After 24 hours of chaos and conflict, Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr this week called for his supporters to withdraw from Baghdad’s Green Zone, where government buildings are located. Many feared — or still do — that Iraq could fall into civil war and that the clashes between Al-Sadr’s supporters and Iranian-backed militias are just the start. While the fears of a Shiite-Shiite conflict are real, many questions remain about whether Al-Sadr is leveraging his position within an Iranian power struggle or if he has truly broken out of Iranian control and is now determined to fully fight for Iraq’s sovereignty.
Regardless of the answer, the opposition to the Iranian-backed militias has ignited what can clearly be seen as Iraq being in the middle of an intifada against Iranian control. The majority of the country’s population is in favor of this change. They all want the militias to be disbanded and for a truly sovereign state to rule over the affairs of the country. The images of people in Iraq destroying portraits of Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis are a symbol of what they want.
This independence from Tehran is still not won. Yet this is the only way to rebalance relations and bring stability, not only in Iraq but also in the Middle East. Obviously, this wish for sovereignty goes beyond Al-Sadr’s supporters — it is the true wish of all the people in Iraq, regardless of religion and ethnicity. Proud Iraqis do not want to be subservient to the Iranian regime or any other power. They want to hold their future in their own hands and live free.
This message of the people should be heard loud and clear within Iraq’s political forces, which should now prioritize the disbandment of the Iranian-backed militias. It is high time for these organizations to disband and for their members to rejoin the ranks of their fellow citizens and live normal lives. Their crimes should not go unpunished. Nevertheless, pardons, where applicable, should be considered for the sake of the future in the case that they abandon their weapons and renounce these organizations. It is similar to the choice Nelson Mandela made at the end of South Africa’s apartheid, which saved the country from civil war.
This message from the Iraqis should also be heard loud and clear in Tehran. Iraqis are telling the Iranian leaders that they will no longer accept their interference; that it is time for this relationship to change. This does not mean confrontation with Tehran, but respectful relations. It also means that Iraqis do not accept their current isolation from the world stage or being placed behind the Iranian regime’s iron veil. They wish to be part of the world. Iran might suffer more if it does not listen.
The people of Iraq want the militias to be disbanded and for a truly sovereign state to rule over the affairs of the country.
Khaled Abou Zahr
Finally, the Western powers that are about to sign a new nuclear deal with Iran should also hear the voices of the Iraqis. They will bear an important responsibility if Iran uses the proceeds that will follow the lifting of sanctions to inflict pain on the people of Iraq. Iraq is not the only country suffering from Iranian violence, Lebanon is in the same situation. Both countries suffer from the same ills. And undoubtedly, in both cases, Western powers bear a part of the responsibility. They need to understand that rewarding Iran with a nuclear deal will give strength back to the regime in Tehran to punish Iraqis and then the Lebanese who decide to resist and revolt against Hezbollah and the Iranian occupation.
The situation is still volatile and no one knows how it will move forward, but one thing is for sure: The will for a resistance against Iranian proxies has been ignited. There might be a long way to go for Iraqis and Lebanese alike, but the will is now there. They are saying: Enough with artificial political deadlocks to empower militias, proxies and Iranian nonstate actors. Enough with the silencing of every strong national voice of unity. Enough with vassal state status.
This awakening comes at a crucial time and should weigh heavily on Western powers’ conscience. We all remember how the previous protests in 2019 against Iranian influence ended in Iraq. We do not forget the students and peaceful militants that disappeared or were shot for voicing their dream of a sovereign country. A nuclear deal that does not take into account Iranian logistical and financial support to militias across the Middle East will only make things worse. It will also be direct action from Western powers against the people of Iraq and Lebanon. There is no doubt Tehran will consider it as a green light for its proxies to take over throughout the region.
Regardless of Al-Sadr’s ultimate motives — whether to strengthen his power within the framework of Iranian influence in Iraq or to truly break free — there is another message from these clashes and it is a frightening one. The message is that the only way for Iraq to break free from the militias might be through violence. People now see that peaceful protesters are sitting ducks and change nothing. If true, this means Iraq and Lebanon face a grim future — a future of blood and death at a very sensitive time. This is exactly why any agreement that reinstates Iran on the world stage has to include the disarmament of all of its militias and nonstate actors.
• Khaled Abou Zahr