Iraq Protests Will Affect Russian and US Interests*

*Editor’s Note: On March 4, Russia enacted a law that criminalizes public opposition to, or independent news reporting about, the war in Ukraine. The law makes it a crime to call the war a “war” rather than a “special military operation” on social media or in a news article or broadcast. The law is understood to penalize any language that “discredits” Russia’s use of its military in Ukraine, calls for sanctions or protests Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It punishes anyone found to spread “false information about the invasion with up to 15 years in prison.

Iraq is recovering from recent unrest, but many are still wondering what really happened. Why did dozens of people sacrifice their lives to storm the government quarter? Iran, the U.S. and Russia can bring a major geopolitical shift to the region, which obviously has something to do with oil prices.

Some political analysts believe that Iraq is entirely under Iran’s control. This is partly true because nearly 60% of Iraq’s population is Shiite and thus shares the same beliefs with the Iranians. And these Shiites are now leading Iraq.

However, the situation is far more complicated that it seems. Iraqi Shiites span a variety of political groups. There are those who clearly support Iranian Shiites, but there are also those who consider themselves Iraqis first, Shiites second.

Amid the ensuing chaos that followed the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Iranian secret service swiftly eliminated almost all the anti-Iranian local Shiite leaders. Thereafter, they took de facto control of both the Iraqi Shiite community and the entire country. However, Iraqi Shiites have increasingly begun to resent the Iranian “occupation” and the activities of pro-Iranian militias, demanding the restoration of national sovereignty to regain control over Iraqi military forces. A prominent Shiite cleric and hero of the anti-American resistance, Muqtada al-Sadr, has become the leader of this anti-Iranian Shiite movement.

In 2021, by taking advantage of public resentment over the Iranian “occupation” and the difficult economic situation in the country, he managed to win as many as 73 seats in the 329-member parliament. As the largest faction, the Sadrists tried to form a government by allying with some Sunni and Kurdish parties loyal to them.

However, the pro-Iranian parties prevented them from doing so. According to Sadr, they threatened potential Sunni and Kurdish coalition members. Having failed to form a new government, Sadr decided to exert pressure on the government: He ordered his faction to withdraw from parliament in June.

Sadr’s strategy was simple. By asking his faction, the largest and most influential in Iraqi politics, to withdraw from parliament, Sadr wanted to resort to non-parliamentary, street-fighting tactics to scare the current government so that it would make concessions and call a new election, eventually taking Sadr’s interests into account when appointing a new prime minister. However, Sadr’s scare tactics did not work: The pro-Iranian Shiite forces took over the seats left by the Sadrists, while the parliament began long and difficult talks to form a new government and appoint a new prime minister. Sadr had no say in that.

“Sadr made a foolish mistake earlier when he withdrew his faction from the parliament. Then he suddenly realized that all other parties were tired of his ‘antics’ and were willing to form a new government without him. That’s why Sadr started to panic after he had announced that he was quitting politics,” reports the Russian Center for Middle East Studies.

Moreover, Sadr decided to scare the Iraqi government once again with his announcement that he was quitting politics on Aug. 29. “I’ve decided not to meddle in political affairs. I therefore announce now my definitive retirement,” he said. Thus, he actually made it clear that he was forced to do so because of his political rivals.

In response, angry Sadrists supported by Sadr’s security forces – which, of course, were preparing for this particular scenario – attacked the Green Zone in Baghdad and other government buildings. However, the police and army have managed to quell the riots, which resulted in the deaths of at least 30 people in the capital alone.

At this point, there is no longer any unrest, mainly because Sadr ordered his supporters to leave the Green Zone. He didn’t really want to take control of the Green Zone but simply wished to demonstrate his power to force his political rivals to resume negotiations. If this tactic doesn’t work, Sadr might reignite the fire of a full-fledged civil war in Iraq.

At first glance, it seems to be nothing more than a typical clash between local politicians. However, Iran, the U.S. and Russia are all implicated in what is a larger geopolitical conflict.

Understandably, Iran wants to keep Iraq in its sphere of influence. First, Iraq gives the Iranians access to Syria and Lebanon, which allows them to control the entire territory from the Mediterranean Sea to the Euphrates River. If Iraq were to be pulled away from the Iranian sphere of influence, it would essentially cancel any of Tehran’s geopolitical victories achieved since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, when the Americans destroyed the anti-Iranian regime of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad.

Accordingly, several Russian political analysts believe that the U.S. is trying to break Iran’s grip on Iraq. Some even believe that Washington has consolidated the Shiite nationalists and instigated the recent riots. However, not everyone agrees with this view. “I wouldn’t say that the U.S. is behind this. At this point, Washington is simply sitting back and watching, trying not to get involved. This is a confrontation between Iraqi elites and Iran, which wants to strengthen its position in Iraq,” says Murad Sadygzade, president of the Russian Middle East Association.

On one hand, the U.S. is unlikely to benefit from any instability in Iraq. If this political crisis escalates into a full-blown Shiite civil war, Iraq will struggle to supply any oil to the world market.

“Iraq accounts for 5% of global oil production. In 2021, it produced 201 million tons of oil. These are large quantities, and Iraq can be considered a major player in the global oil market. China (54.1 million tons) and India (52 million tons) were the largest buyers of Iraqi oil,” Igor Yushkov, a lecturer at the Financial University under the Government of the Russian Federation, told Vzglyad. Accordingly, if the supply of Iraqi oil is cut off or at least significantly reduced, India and especially China will purchase more Russian oil.

On the other hand, Washington wants Sadr to win. It is certainly difficult to call the Shiite cleric an American agent, especially after he had fought against the Americans in the 2000s. But Sadr’s victory would at least drastically reduce Iran’s influence in Iraq, making Tehran less powerful. That’s why Washington is rooting for the Sadrists. However, the U.S. can neither publicly support Sadr nor openly provide him with any financial or military aid. Any American support would only benefit Iran, which could call Sadr an American spy, spelling doom for his political career.

Therefore, Washington prefers to stay away from this crisis. It is cheaper and easier to simply observe.

As for Moscow, it will be satisfied with any outcome. If Sadr wins, Iran’s position in Syria will significantly weaken. In addition, Sadr’s victory could result in greater volatility in the global oil market, which would consequently increase oil prices. However, if the U.S. and Saudi Arabia isolate Sadr, they will have to intervene more actively to break Iran’s grip on Iraq, which might increase anti-American sentiment in the Middle East and divert Washington’s attention away from Ukraine.

That’s why Moscow doesn’t want to be involved because it’s completely satisfied with the way things are going now.

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