23 people were killed and 127 injured in Baghdad on Friday, after demonstrators in Tahrir Square were targeted by gunmen on the back of pickup trucks. The attack, for which no group has yet taken responsibility, comes after two months of anti-government protests fuelled by high unemployment and perceived levels of corruption in the country. Resentment has also been caused by the heavy handedness of the government response towards what have predominantly been peaceful protests. The shootings also came just a day after a stabbing incident in the capital, in which 13 people were wounded by an unknown assailant.
Although Reuters have said that security forces have yet to identify who was behind either attack, it is thought that pro-Iranian paramilitary groups could be responsible. In recent weeks, protests have coalesced around anti-Iranian sentiment, primarily due to the belief of the demonstrators that Tehran holds a certain amount of influence in Iraqi political affairs. Indeed, just last week the Iranian consulate in the city of Najaf was burnt by protesters, who according to the New York Times, were shouting “out, out Iran.”
Iranian influence in Iraqi politics has arguably been put under greater scrutiny following the resignation of Adil Abdul Mahdi a week ago, a figure who was seen by protesters as being out of touch, and easily susceptible to Iranian influence. His resignation means that Iran has intensified efforts to retain a degree of influence in the next administration. According to the Guardian, top Iranian officials have visited Baghdad this week, in an attempt to support a Tehran-friendly administration.
These worries led to an led to an unprecedented intervention by the State Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani on Friday, just a few hours before the attack by the gunmen. As reported by the Guardian, in his weekly address, he stated that the new government needed to be chosen “without any foreign interference.” A popular figure within the population, his intervention led to a wave of protests on Friday afternoon. This possible encroachment on Iraqi politics by Tehran has also clearly worried Washington. According to the Guardian, just hours before the attacks on Friday, U.S. sanctions were imposed on three Iranian-led Iraqi paramilitary leaders, a move which was designed to stop them from having a degree of influence in the creation of the new Iraqi administration.
However, although anti-government and anti-Iranian sentiments are currently linked, it would be a mistake to think that they are inseparable. According to the BBC, the UN have condemned the government reaction to the protests, notably in their use of live bullets and snipers. Furthermore, the problems relating to unemployment and corruption which led to the beginning of these protests have still not been solved. Although the Prime Minister has changed (though Abdul Mahdi will head a caretaker government until a new Prime Minister is found), it is only a fundamental change in the state apparatus which will likely satisfy protesters. One such change could be the implementation of electoral reform, with post-2003 attempts deemed unsatisfactory by many Iraqis.
Whatever the case, the fact that according to the Guardian, many people came back onto the streets undeterred, just hours after 23 of their number had been gunned down, bringing the total number of casualties since the beginning of the protests on the 1st of October to around 430, signals just how desperate people are for their voices to be heard. As Sarmad al-Tai, an Iraqi writer stated to the Guardian newspaper “these demonstrations are a moment of national Iraqi pride and cannot be defeated by violence.”
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