In Iraq, protesters are sick of corruption and foreign influence | Daily News

In Iraq, protesters are sick of corruption and foreign influence

An Iraqi protester waves the national flag during a demonstration against state corruption, failing public services, and unemployment, in Baghdad on October 5.
An Iraqi protester waves the national flag during a demonstration against state corruption, failing public services, and unemployment, in Baghdad on October 5.

The firing of a wildly popular general who led the fight against ISIS has set off demonstrations that could threaten the country’s stability.

Few Iraqis relish widespread recognition and support as much as Lt. Gen. Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi. Though he’s relatively unknown outside of Iraq, Saadi’s contributions to fighting terrorism in Iraq have been highly significant in ridding the country of the Islamic State. Suddenly, late last month, Saadi was unceremoniously stripped of his position in the Iraqi Army and transferred to an administrative role in the Ministry of Defence. The demotion of the celebrated general outraged his many supporters and triggered some of the deadliest protests seen in Iraq and the Middle East in recent years.

A tall, slim, and graying figure, Saadi has a commanding presence that appeals to many Iraqis. The three-star general was appointed to lead Iraq’s Counter-Terrorism Service, a highly trained unit dubbed the “Golden Division” for its recognition as Iraq’s elite force. The service, initially created through support from U.S. Special Forces, developed a reputation for being filled with nonsectarian and multiethnic nationalists. The unit has continued to receive training from U.S. forces throughout the war against the Islamic State. Prior to the Mosul offensive in 2017, 300,000 Iraqis applied to join the unit, with only 1,000 making it through the joint U.S.-Iraqi training academy.

Military campaigns in Mosul

The Golden Division was tasked with being on the front lines throughout the military campaigns in Mosul, fighting under only the Iraqi flag, compared to the mainly Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) frequently fighting under sectarian banners. Such differences resulted in the banning of the PMF by then-Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi from operations in Mosul and Tal Afar. Being visibly on the front lines, ridding Iraq of a hated enemy, resulted in Saadi gaining a cultlike hero status among Iraqis, especially when compared with the politicians occupying Baghdad’s Green Zone, who are widely perceived as corrupt and paralyzed. A statue of Saadi was even erected in Mosul commending his role in its liberation.

The fact that Saadi and his division frequently received training from coalition forces likely ruffled some feathers among Iraq’s pro-Iranian elite. Unlike the Golden Division, the PMF, under Hadi al-Amiri, received their training from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Gen. Qassem Suleimani.

The concerns about Saadi’s close relationship with the U.S. military were exacerbated when Saadi was found to have visited the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Saadi said he “had one visit to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad to get a visa to speak about terrorism at Harvard.” It’s a plausible claim, as he had spoken at the university a year earlier on a similar panel. Despite continually risking his life to combat the global threat of terrorism, Saadi, as an Iraqi citizen, is limited to yearlong U.S. visas only and must reapply annually.

The mounting apprehension of Saadi’s relationship with the United States—and likely pressure from Iran—resulted in the dismissal of Saadi from his position in the Counter-Terrorism Service and his transfer to a desk job. The move could indicate the effective dismantling of the Iraqi Army as the PMF seeks to increase its influence across the nation, possibly by putting forward a pro-Iranian general to replace Saadi. Mindful of Saadi’s military strength, Iraq’s government could have viewed his widespread public approval as a worrying sign of the prospect of a military coup.

Protesting his innocence, Saadi—in an unusual move for military personnel—took to Iraqi satellite media to reject his dismissal. Saadi, describing his treatment by the Iraqi government as an “insult” and “punishment,” lost some empathy from supporters as he publicly protested a direct order from Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi.

Street protests and social media

The cult status of the general, however, meant Saadi’s dismissal resonated among Iraqis, and Iraqi youth responded by taking to the streets and social media to air their disapproval. Numerous social media posts endorsing the general can be found across Iraq’s social media, with messages of support trending across Iraq’s internet. At the protests, many held posters of the ousted Army official.

The protests have had a markedly strong Shiite presence, with slogans commemorating Shiite religious figures being chanted throughout the streets of Baghdad, indicating a strong resentment toward Iranian interventionism in Iraq by the Shiite community—similar to the sentiments expressed by protesters who attacked the Iranian consulate in Basra last year.

Now, Saudi Arabia is seeking to stoke these tensions. Seeing an opportunity to topple what it perceives as a pro-Iranian Iraqi government, Riyadh has begun to use social media platforms to perpetuate the violent protests in Iraq. Creating bots to target Western media outlets, tweets from pro-Saudi users asking to “save the Iraqi people” and push “Iran out” were posted despite an internet blockade in Iraq. Saudi Arabia, which has a long history of using social media influence to crack down on dissidents, is now attempting to spread anti-Iranian sentiment in Iraq.

The situation is quickly deteriorating, and Iran is not the only target. A diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that rockets were fired into Baghdad’s Green Zone and landed near to the U.S. Embassy during the internet blockade, indicating these protests are against any foreign interventionism in Iraq, be it Iranian, American, or Saudi.

- Foreign Policy


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