The January 3 killing in Baghdad of Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi paramilitary leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis risked pushing Iran and the United States to war. Despite an escalation in hostilities that saw Iranian missiles hit U.S. bases in Iraq, the prospect of an all-out war between the two countries has mostly dimmed. Instead, Iraq is feeling the most significant consequences of the U.S. strike, which threaten to upend the country’s domestic politics.   

Before the U.S. drone strike on Soleimani, the Iraqi government faced a major internal threat: three months of unrelenting anti-government protests. The mostly young and often unemployed demonstrators rejected the political order that followed the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, decrying corruption and foreign interference in Iraqi affairs—particularly Iranian interference. But the killings presented many Iraqi Shiite leaders with an opportunity to whip up anti-Americanism instead, in order to both discredit the protests and deflect attention from the failings of the political elite.

Protesters are aware of this turn. While many demonstrators have chanted against Soleimani and Muhandis, blaming the two men for leading the violent crackdown on dissent, they remain wary of being seen to side with the United States. Protesters in Baghdad often tell me that they are with neither the United States nor Iran—rather, they want both to stop interfering in their country. Many have refused to budge even as Iraqi leaders inveigh against the United States to try to regain their flagging popularity.

The Soleimani killing will indeed make things hard for the protesters. The U.S. strikes have brought frequently sparring Iraqi Shiite leaders closer together. Iran sees an advantage in sustaining its influence in Iraq, both because recent events have furnished an opportunity to overcome the earlier resistance to its role and in order to position itself for longer-term retaliation against the United States.

But the strike exposes a new reality in Iraqi politics. Protests have rocked the political elite that has emerged since the toppling of Saddam; where that elite could once revert to anti-Americanism at times of crisis to maintain its standing, that narrative no longer has the same currency. Consequently, Iraqi leaders will turn to violence and coercion to defend their power.  

A RETURN TO IDENTITY POLITICS?

The most immediate political impact of the U.S. strike was on the Iraqi parliament. At the end of 2019, Iraq’s parliament was divided and the scene of constant infighting. Two competing blocs led by Shiite figures had emerged after the 2018 national election: Muqtada al-Sadr’s Islah coalition and Hadi al-Ameri’s Binaa coalition. Each bloc included Sunni and Kurdish groups. The heterogeneity of these formations contrasted with the shape of Iraqi politics after the first post-Saddam election in 2005, which was contested by one Shiite bloc, one Kurdish bloc, and one nominally secular bloc featuring several Sunni leaders. Though the contest between Islah and Binaa was rancorous, many analysts sensed that Iraq was moving away from its recent history of ethnosectarian politics.

The competition between these two blocs, however, effectively paralyzed the legislature—neither faction could command control of it—and threatened the political process. When Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi announced his resignation at the end of last November, the sides could not agree on a successor. Even Soleimani, known for his ability to convene Iraqi leaders across the political spectrum, was unable to help find a solution to the impasse.

The killing of Soleimani and Muhandis threatened to reshape this landscape in a single stroke. Immediately after the U.S. attack, the Iraqi parliament held an emergency meeting to vote on the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq. Binaa and Islah set their rivalry aside and united under the banner of anti-Americanism: for Sadr, Ameri, and the rest of the Shiite leadership, the priority shifted overnight to removing U.S. troops from the country. Ominously, however, the Kurdish and Sunni parties that were part of Islah and Binaa boycotted the vote. This episode, with its split along communal lines, recalled the dark days of ethnosectarian division.

The killing of Muhandis spurred a renewed politics of anti-Americanism.

The killing spurred a renewed politics of anti-Americanism, with Iraqi Shiite leaders coming together to try to unify their political base. The populist Shiite cleric Sadr, who had fled to Iran during the recent protests, has reasserted himself after the U.S. strikes. Right after the killings, Sadr called on his cadres to reassemble to fight the Americans. Sensing renewed political life, Sadr turned from his anticorruption rhetoric—a position he felt obliged to take during the swell of the protests—to his more typical, outspoken anti-American diatribes in an attempt to rally Iraqi Shiites to him. On January 24, he organized a large march against the United States in Baghdad. Some of Sadr’s former Shiite foes, including parastatal leader Qais al-Khazali, endorsed the march.

