EXPLAINER: The Impact of U.S.-Iran Hostilities on Iraqi Aspirations for Sovereignty, Peace and Democratic Reform

Iraq protests

With the U.S. targeted killing of Iranian Quds Force Commander Qassim Soleimani and U.S.-Iran confrontations on Iraqi soil, we are closely following fast moving events that carry very serious risks to people we care about, and for the future of peace and democratic reform in Iraq.


Inside Iraq, Soleimani was a powerful agent of Iran’s malign influence in and increasing dominance over Iraqi politics. He orchestrated the violent crackdown against Iraq’s pro-democracy protesters, killing hundreds and wounding tens of thousands. At the same time, his assassination may have occurred at the worst possible moment.

Iraq is currently a tense and fragile environment, a country struggling to recover from decades of conflict and widespread violence, including the recent 2014-2017 war against ISIS and a series of atrocities that occurred in territories seized by ISIS. While ISIS no longer openly holds territory in Iraq, ISIS militants remain active and, in some areas, they are resurgent. Of the 3 million Iraqis displaced by the most recent war, an estimated 1.4 million remain displaced. According to UN estimates, approximately 6.7 million – roughly 18 percent of the population – are currently in need of humanitarian assistance, including 3 million children. Entire city blocks of major population centers like Mosul and Ramadi remain in ruins, and vulnerable populations such as Iraq’s Yazidis remain displaced from their ancestral homelands in Sinjar due to ongoing insecurity, lack of services, and overall neglect.

Equally sensitive, the democratic experiment in Iraq is at an inflection point. Sustained protests against corruption, political dysfunction, and human rights violations involving the current government have already forced a prime minister to resign. This has left the current government serving as status quo caretaker, until free and fair elections can be organized and held (ideally by early to mid-2021) and a new government can be formed. Iran-backed militias remain a politically powerful aspect of the caretaker government. Within this context, U.S. decisions and actions have particularly serious consequences; to avoid losing Iraq to ISIS or Iran-backed militias we must proceed with far greater caution than has recently been exhibited, and take actions based only on clear strategy, recognizing the importance of Iraq’s sovereignty, stability, and emerging democracy.

While the immediate threat of U.S. involvement in yet another destructive, avoidable war in the Middle East appears to have passed, major factors that contributed to earlier crisis remain. Another danger of the ongoing threat of war has been the shadow cast over both existing challenges and potential opportunities facing the people of Iraq as they determine their future.


Iran’s ballistic missile strikes on Iraqi bases housing U.S. forces was telegraphed ahead of time, resulting in no American or Iraqi casualties. Those missile strikes appear to have been intended to avenge Soleimani’s death without inviting further U.S. retaliation.

However, the evening was not without casualties as Iranian air defenses accidentally shot down Ukrainian International Airlines Flight 752, killing 176 innocent civilians in the exchange of hostilities.

In his remarks last Wednesday, President Trump said: “Iran appears to be standing down, which is a very good thing for all parties concerned.” As presidential candidate, Trump had promised no more endless wars, particularly in the Middle East. Consistent with that promise, he appears to have accepted a face-saving off-ramp offered by Iran.


We cannot ignore the role that Iran-backed Iraqi militias have played in the lead up to the recent crisis; these militias could also play a role in reigniting it. Reigning in Iraq’s militias and strengthening the government’s sovereign civilian control over them is therefore imperative and, in fact, is a primary objective of civilian protests. To further deescalate the threat of war and respond to public demands for accountability, Iraqi leaders must enforce Iraqi sovereignty and civilian control over these militias. As Bilal Wahab of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy points out, that enforcement cannot be selective.

There has been some progress toward these ends. Speaker of Parliament Mohamed al-Halbousi, President Barham Salih, and Former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi have all denounced Iran’s missile attacks in Iraq. However, Iraq’s outgoing Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi failed to explicitly name Iran in condemning the missile attacks on Iraqi bases. In a public statement, he said: “Iraq, as it rejects any violation of its sovereignty and aggression on its territory, continues to exert all efforts to prevent escalation and everyone’s respect for Iraq’s sovereignty and not to expose its people to dangers.”

