Astain on Iraq’s sovereignty.” That is how an Iraqi army officer describes the billboard glorifying Qassem Soleimani, an Iranian commander who was killed in an American airstrike on Iraqi soil in January 2020.
The hoarding looms over Baghdad’s administrative district, known as the Green Zone. Many Iraqis once hailed Soleimani as hero for mobilizing local forces that beat back ISIS militants, The Economist reported.
But public sentiment in Iraq has turned. The masses who cheered Iran as a liberator increasingly see it as an occupying power. Iraqi politicians are trying to loosen its grip.
Iranian-backed militias still hold sway in much of Iraq. Many were involved in the violent suppression of anti-government protests that erupted in 2019. Lately, though, they have lowered their profile. They hang fewer placards celebrating their generals, and appear less often in the streets.
They miss the guidance of Soleimani and Abu Mahdi Muhandis, the Iraqi head of an umbrella group of pro-Iranian militias, who was killed in the same airstrike. With no clear chain of command, the militias are splintering. They were expected to mark the anniversary of the airstrike with a show of force. Thousands of Iraqis marched in Baghdad; the wreck of the car in which Soleimani was killed was displayed. But there were no big retaliatory strikes on American targets, said The Economist.
Iran has long used Shiite politicians in Iraq to assert influence. But Iraq’s prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, is not playing ball. Unlike most of his predecessors, Mr Kadhimi is not from a party that is close to Iran. Since taking office in May he has enforced American sanctions, preventing Iran from repatriating the billions of dollars it earns from exports to Iraq. (Ali Shamkhani, the head of Iran’s national-security council, summons Iraqi officials to Tehran, Iran’s capital, and curses them for not transferring the cash.)
The prime minister has also annoyed the militias by restoring state control at some border crossings and removing their men from security posts. At his behest NATO is sending 3,500 new troops. “These [Iranian-backed] groups are feeling extremely threatened,” says Maria Fantappie of the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, a conflict-resolution group based in Geneva.
Such is the level of distrust that foes of Mr Kadhimi, a former intelligence chief, accuse him of passing Soleimani’s location to the Americans, enabling the airstrike. Militiamen have assassinated Mr Kadhimi’s confidants and chased some of his advisers abroad. A group called Kataib Hezbollah, with links to Iran, surrounded his residence in June with pickup trucks full of armed men after he moved to arrest some of its members suspected of killing protesters. Since then Mr Kadhimi has shied away from confronting the militias directly. His cabinet includes ministers from pro-Iranian factions, who are trying to increase the number of militiamen (already in the tens of thousands) on the government payroll. An Iraqi official recalls the prime minister fretting: “If you don’t pay them, they’ll bomb the Americans.”
Sometimes they do anyway. Twice this year Iranian-backed militias have fired rockets at American and allied personnel in Iraq. Were Mr Kadhimi to become more aggressive, that might also invite a stronger response from Iran, which supplies electricity and gas to Baghdad and other big Iraqi cities. If it cut supply during the summer, unrest would undoubtedly follow. The Iraqi officer peeved by billboards has even bigger worries. If Mr Kadhimi tore down the pictures of Soleimani, he says, Iran might use its proxies to grab Iraq’s southern provinces.