Iraqi demonstrators are being killed in the streets for demanding an end to a corrupt status quo propped installed by the US and propped up by Iran.

It seems that the city of Karbala is destined to receive the blood of martyrs into its soil, as Iraqi security forces and allied pro-Iran Shia militants gunned down dozens of unarmed demonstrators last week. 

The tragedy of Karbala is that Iraqi Shia protesters stood in defiance against a Shia-led government and were denouncing the meddling of regional power Iran, but were met by extreme violence leading to the use of deadly and unjustifiable force. 

The latest violence after a month of protests has caused the death toll to soar to more than 250 people, and all in the name of preserving a corrupt status quo installed by the United States and propped up by Iran.

In other words, the current protests against corruption have reached out across the ethno-sectarian divide, putting to shame almost two decades worth of politicised pseudo-analysis that sought to divide Iraqis. 

Rather than hating each other on religious or ethnic lines, Iraqis of all flavours simply want an end to the corrupt political class - a crop of leaders that have sold them out to regional and global powers with the sole intent of lining their own pockets with gold, while ordinary Iraqis struggle to find jobs.

Sectarianism as a tool of the political elite

The deaths of protesters in Karbala has a far greater symbolic value than many realise. Karbala is the site of the 7th-century martyrdom of Al Hussein bin Ali, the grandson of Islam’s Prophet Muhammed, who rose up against the monarchical tyranny of Yazid bin Muawiyyah, the second caliph of the nascent Umayyad empire who was appointed not by merit but through inheritance. 

Hussein was killed along with members of his family and some of his supporters at the Battle of Karbala in 680 CE and became revered for his martyrdom by both Sunni and Shia Muslims alike. He stood up for what he believed in and for the rights of others and paid the ultimate price.

More than 1,300 years later, Hussein would have surely been saddened by the violence inflicted on innocent protesters in his name by Iran-sponsored militias. Many of these militias participate in commemorations of the martyrdom of Hussein, yet disgrace his memory by slaughtering those who did exactly as he did by raising their voices against corruption. 

While Hussein would have been ashamed of these militants who seek to further Iran’s agenda rather than the cause of justice, fairness, and equality, he would have been proud of the demonstrators who gave their lives for these noble ideals.

Iraq’s political elite, heavily influenced and even controlled by Iran, have suppressed protesters in the past and have used sectarian religious symbolism to justify their violence. 

When largely Sunni protesters took to the streets in 2012 and 2013, then-Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki described the Sunni demonstrators as being “the supporters of Yazid.” The reference here is not lost on anyone in Iraq and by branding Sunni protesters as being of the followers of the man who was ultimately responsible for the death of Hussein, Maliki used inflammatory language to justify the subsequent massacres against these demonstrators.

This is of course not to mention the extensive use of the law as a tool to silence dissenters while shielding political allies, the branding of Sunni dissidents as “Baathists” to justify use of anti-terror laws leading to death penalties, and threats and actual use of rape to force false confessions to terrorism offences, leading to Iraq having one of the busiest death rows on the planet.

The Iran effect on violence and discourse

Of course, on this occasion, the sectarian discourse employed by Iraqi politicians and pro-Iran militants falls flat on its face. Not only is it wild to accuse Shia protesters across the country of being closeted Daesh or Al Qaeda supporters, but no one will believe that they are Baathists either. Without all these traditional go-to accusations, Iran and its minions have reverted to the classics – that of an American-Zionist conspiracy.

From the very beginning of the demonstrations, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei tweeted that Iraqis and Iranians are bound together by the love of Hussein and that “enemies” have sought to sow discord and their “conspiracy won’t be effective”. 

Just a week ago, Khamenei again took to Twitter to accuse demonstrators in Iraq and Lebanon of being under the influence of the “Zionist regime”. Unsurprisingly given such rhetoric, Khamenei’s professed love for Hussein did not lead him to call on his Iranian proxies in Iraq not to butcher those following Hussein's example.

Iranian establishment figures also echoed Khamenei's words. Hossein Shariatmadari, the editor of the hardline Kayhan newspaper, described the protests in Iraq as being directed “by the embassies of America and Saudi Arabia” and other Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) officers also ran with the same lines about it being a joint American-Saudi-Israeli plot.

Since these comments, reports have detailed how pro-Iran militias have deployed snipers on city rooftops and have been using live rounds to kill and maim demonstrators. Iraqi security forces and men in black masks have taken to the streets in Karbala and other cities, firing tear gas canisters directly at protesters’ heads causing fatalities.

It seems like even the Shia of Iraq cannot be spared from the wrath of those who claim to love and support Hussein’s struggle while doing their utmost to disparage his noble legacy through the blood of innocents calling for transparency and dignity.

Iran is so terrified of its political clients being toppled in Baghdad because it knows that, without Iraq, it risks its regional gains across the so-called “fertile crescent” in not only Iraq but Syria and even further afield in Lebanon that is witnessing its own protest movement. 

Iraq is a regional hub where militias and arms have been transported to Iranian proxies in these two theatres who have wreaked havoc on the populations there, particularly in Syria.

Should the Sunnis of Iraq rise again and forge an understanding with their Shia countrymen in the south, the political elite of Iraq could very well find themselves in hot water. However, due to the lack of organisation and the sheer level of violence being employed, it seems that Iran’s presence in Iraq is assured – for now.

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