While Iran may in fact be standing down now, Iran-backed militias in Iraq remain a wild card and threat to civilian protesters.

NPR’s Jane Arraf reports: “…it isn’t just Iran and the U.S. that are now in this equation. It is Iran-backed militias here. And one of them – one of the major Iran-backed militias put out a statement saying, this is just the start. Iran has started the revenge and the militia itself will continue. Not all of these militias are under complete control of Iran. And they’re certainly not under control of the Iraqi government. So that’s an added worry here.”

Likely responding in part to Asaib Ahl al Haq’s threat of further attacks, Muqtada al-Sadr issued a statement that, “sinister crisis has ended” especially after statements from U.S. President Trump and Iranian officials, and calling on militias to “restrain hard line voices” in support of further attacks.

Despite such calls for restraint, recent rocket attacks suggest that Iraq’s problematic militias are not done provoking mayhem. On January 12, fresh rocket attacks on Balad Air Base injured 4 Iraqis and, on January 14, Katyusha rockets hit Camp Taji north of Baghdad. Both bases are known to often host U.S. and Multi-National Forces-Iraq personnel.


The U.S.-Iran confrontation has been costly for Iraq, endangering the most well-sustained, unified, and representative development that we have seen there in more than a decade: the emergence of a genuine pro-democracy movement demanding political reform, justice and Iraqi sovereignty.

The success of that movement would greatly increase the odds of reigning in Iraq’s militias and placing them – along with Iraq’s formal security institutions – under legally enforceable civilian control, ensuring greater accountability and protection for human rights.

That success would also curb Iranian influence in Iraq, on which Iran depends to bypass growing U.S.-imposed sanctions and to finance its militias. As leaked cables have revealed, Iran has penetrated Iraq’s security and intelligence institutions. Iran also funds Iraqi political parties and regularly buys off and otherwise extorts senior Iraqi officials. In 2018, the late Quds Force Commander Qassim Soleimani played a key role in forming Abdul-Mahdi’s Iranian-aligned government, and he was doing the same in orchestrating violence responses to Iraqi protesters.

Since the start of anti-government protests on October 1, 2019, Iraqi security forces and militias have responded with unprecedented violence, killing more than 500 unarmed protesters and wounding more than 20,000. Thousands of the most seriously wounded are likely to be permanently disabled. Militias have also carried out campaigns of terror and intimidation against protest organizers, human rights defenders, journalists and other civil society activists. Arbitrary arrests have become common; Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have reported dozens of cases of kidnapping, torture and murder.

Yet as Rasha Al-Aqeedi points out, the protests and these egregious human rights violations “have barely registered in American media.”

To make matters worse, when events in Iraq finally warranted front-page news coverage in the eyes of editors at The New York Times, CNN, and other major outlets, headlines and media shorthand were misleading. For example, on New Year’s Eve, the U.S. Embassy was attacked by an angry mob of militia members and their supporters. That attack was widely misreported as being carried out by “protesters.”

The 100-acre U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad is located in the International Zone (IZ) across the Tigris River from Tahrir Square (the epicenter of Iraq’s protests). Since the start of protests on October 1, security forces have forcibly prevented demonstrators from crossing Al Jumariyah Bridge and other bridges that cross into the IZ.

The men who attacked the U.S. embassy were members and supporters of the Popular Mobilization Forces, which includes Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH) and other Iran-backed militias. They were allowed access to the IZ because Iraq’s outgoing Prime Minister put KH in charge of security there. KH is also the militia believed to be responsible for carrying out dozens of attacks against U.S. military, diplomatic and commercial targets in 2019, including an attack on the Iraqi base in Kirkuk that killed U.S. contractor Nawres Hamid, an Iraqi American father of two young children.

