rejected him for the post of Prime Minister since he’s regarded as part of the corrupt and defunct political establishment in Iraq.

Another key player in the current crisis, the Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, now announced he had enough of the continuing violence and Iran-instigated chaos in Iraq and decided to close-down the offices of his organization.

The decision came after al-Sadr returned from Iran – he’s not a friend of the Iranian regime- and an assassination attempt which targeted the son of his spokesman Jaafar al-Mousawi.

A week ago, during his visit to Iran, unknown assailants –most likely a militia belonging to al-Hashd al-Shaabi- used a drone to bomb the house of al-Sadr.

Apparently al-Sadr saw the writing on the wall and realized his life could be in danger because of his opposition to the treatment of the protesters and the Iranian attempt to secure the appointment of a pro-Iranian candidate for the premiership of Iraq.

A source close to al-Sadr told the London-based Saudi-owned newspaper Asharq al-Awsat that the Shiite cleric realizes the, what he calls, “revolution” is at a crossroads and could end up a civil war.

The protests, meanwhile, continue and have become increasingly violent.

Last week, a 17-year-old Iraqi teenager was brutally lynched by an angry mob that accused him of killing five protesters with a handgun.

The mob was convinced the teenager, Haitham Ali Ishmael, had shot the protesters while reportedly under influence of drugs and stormed his house using Molotov cocktails. They then stabbed the teenager multiple times, stripped his body of clothes and hanged him by his feet from a traffic light while others were filming the gruesome event.

Iraqi police later announced it had arrested five people in connection with the lynching.