The recent killing of activist Reham Yacoub by pro-Iranian gunmen is another example of why Iraq needs to get rid of Iran to save itself. Yacoub, though not a protest leader, was one of the youth voices demanding an end to a system plagued by corruption and militia violence.
Shortly after her assassination, Iranian state news agency Mehr News accused Yacoub of working for the US, against Iranian interests in Iraq. Yacoub was an outspoken critic of the Iran-backed militias whose influence Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhimi has been trying to curtail since taking office in May. Evocative of Alaa Salah, Sudanese student protestor who was propelled to fame after her protest chants against President Bashir went viral, Yacoub embodies a rising consciousness in Iraq about the need to assert an Iraqi patriotism that is confident and deserving support. The difference is that she was killed by Iranian militias.
As Yacoub’s story demonstrates, Iranian influence is a leading threat to Iraqi sovereignty, democracy, and civil society. Iranian interference in Iraq has been a source of grievance for Iraqis since 2014 with Iran doubling down after widespread citizen mobilization in October 2019. Iraqi society, especially the younger generation, has displayed an open resistance to Iran in recent years, laying the ground for Kadhimi’s nomination. Though not the first PM to have promised reforms, Kadhimi is certainly the first to have prioritized sovereignty in the pursuit of good governance and stability. With elections anticipated in June 2021, Iraq is at a crossroad: Will it fulfill the promise of a democratic commonwealth or succumb as a satrapy ruled by Tehran?
The struggle is now one in which Iraqis are going head to head against a well-funded, deeply entrenched Iranian information operation aimed at debilitating the growing national assertiveness of Iraqi society. Through longstanding allies like the Daʿwa party, Bader Organization or Islamic Supreme Council, Iran has secured key positions in government and security forces. But the backbone of its influence has been paramilitary groups, most notoriously core elements of the Popular Mobilization Units who, by their very integration into Iraq’s armed forces have shifted to the Iraqi treasury the cost of militia support, creating a stream of revenue for Iranian operations in the region.
Some PMUs even control swaths of western and northern Iraq, plus borders and crossing points, generating income through roadblock tariffs, protection money from locals and cuts from business contracts. PMU-connected economic foundations and welfare programs are routinely contracted by the government for educations and health projects. The media–and indeed a dedicated propaganda machine–, as well as cultural initiatives, including the restoration of holy shrines and financing of charitable activities are other penetration vectors entrenching Tehran’s influence over everyday affairs.
Kadhimi is well placed today to start the process of reversing Iranian encroachment in Iraq. Elections, planned early in 2021, may provide just the opportunity to restructure power in his favor and away from Iran. But sovereigntist as he may be, Kadhimi came to power as the compromise candidate after Adel Abdul Mahdi’s resignation because of political turmoil. He will need to secure a popular mandate to tip the balance in his favor. Meanwhile, his priority has to be bolstering Iraq’s defenses against Iranian capture.
So far, Kadhimi has made bold steps in this direction, including reshuffling positions within government and security forces—like replacing PMU head Faleh alFayad as national security advisor and sending counter-terrorism troops to secure border and tax revenues lost to kickbacks to Iran-allied armed groups. More brazen attempts to challenge Iraq may have backfired when over a dozen members of the staunchly pro-Iranian Kataib Hezbollah were arrested then released.
But this action signaled that Kadhimi would not be bullied into subservience. He also pledged to bring to justice those responsible for killing protesters and to establish an anti-corruption inquiry. While popular with the masses, these measures are less so with the political elite and its patrons who have everything to lose from the dismantlement of a clientelist and patronage-based system of corruption. Given Kadhimi’s scant parliamentary support, elites will do everything they can to prevent reforms from pulling the rug out from under them.
But change is happening, and it is led by Iraqis themselves. What began as unorganized protests expressing discontent about corruption, unemployment and services has become a grassroots movement reflective of a genuine desire for independence, freedom and dignity. Because Iraqi decisions will ultimately be the deciding factor in countering malign foreign influence, activists will need to enhance coordination and messaging reflecting their aspirations. Kadhimi may be taking a gamble by antagonizing Iran, but in doing so he may just provide Iraqis with the opportunity to reclaim their assets. Political change, and indeed justice for Yacoub and other activists, will only happen if Iran’s role is confronted.
Source » thehill