For a more detailed account of how the militias reached the U.S. Embassy, read the analysis of Bilal Wahab.

It is really not so difficult to distinguish between genuine protesters and militiamen masquerading as protesters. If you see Iraqi flags in a crowd that looks to represent Iraq’s population, including women and young people, you are probably looking at protesters. If you see militia flags too, you are not.

News editors have an ethical obligation to avoid a false equivalency between Iraqis demanding democratic change and foreign-funded agents of an anti-American agenda to gain autocratic control over Iraq killing protesters to do so.

Against all odds, the hope-inspiring pro-democracy movement continues. The courage, sophisticated organizing, vibrant creativity, solidarity across provinces, volunteerism of medics and tuk-tuks (a motorized rickshaw commonly used for transport across many Iraqi cities), youth and women-empowering slogans and overall grassroots social revolution continue. This deserves far more attention and support from the U.S. and international community than it has yet received.

Since October 1, grassroots Iraqi action has organically manifested the hopes, and surpassed the limited successes, of past U.S.-led initiatives to advance democratic change in Iraq. The results of their actions have been on full display in Tahrir Square and other public spaces across central and southern Iraq. Largely led by young people, Iraqis are organizing for their rights, and for democratic reform.

Tuk tuk in Baghdad
A tuk tuk ferries protesters to Tahrir Square (Baghdad/IRAQ, Nov 2019)

Prior to Iran’s pressure by proxy on Iraq’s political elites and public figures, and prior to the killing of Soleimani, momentum was on the side of the protesters.

Christine van den Toorn and Raad Alkariri write: “Responding to calls from the demonstrators, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani – whose support is critical to the legitimacy of the government – called for early elections under a new, more representative electoral law. Just afterward, President Barham Salih rejected two formal candidates for interim prime minister selected by the parliamentary bloc most closely allied with Iran, insisting the men were unacceptable to the protesters.”

Through sustained protest, Iraq’s “leaderless” pro-democracy movement represents a direct challenge to its militia-dominated caretaker government. Iraqis have lost patience with their ruling parties; they are rejecting sectarianism as a basis for government formation and decision-making.


Now let’s rewind the tape to understand how U.S. policy-makers contributed to Iraq’s current political crisis and the government’s loss of legitimacy. Among the worst missteps of U.S.-led regime change and political transition in Iraq (remember L. Paul Bremer’s “My Year in Iraq”?) was the decision to empower largely sectarian opposition figures and their political parties in exile, allowing them to largely define the rules of the game in favor of their incumbency. While the aim may have been to ensure a more inclusive government, the result was the establishment of the “Muhassa” ethno-sectarian quota system. This system divvied up Iraq’s government ministries and resources like spoils of war. The parties ran ministries as their personal fiefdoms, dishing out jobs and contracts to the party faithful. To quote a common complaint by many Iraqis over the years: “You replaced one Saddam with a bunch of little Saddams, and now corruption is even worse than before.”

Today’s Iraqi protesters reject the “Muhassa” ethno-sectarian quota system (and its patronage networks) as the basis for government formation. This system has contributed to rampant government dysfunction, corruption and abuse. Instead the protesters favor a merit-based system of appointing independent technocrats who are administratively empowered and legally-bound to run Iraq’s ministries in the public interest.

Iraq’s current government was elected in the smallest turnout since 2003. Most Iraqis boycotted the last elections. While officially voter turnout was reported at 44.5%, it is widely believed that actual turnout was less than 30%. Iraq’s current parliament does not come close to reflecting the popular will of the Iraqi people.

In addition, the vote by Iraq’s Council of Representatives to expel U.S. forces after Soleimani’s assassination may or may not have had a quorum according to photo analysis of video footage of the parliamentary session. Whether or not a quorum was achieved, it was a non-binding resolution that passed by a razor-thin margin. Iraqis were swift in rejecting the vote, with the hashtag IraqiParliamentDoesNotRepresentMe trending across Iraq and among the Iraqi Diaspora.