Sadr has also reached out to Ameri, and the two leaders discussed the possibility of renominating Abdul-Mahdi as prime minister. In the eyes of many of the Iraqis protesting against the government in recent years, these attempts to reunite the Shiite political base amount to a reinforcement of the corrupt order. “This march is different from what the street wants,” a protester told Reuters, referring to Sadr’s rally. “It supports the current political system in the country, it doesn’t oppose it.”

The ongoing protests against the political leadership of Iraq are significantly different from any that preceded them in the last decade. According to surveys completed by Chatham House’s Iraq Initiative, today’s protesters are particularly young, and because many don’t have full-time jobs or their own families, they have little to lose. They are willing to occupy plazas and thoroughfares, including Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, which is the movement’s bustling hub. And their demands are more radical: instead of calling for incremental reforms, protesters seek the end of the current political system defined by an ethnosectarian power-sharing agreement. They reject ethnosectarian identity politics, and they decry Iranian influence in their country. According to our interviews, their main demand is for a sovereign "homeland." One of the more commanding chants to reverberate in the occupied squares is “Iran, out, out!”

The persistence of the protests rattled the political elite in Baghdad and forced Abdul-Mahdi’s resignation at the end of November. But the government’s response neither appeased nor discredited the demonstrators, and Iraq’s leaders doubled down on violence, initiating a campaign of intimidation, arrests, and assassinations that has left more than 600 dead.

VIOLENCE AGAINST THE PROTESTS

Protesters in Tahrir Square claim that the main agents of the violence against them are “the militias,” referring to parastatal armed groups tied to the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Units. The PMU was formed in 2014 to bring together armed groups in the fight against the Islamic State, known as ISIS, and it played an important role in liberating ISIS-controlled territory. Many Iraqis believe that without the PMU, ISIS might have taken Baghdad.

Muhandis was the PMU’s de facto leader, in charge of overseeing the group’s transformation from a murky network of fighters and militias to a cohesive and professional organization. Under Muhandis, the PMU enjoyed both close ties to the Iraqi state and considerable autonomy from it.

During the fight against ISIS, the PMU’s popularity among Iraqis soared. A poll from 2016 revealed that 99 percent of Iraqi Shiites supported the militias. However, thanks in large part to the PMU’s involvement in clamping down on the protests in 2019, as well as its move into politics, that popularity has waned. Many Iraqi Shiites now decry the PMU and denounce the militias’ Iranian supporters.

Many Iraqi Shiites now decry the Iran-backed militias.

By the end of 2019, Muhandis and the PMU faced a legitimacy crisis, their claims to be defenders of the Iraqi people in tatters. But the PMU sought to use the killing of Muhandis and Soleimani to regain support and rally many Iraqis to their cause. The U.S. strikes have allowed the surviving PMU leadership to attempt to divert attention from discontent in the Shiite heartland over the paramilitary groups’ rough treatment of the protesters and, instead, to turn popular anger against the Americans.

Demonstrators had no great love for either Soleimani or Muhandis, but they quickly condemned the killings, wary of the long-term implications for their movement. On January 10, protesters throughout the south of the country and in Baghdad raised the slogan “No to Iran and no to the United States.”

The Resilience of Tahrir Square

But Shiite leaders such as Sadr have been unable to convince the protesters to direct their ire at the United States. Following his rally, Sadr demanded that his followers leave the protest squares, a call that coincided with Iraqi state forces and allied paramilitary groups sweeping into the encampments of demonstrators on January 24, killing at least four people and injuring 13. However, many of Sadr’s followers refused his call, suggesting Sadr had let them down. One Sadrist chose not to break solidarity with the demonstrations, telling me, “How could we abandon our brothers? We have been camped out together for four months.” Other Sadrist leaders, such as Asaad al-Nasiri, ordered his followers to stay in the streets and continue their revolution. While Sadr has closed ranks with many other Iraqi Shiite leaders and also become friendlier with Iran, he has begun to lose the street.

Iraq is not the same today as it was in the years that followed the 2003 U.S. invasion. Iraqi Shiite leaders cannot simply turn to ethnosectarianism or anti-Americanism to bolster their power. Even in the wake of the U.S. attack, the demonstrators have shown that they are seeking another path, one that eschews the interference of external actors and returns sovereignty to Iraqis and, most crucially, ends the post-2003 political order. As its traditional rhetorical tools fail, the Iraqi leadership will increasingly resort to violence to clear protesters out of their squares and squash an uprising that has shaken the political elite to its core.

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  • RENAD MANSOUR is a Senior Research Fellow and Director of the Iraq Initiative at Chatham House.
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