From Operation Iraqi Freedom to Iranian Domination
Twenty years on from the US invasion, Lorraine Mallinder assesses the ongoing political struggle against corruption in Iraq and talks to those exposing it
On Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, there’s revolution in the air – or at least, it seems that way. People are gathering around a cardboard cut-out of US president Donald Trump, hanging by the neck from a makeshift rig. “He’s a stupid man, a terrorist,” says a bystander, waiting to get his photo taken beneath the grinning effigy.
The hanging has been staged by the Hashd al-Shaabi, a group of mainly Shia militias closely aligned with next-door Iran. They want Trump to pay for his assassination of top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and local militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, two men regarded as heroes by much of the Shia majority for bringing the fight to Islamic State. It’s been three years since the drone attack at Baghdad airport left the pair in shreds, Soleimani’s severed hand with his talismanic red ring the only identifiable remains.
The Hashd fought ISIS under the direct command of these two men in a pragmatic, though uneasy collaboration with US and Kurdish forces. Since Trump’s extra-territorial attack, they’ve been intent on booting America’s remaining troops out of the country. Hence the mock hanging, an attempt to stoke tensions. Though bar a huddle of black-clad protesters waving militia flags nearby, the mood is chatty and oddly festive, people mainly hanging around for the photo ops.
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Watching from a nearby shoe stall, Amir, 55, shakes his head scornfully: “Look at these people. If they got the chance to go to America, they would go fast,” he says. “Iran is the real enemy. They did nothing for the Iraqi people. The only reason they came here is because they wanted our money.”
Twenty years on from the US-led invasion of Iraq, aka Operation Iraqi Freedom, few people have much time for America. Hundreds of thousands died as a result of the invasion, the ensuing sectarian civil war, the emergence of the Islamic State and the general collapse of infrastructure. However, these days, much of the blame for the country’s ills, in particular the staggering levels of corruption and dire services, tends to be laid at Iran’s door.
The US army was not wrong when it admitted in a 2019 study that its $2 trillion war on terror produced one victor: “an emboldened and expansionist Iran”. Sanctions-bound Iran floods its ‘near abroad’ with its products, everything from milk to machinery, exchanged for much-needed US dollars, while using the territory as a launchpad for its Shia Crescent project, a sphere of influence extending all the way to the Med.
The Hashd, whose leaders and backers currently control Iraq’s parliament, has been instrumental in achieving Iran’s aims – yet, since 2018, they’ve been paid from Iraqi coffers.
Not far from where cardboard Trump hangs, at the entrance to the Saadoun tunnel and on the nearby streets, the walls are filled with fading graffiti. A policeman hits a dandelion clock with his baton, next to some words scrawled in red – “An idea cannot be destroyed.”
Just over three years ago, there was a real revolution on Tahrir Square. Young Iraqis of all creeds united to express their anger at staggering levels of corruption, dire public services, and foreign interference in Iraqi affairs – US and Iranian. Ultimately, these grievances converged into one aim, that of overturning the post-2003 order, an ethno-sectarian power-sharing system that has fuelled greed and corruption among rival political elites. Despite bumper oil revenues – $115bn in 2022 – the state has failed Iraqis.
The Tishreen uprising – named after the month of October 2019, when it began – emerged from the ground up, driven by social media, with no political leaders. For Shams Talaat, a 24-year-old women’s rights advocate, it was “the most important thing in the world”. Skipping her IT lectures at university, she set up a stall on Tahrir to promote Iraqi products, taking a stand against Iran’s use of the country as an economic crutch. “We wanted the world to see we had a goal and a serious message,” she says. She believed the movement would unite Iraqis at last in “a common hope”.
That unity held fast into 2020, despite a crackdown which saw security forces hitting protesters with tear gas grenades and live ammunition, snipers reportedly linked to Hashd militias taking aim from the rooftops.
Many believe the protests were ended by the pandemic. But Talaat and other protesters maintain that Trump’s assassination of Soleimani and Muhandis was the real turning point. Despite reports that militia snipers had been deployed to kill protesters, many found themselves compelled to pick a side. “The killing changed everything,” says Talaat. “When this happened, we found that some people loved to see them dead, and then others deep inside were very sad because al-Muhandis was part of Hashd. Iraqi people are emotional. They get us through the emotion,” she says.
Hatem Tome, 34, a cameraman who documented the protests on Tahrir Square, says the assassinations left a power vacuum, sowing mayhem among the militias. Many column inches have been devoted to Soleimani, the mastermind of Iran’s expansion throughout the Middle East. But Muhandis’ death was arguably more consequential for Iraq – the founder of the Kata’ib Hezbollah militia had been working with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps since the 80s and was considered their man in Iraq, responsible for bringing the militias under a centralised command structure. With his death, everything was up for grabs.
