This morning, the Iraqi Parliament said it loudly and clearly: “The Iraqi government must work to end the presence of any foreign troops on Iraqi soil and prohibit them from using its land, airspace or water for any reason.” Yes, all foreign forces, including the U.S. and Iran.
As we’ve all seen by now, the military escalation between the U.S. and Iran has been dominating headlines since the assassination of Qassim Suleimani, head of the Iran Revolutionary Guard’s “Quds Force.” Chaos and uncertainty surround the situation: Is Iran going to retaliate? Is the U.S. going to attack Iran? Was Suleimani a “good guy” or a “bad guy”? Media pundits are pointing fingers and speculating about the possibility of a Third World War sparked by military confrontation between the U.S. and Iran.
But lost in much of this discourse is the context and fate of Iraq and the Iraqi people. What will happen to the popular protest movement led by Iraqis over the past few months? What will happen next for Iraqis on the ground? The rising violence between the U.S. and Iran inside Iraq threatens Iraqis’ dreams of a better future and will most likely bring about more death and destruction to Iraq. That’s why, as evidenced by the Iraqi Parliament’s vote this morning, Iraqis want them both out.
Since October 2019, there has been an authentic and organic anti-corruption and anti-intervention uprising that has swept across Iraq, mainly led by young Iraqis who came to age after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Hundreds of unarmed protesters have been killed and thousands injured in the brutal response by the Iraqi government and its sectarian militias, many of whom are backed by both Iran and the U.S.
The protest movement is pushing for reforms within the Iraqi government, and one of its main calls is an end to all foreign interventions. This particular demand has posed a threat to some of the foreign powers that are fighting a proxy war in the country — mainly, the U.S. and Iran. Both countries have funneled money, weapons and training into Iraq to exert maximum control over the current regime, and Iraqi protesters are fed up with living in a corrupt, dysfunctional client state. In the streets of Baghdad and in the south of Iraq, Iraqis from all different sects and ethnicities have chanted against both the U.S. and Iranian interventions.
In response, the Iranian government has tried to manipulate Iraqis into rechanneling their anger at only the U.S. government. Similarly, the U.S. has also tried to manipulate Iraqis into rechanneling their anger toward Iran. These political games were most evident in the recent tit-for-tat military escalation between the U.S. and Iran in Iraq.
In the last few days of 2019, Iranian-backed militias staged 11 separate attacks against U.S. bases in Iraq and tried to link the attacks to the protest movement. One of those attacks ended up killing a U.S. contractor and injuring a number of U.S. troops. The U.S. retaliated by bombing the camps of the pro-Iranian militia in Iraq, Kataeb Hezbollah, killing 24 and injuring over 50 — all of them were Iraqis. The militia then staged the protest at the U.S. Embassy in the Green Zone. The next day, the U.S. bombed the car that had the leader of Kataeb Hezbollah, al-Muhandis, at the Baghdad airport. None of this made it to U.S. headlines because it was more of the same: the U.S. and Iran using Iraqis as pawns in their political games. But the last event is where things got out of control — the same car that was bombed at the airport had in it Qassim Suleimani, the most powerful Iranian military figure.
Although Suleimani is only now a household name in the U.S., for anyone in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, or other parts of the Middle East, he is a controversial figure in the Middle East. In a region with raging civil wars, he is a hero to those affiliated with the Iraqi government and Assad regime, but he is nothing more than a notorious mass murderer to others. His militias in the region have killed and tortured civilians and razed entire cities to the ground.
Yet many in the anti-imperialist anti-war movement in the U.S. are notorious for over-simplifying foreign policy and painting a world in which only U.S. imperialism is “bad” and everyone else — especially those at odds with the U.S. empire — is “good.” Many anti-imperialist activists applied this oversimplified logic to analyses of the Soviet Union and Cuba in the past. And in more recent years there has continued to be a disturbing trend of whitewashing the crimes of leaders like Saddam Hussein, Nicolás Maduro, Bashar al-Assad and Suleimani. Back in 2003, it was necessary to criticize Saddam’s crimes and recognize he was a brutal dictator, and at the same time to oppose a U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. Now in 2020, it’s necessary to criticize Assad’s crimes and oppose the U.S.-led intervention in Syria. It is also necessary to criticize Suleimani’s crimes and the interventionist and oppressive policies of the Iranian government, and still say no to a U.S. war with Iran.
Even for those Iraqis who view Suleimani as a villain and a symbol of Iran’s unwelcome intervention in their country, news of his assassination by the U.S. was not something to be celebrated. Many Iraqis continue to think Trump is also a villain and still want both the U.S. and Iran out of their country.
Iran supporters in Iraq, such as Hezbollah, claim that Iran is the good guy and that Iran can’t withdraw from Iraq because that would hand Iraq to the U.S. Meanwhile, U.S. supporters in Iraq claim that the U.S. is the good guy and if it were to withdraw, that would hand Iraq to Iran. From most Iraqis’ perspective, this is not complicated at all: There are no good guys. It’s not about who should interfere in the country, it’s about whether or not foreigners should have a say in Iraq’s present or future. It’s about giving Iraq back to Iraqis.
Iraqis demonstrators have been loudly and clearly conveying through months of protests that what they want is their independence, sovereignty and self-determination. They have paid a very heavy price with their blood and treasure because of interventions from the U.S., Iran and others.
Today’s vote in the Iraqi Parliament reflects a widespread awareness among Iraqis that military escalation between the U.S. and Iran threatens the Iraqi protest movement and could bring much death and destruction to the already war-torn country.
The best thing that people in the U.S. can do is to recognize Iraqis’ suffering and pain, and demand that our government and military get out of their way. The U.S. presence in Iraq is an obstacle in the way of Iraqi aspiration, and it is also being used as an excuse by Iran and others to continue meddling in Iraq’s business. An immediate end to U.S. military aid and weapons sales to the Iraqi government and a withdrawal from Iraq completely would be two important steps in the right direction.