Iraq continues to be rocked by huge protests in cities all across the country, particularly in Shia-majority areas. Shockingly, paramilitaries and security forces have been ruthlessly and lethally deployed in a futile attempt to halt the protests. Many have died as a result of snipers firing directly into crowds of demonstrators.
Protestors are furious about the shocking levels of corruption, which have seen a huge proportion of the nation’s wealth simply stolen by ministers and senior officials. Meanwhile most young people struggle to find jobs, basic services are absent, there are regular power cuts during the hottest months, and hospitals and schools are in a terrible state.
There have been almost constant bouts of protests in recent years, meaning that even if the authorities succeed in killing enough citizens in order to disperse protests, it is a certainty that they will come back even stronger in the coming months.
However, the biggest disease upon Iraq’s economy and political system is the harmful influence of Iran which has pushed its paramilitary allies into the highest positions of government. These pro-Iran militias have meanwhile carved up areas of Baghdad and Iraq’s provinces between them from where they engage in all the worst forms of criminal activity. Militia groups like Kataeb Hezbollah and Asaib Ahlulhaq have attacked protestors and even gone into TV stations to terrorize the staff and force them to stop reporting about the protests. These are criminal thugs.
With Iran’s economy struggling under American sanctions, Tehran has exploited its client states, like Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, to expand its sources of income. Banks and financial institutions in these countries are used to launder money on behalf of Iran, often causing a shortage of dollars in local markets. Budgets for Al-Hashd al-Shaabi and some ministries are reportedly being redirected towards Tehran; and these militias have been encouraged to expand their dominance over local economies.
No wonder people are angry! Local businesses in particular have suffered because markets are flooded with cheap Iranian goods, which are often brought across borders through paramilitary checkpoints to avoid having to pay fees. Businesses are often forced to pay a high proportion of their profits to local paramilitary mafias. A proportion of all financial deals see corrupt officials taking their cut, and local businesses are often driven out of the market by paramilitary-connected rivals which receive preferential treatment.
As a result of all these pressures, legitimate private sector companies are in a terrible state; yet public sector revenues are in an even worse situation, often being monopolized by whatever factions control that sector and the associated government departments. Public sector revenues are almost wholly dependent on oil, yet oilfields are mostly under the control of respective militia forces, which cream off a proportion of oil production for their personal use.
What can be done? We will definitely see promises of better services, and large numbers of junior officials were recently sacked on corruption charges. Yet even if the current government falls and the prime minister changes, nothing will change, because it will be the same forces pulling the strings behind a new set of faces. It is difficult to see how the epidemic of corruption can be addressed when all the various factions and individuals aspiring to monopolize the state appear equally corrupt and untrustworthy.
Tehran can never be induced to remove its fangs from Baghdad’s neck. Meanwhile, Tehran will be licking its lips after Donald Trump’s refusal to take action in response to devastating Iranian attacks against GCC oil infrastructure and his decision to hand over Syria to Turkey, Iran and ISIS – leaving the Kurds to face genocide. All this tells the Ayatollahs that they can do what they want in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. They will face no consequences.
Why is all this of significance for Bahrain? In 2011 Bahrain faced an attempted coup, against a background of widespread unrest, during which pro-Iran elements sought to forcibly take power.
If factions like Al-Wefaq Islamic Society, the 14 February Coalition and affiliated Iran-backed terrorist had been successful, then Bahrain would have moved into the same camp as Lebanon, Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Bahrain would have witnessed a similar pattern of dominance by violent and criminal paramilitaries; the economy cannibalized for the benefit of Tehran; Bahrain’s flourishing private sector throttled by vested interests and attempts to indoctrinate and dominate society, with all manifestations of protest or dissent violently suppressed.
Particularly if there proves to be no cure for the plurality of diseases plaguing Iraq’s society, Bahrain indeed had a lucky escape and it has been right to crack down decisively against elements which were acting in direct support of Tehran’s agenda.
There are dark days ahead for Iraq and the region, particularly in the context of renewed conflict in Syria and an increasingly confident and unchecked Iran looking for new ways to spread its ideological poison throughout the Arab world. If these threats are to be addressed, this will only come through a united and active Arab world which is willing and able to take matters in its own hands.