Enter Muqtada al-Sadr, the populist Shia cleric whose Mahdi Army was once dubbed Iraq’s biggest security threat by the Pentagon. After the US invasion of 2003, his militiamen would attack US and British troops with Iranian roadside bombs, later specialising in ultra-violence against Sunnis and mafia-style criminality. In more recent times, Sadr, who commands the devotion of millions of followers, has walked a fine line, both a political insider with allies embedded in top government positions and an outlaw reformist at the centre of successive protest movements.
Sadr has a complex backstory with Iran but now positions himself as an Iraqi nationalist – quoting the late Ayatollah Khomeini’s maxim, “Neither East nor West”. Sensing a battle for the soul of the nation was underway, he got involved in Tishreen, deploying his ‘blue hats’ to help defend the protesters.
By the end of November 2019, protests had brought down the government. But, after the assassination of Soleimani and Muhandis, he was off to the Iranian holy city of Qom, breaking bread with the very Iran-backed factions the protesters were rejecting, agreeing to form an anti-US resistance front and selecting a new prime minister.
Feeling betrayed, protesters ignored Sadr’s calls to march against the US presence in Iraq. They also denounced the new prime minister-designate, who would swiftly withdraw his candidacy, as an establishment stooge. In Qom, it later emerged, Sadr had also offered to neutralise the protests, pitching himself as a leader who could fill the vacuum left by the US strike. Once he’d withdrawn his support, his ‘blue hats’ switched from protectors to killers, torching sites, using blades and firearms to disperse protesters.
Having sacrificed protesters on the altar of his opportunism, Sadr’s bid to be Iran’s number one in Iraq failed. Though later, in the 2021 elections, he would get his own back by trying to out-manoeuvre Iran, working to exclude its Shia proxies from power, joining forces with parliament’s Sunni and Kurdish blocs to form an alliance called “Save the Homeland”.
His bid failed, culminating in a bloody battle outside Parliament last year between his followers and the Hashd that left dozens dead. Less than 24 hours later, he was on the airwaves, restoring calm. Sadr had shown he was a force to be reckoned with, but he’d brought the country to the brink of a Shia-on-Shia war in the process.
It is the fervent hope of US policymakers that Sadr, a poster boy for Iraqi nationalism, will eventually extract the country from Iranian influence, bringing it closer to its Arab neighbours.
Ismael (not his real name), 24, a Tishreen protester, sort of agrees. When Sadr turned, his ‘blue hats’ seizing control of the 14-storey ‘Turkish Restaurant’, a derelict building that served as the protesters’ lookout spot, he knew it was all over. Yet, perhaps reflecting the dire state of Iraq’s governance, he believes Sadr is the only person who can bring change to Iraq. “Muqtada al-Sadr is not a good man, but he’s the best hope we have,” he says.
Driving around Baghdad, the Hashd’s influence can be seen everywhere, from the mangled vehicle in which Soleimani and Muhandis were killed, now displayed on the airport road, to maudlin billboards of the duo dotted around the city. But it’s perhaps the display on Firdos square that really captures the zeitgeist. This is the site where Saddam’s statue was toppled in 2003, in a TV-friendly event jollied along by the US Marines. Two decades on, not far from that same spot, a giant billboard depicts the Oval Office bathed in blood, a bust of former US president Donald Trump bobbing around, his bouffant hairdo instantly recognisable.
Despite – or perhaps because of – the shrill nature of the Hashd’s propaganda, it all feels a bit like a phoney war, a bid for legitimacy and relevance at a time when the country has been rocked by political turmoil and a recent corruption case which saw $2.5 billion stolen from state coffers. The mood on the street is that Iraqis just want to get on with their lives, preferably with a reliable supply of clean water and electricity.
Photojournalist Aymen al-Amiri, 27, thinks events of the past two decades have left Iraqis in a state of collective burnout. He recalls how his whole world turned black after the US invasion when Saddam Hussein burned crude oil around Baghdad to obscure bombing targets. The skies, the streets, the buildings, and people’s faces were black with smoke. The son of a photographer, he began to document the city around him – in black and white.
Recently he created The Baghdad Gazette, an exhibition now showing in downtown Baghdad. It consists of a series of front-page splashes on the most pressing issues in today’s Iraq, a country in permacrisis for decades – though the stories, written with collaborator Furat al-Jamil, aren’t your standard newspaper fare. One feature on the current suicide epidemic sees him go underground – literally – to interview a 21-year-old who poisoned herself to escape an arranged marriage with her father’s friend. Another story includes an interview with a water buffalo on the drying of the mighty Tigris, the river that gave birth to civilisation itself.
“People in Iraq stopped using their imagination, they stopped dreaming. They don’t have time to process,” says Amiri. “With the Baghdad Gazette, we wanted to tell people: let’s think again, dream again, have hope again.”