Increasing evidence of Iran's role in crackdown on protests in Iraq
Updated: Oct 31, 2019
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Iraq's month-long protests have led to more than 200 deaths, mostly of protesters killed by Iraqi Security Forces and paramilitary units. Among the worst offenders have been snipers linked to pro-Iranian groups. What began as a spontaneous protest in early October re-appeared on October 25 with massive marches and clashes in central and southern Iraq. Millions have participated. Although Iraq's President and some other officials have said Iraqis have a right to protest, the official line has not been followed on the ground. This disparity in treatment of the protests appears to indicate a growing Iranian role in suppressing them. Protesters have targeted Iran's consulate in Karbala and burned the offices of many political parties and militias linked to Iran. This includes the offices of Badr in Kut and Asaib Ahl al-Haq in Maysan on October 25, for example.
MECRA has documented accusations of pro-Iranian elements attacking protests since October 4. Protesters said they had suffered from clashes with different security forces, including SWAT and riot police. They mentioned that the Saraya Khorasani which are linked with Hashd Al-Shaabi had been involved in harming demonstrators. On October 5 many politicians in Iraq had issued statements, with voices such as Ali Sistani, Muqtada al-Sadr and Haider Abadi calling for calm, but the Fatah Alliance of Hadi al-Amiri remained silent.
On October 7 Iranian passports were found among people accused of targeting the demonstrators. However it was not clear if the passports were all linked to abuses or if they were Iranians on pilgrimage. MECRA's researcher reported on snipers shooting protesters: The snipers who targeted the Iraqi demonstrators in Baghdad, Nasiriya, and Diwaniya are among a group of snipers from ‘Unit 400’ responsible for assassinations outside the borders of Iran. Snipers also worked with Ktaib Hizballah, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Khorasani, al-Nujaba, Sayyid al-Shuhada Brigades and Lebanese Hizballah. This was also the case last year: Dozens of Iraqis were killed in Basra last year by headshots from their snipers.
On October 17 Reuters confirmed the use of snipers, allegedly by members of the PMU (Hashd al-Shaabi) to suppress demonstrations. By this time more than 130 had been killed. The report notes:
"We have confirmed evidence that the snipers were elements of militias reporting directly to their commander instead of the chief commander of the armed forces,” said one of the Iraqi security sources. “They belong to a group that is very close to the Iranians.”
A second Iraqi security source, who attended daily government security briefings, said militia men clad in black shot protesters on the third day of unrest, when the death toll soared to more than 50 from about half a dozen. The fighters were directed by Abu Zainab al-Lami, head of security for the Hashid, a grouping of mostly Shi’ite Muslim paramilitaries backed by Iran, the second source said. The Hashid leader was tasked with quashing the protests by a group of other senior militia commanders, the source said. The sources did not say how many snipers were deployed by militia groups.
On October 26 Hadi al-Amiri and Kataib Hezbollah blamed the US and Israel for the protests. The comments were widely published in Iranian media. In the next today days Amiri was joined by Qais Khazali and other voices increasingly claiming the protests were a form of fitna or strife and sedition being guided by foreign hands. Similar terminology was used by Hezbollah against protests in Lebanon the same week.
On October 28 MECRA published another account from a source who has worked with the PMU. "The demonstrators are not systematically targeting any party's bases. But, in Amara, after the Al-Awfiya organization which is part of Asaib Ahl al- Haq killed demonstrators on October 1st, and then AAH were targeted, and an AAH member [Wisam al-Alawi] killed by the demonstrators." He noted that Badr has deep control of areas across southern Iraq and that although some young Badr members supported the protests, they have now been told not to participate by their leaders.
On the night of October 28 protesters in Karbala reported a massacre in which at least 14 were killed.
AP revealed on October 29 that IRGC Quds Force leader Qasem Soleimani had flown to Baghdad on October 2 during the first round of protests.
The day after anti-government protests erupted in Iraq, Iranian Gen. Qassim Soleimani flew into Baghdad late at night and took a helicopter to the heavily fortified Green Zone, where he surprised a group of top security officials by chairing a meeting in place of the prime minister.
He referenced Iran's suppression of protests in 2009 and December 2017:
"We in Iran know how to deal with protests,” Soleimani told the Iraqi officials, according to two senior officials familiar with the meeting who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the secret gathering. “This happened in Iran and we got it under control.” The day after Soleimani’s visit, the clashes between the protesters and security forces in Iraq became far more violent, with the death toll soaring past 100 as unidentified snipers shot demonstrators in the head and chest. Nearly 150 protesters were killed in less than a week.
On October 30 Iran's Fars News ran an article about an Iranian accused of being a sniper in Iraq. It details a:
"clip showing evidence of an Iranian man claiming to be an Iranian sniper and traveling to Iraq to kill Iraqi protesters. Armin Nouri is a young Iranian worker and originally from the city of Rasht in Gilan province and currently lives in Rasht with his family. Armin, 33, who traveled to Baghdad, Iraq, last year to do construction work last year and this year, repeatedly calls friends, family and the media this morning to notice him as an Iranian sniper in Iraq. In an interview with Fars Gilan correspondent, Armin says he had traveled to Baghdad on 9 October to work on several buildings in Baghdad that were marred by protests and riots in Iraq amid the crowding of some Iranian forces who They had gone to Iraq to work and decided to return...The released clip claims to show he belongs to an Iranian military force from Mashhad and has come to Iraq to carry out its mission of killing protesters in recent riots."
On October 30 Iran's Press TV runs a headline arguing that Israel and the US are behind the protests in Iraq. The same day large numbers of protesters gathered in the streets, defying a coup and other attempts to suppress them that have seen up to 100 killed since October 25, leaving the total death toll at 200-250.
Iran views the protests in Iraq and Lebanon as a challenge to its regional hegemony. For this reason it seeks to portray Israel and the US as supporting them. An article at Tasnim on October 29 notes that Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who resigned, "is considered part of the conspiracy against the country because the purpose of all current events is to disarm Hezbollah, attack the resistance, overthrow the president with Hezbollah, and prevent any attempt to get close. Relations between Lebanon and Syria and resolving the refugee crisis, as well as preventing the reopening of land routes and crossings to Syria, and as a result, the route that connects Lebanon to Tehran are not open. On all of these issues, Hariri may not have any information about it, but I don't think it's part of the current game."
The game, in this view, involved "foreign parties" who are "sponsoring street movements."
This shows a larger strategic context for Iran's role in Iraq. In a recent interview Soleimani has referenced the importance of removing US obstacles in Iraq due to the need to supply Hezbollah, an issue he says afflicted Iran in 2006 but which could be surmounted now.
The use of snipers was only one aspect of the suppression of protests guided by pro-Iranian elements. Media were also targeted. Iraq had already suspended Al-Hurra in September but on October 6 masked men targeted television channels critical of the government and which were sympathetic to the protests. Later on October 27 the government did the same, targeting Al-Hurra, Radio Sawa, Al-Arabiya and Al-Hadath. These attacks appear systematic.
Iran's role appears to involve advice, as well as pushing media narratives about foreign involvement and working closely with pro-Iranian political and militia leaders, such as Amiri, to try to control the protests.
Despite the attacks protests have persisted, with tens of thousands turning out in Baghdad and elsewhere. International organizations have been slow to react although the UN issued a statement on October 30.
Soleimani intervened to prevent Abdul Mahdi from resigning. "In a secret meeting in Baghdad on Wednesday, Qassem Soleimani, head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ elite Quds Force, intervened. Soleimani asked Amiri and his militia leaders to keep supporting Abdul Mahdi, according to five sources with knowledge of the meeting," notes Reuters.