It is also fair to suspect that a number of parliamentarians voted for the resolution under duress, given the pattern of militia behavior since October 1. Militias that have come to dominate politics in Iraq are certainly willing to use violence and intimidation to get their way, and this is widely and implicitly understood.

Following the territorial defeat of ISIS, in the run up to Iraq’s 2018 parliamentary elections, Iraqi militias were allowed to form political parties and compete for seats in parliament. Imagine how it might be if active-duty commanders of the U.S. National Guard were winning seats in Congress. For democracies to function properly, civilian control of the military is a necessity. Out of Iraq’s current 329-seat parliament, Iran-backed militias hold 48 seats, and their supporters (under Falah Fayadh) hold another 22. Sadrists, including many militia members, hold 54. Imagine being compelled to attend that parliamentary session and casting your public vote against men who command militias, including groups like Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kata’ib Hezbollah known to be running death squads.


In addition to the questionable parliamentary quorum on the expulsion of U.S. forces, Iraq’s current government retains little legitimacy. On December 1, the Prime Minister resigned and his government became a caretaker government; yet he remains in office because militias are unwilling to replace a beneficial status quo with an interim government. Such an interim government could set the stage for Iraq’s next elections, which, if carried out freely and fairly, would likely result in the sound defeat of those militias.

The outgoing Prime Minister is no longer in a position to make consequential decisions affecting Iraq’s fragile security and economic interests. Decisions regarding Iraq’s vital relations with the U.S. and NATO at this time would hijack the will of the Iraqi people. While the majority of Iraqis are unequivocal in their support for Iraqi sovereignty, they also fear an abrupt U.S. exit while Iran remains a clear and present danger. This prospect is particularly terrifying for Iraqis living in areas recently liberated from ISIS, where a U.S. and international exit would disrupt critical pressure on ISIS’ remnants, and leave civilians stuck between a resurgent ISIS and Iran-backed militias.

As a caretaker government, Iraq’s current government holds a temporary, limited mandate to perform routine duties and functions until a new elected government can be formed. These functions are currently limited to maintaining the status quo, rather than proposing new laws or launching policy initiatives. As demonstrated by ongoing mass protests, Iraq’s current government lacks legitimacy, and the only path to restoring that legitimacy is clear. On December 20, Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, said: “The fastest and most peaceful way out of the current crisis, and avoiding the unknown or chaos or civil strife, is to go back to the people by holding an early election after legislating a fair electoral law.”

According to polling done by Iraq’s leading pollster, Al Mustakilla research group, 90 percent of the protesters want early elections and 70 percent of protesters “agreed to having a reliable, early election under the supervision of the UN.”

Tahrir Square on 10/1/2020


Violations of Iraq’s sovereignty, culminating in the U.S. assassination of Qassim Soleimani at Baghdad’s International Airport and Iran’s retaliatory strikes on Iraqi bases, have had serious repercussions for Iraq’s pro-democracy movement. In contrast with the positive signs of progress that we were seeing just a few weeks ago, including the adoption of a new election law and President Salih’s successful intervention on behalf of the protesters in blocking a militia-backed replacement for the outgoing Prime Minister, that progress has come to a sudden standstill as Iran-backed militias and pro-militia officials double down in their efforts to defeat Iraq’s pro-democracy movement.

However, the people of Iraq demanding change are not giving up. Last Friday, mass rallies in Baghdad and in cities across central and southern Iraq showed the world that the movement is very much alive.

For more than 100 days, despite the violence directed against them, protesters have peacefully gathered in places like Baghdad’s Tahrir Square to protest the current caretaker government’s lack of legitimacy and its failure to enforce Iraqi sovereignty against a U.S.-Iran war on Iraqi soil.

Since October 1, the most popular slogan to have emerged from the protests has been: “We want a homeland.” But now the slogan reads: “Our homeland needs us.” Indeed, it does.

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