Like all of us, Iraqis are bracing for the full impacts of the coronavirus. But in early March, protesters at a rally in central Baghdad began a chant asking for the virus to come to their country to root out the corruption and foreign influence that have sparked popular protests stretching back to October.

“Listen to us corona: come and visit the thieves who stole our wealth, come and take revenge on those who stole our dreams, we only love our homeland but [the authorities] kill us,” they chanted.

For nearly six months, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have turned out in the streets in a pro-sovereignty movement that has shaken the country’s political establishment.

Throughout the protests, Iraqi demonstrators have been clear, for Iraq to progress as a nation, it must start by looking critically at the destructive impacts of corruption. According to a government investigation, the Iraqi state has lost over $450 billion to embezzlement, fake contracts and overblown salaries since 2003. A key driver of this corruption—and a principal target of the protesters—has been the influence of Iranian leaders on Iraq.

Under Iraq’s post-2003 regime, Iranian influence has worked its way into Iraq’s political, social and cultural affairs, crippling the nation and undermining its sovereignty.

Last November, 700 pages of leaked documents from Iranian intelligence services were obtained by The New York Times and The Intercept. The leak showed the extent of Tehran’s influence and uncovered “years of painstaking work by Iranian spies to co-opt the country’s leaders, pay Iraqi agents working for the Americans to switch sides, and infiltrate every aspect of Iraq’s political, economic, and religious life.”

After the fall of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath government, Iranian leaders took advantage of the power vacuum to back politicians, encourage corruption and build Tehran’s influence in the country, primarily through Shia political blocs. Iran turned post-Saddam Iraq into a conduit for its influence on trade and foreign policy.

Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani, killed in a US drone strike in January, arranged former Iraqi prime minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi’s rise to power in 2018. The documents leaked in November showed how Abdul-Mahdi had arranged a “special relationship” with Iran when he served as Iraq’s oil minister from 2014-16. As a result of his close ties to Iran, demonstrators forced the prime minister out of office soon after the ‘October Revolution’ began.

Student protesters have likened the Iraqi politicians under Iran’s sway to the coronavirus—chanting slogans calling politicians and corruption the “real viruses” in their country. In the eyes of Iraq’s pro-sovereignty uprising, made up of both Sunni and Shi’a communities, these are the leaders that have left the Iraqi people to fend for themselves.

As Iraqi politicians favored Tehran over their country’s own sovereignty, Iraq’s standard of living has dropped into a crisis. Over 20 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and the government has allowed 1.5 million Iraqis to remain in internal refugee camps.

The Iraqi government has failed to deliver on basic services. Only 9% of those living under the poverty line and only 13% of those living above the poverty line have a steady supply of clean water. Unemployment has reached a crisis point, with over 42% of university graduates left without jobs. Over half of the population is considered vulnerable to food insecurity.

Iraq has enormous potential for economic development through technology and agriculture, but under the current regime, the country is severely dependent on oil—over 90% of the state budget comes from oil alone. This leaves Iraq extremely vulnerable to price shocks, such as the one recently induced by the coronavirus pandemic. Unless new leadership can diversify the economy, Iraq will continue to face severely limited opportunities for sustainable economic growth.

As one protester told AFP, “Since 2003, [the regime has] done nothing but increased poverty, destroyed agriculture and industry, impoverished schools and hospitals, created confessionalism, and stole our oil.”

As Soleimani’s death has thrown Iran-Iraq relations into question, pro-sovereignty groups offer one of the only paths forward for the country. For Iraq to make any progress on development and tackling entrenched poverty, the country’s pro-sovereignty movement must root out corruption and Iranian influence.

Iraq’s pro-sovereignty movements such as the Najafa Brothers, the National Wisdom Movement and the National Independent Iraqi Front that sit under the management of the Sovereignty Alliance for Iraq have increasingly broad support from across religious and political divides. Demonstrators seem to look to these groups for non-sectarian and national leadership as they continue to be targeted by government authorities and Iranian-backed militias. Since October, almost 30,000 people have been wounded and 600 killed as authorities and Iranian-backed militias have cracked down on demonstrators.

Though the demonstrations have opposed the sitting Shia government, many protesters are themselves Shia. Iraq’s popular movements are tied together by a belief in the country’s youth. Nearly 60% of the population is under the age of 25 and the young organizers behind the protests have rejected existing structures of political leadership—and with them, Iraq’s Iranian-backed political establishment.

Iraq’s pro-sovereignty groups are the country’s best option to lead a movement that will establish a new, more functional government—one that can improve basic services and infrastructure, as well as the quality of life. The popular movements that have taken to the streets since October hold far more legitimacy across a much wider base than Iraq’s sitting political leadership.

Not only does the youth-led sovereignty movement stand for social cohesion between Sunni and Shia, but it has far more potential to address unemployment, eradicate corruption and lift Iraq out of conflict.

Paths to stability have all but disappeared as foreign powers have taken advantage of the country and drained its resources. For Iraq to become a functioning state once again, Iraq’s popular, pro-sovereignty groups must set the agenda for a new political status quo that puts the country’s people first.

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