Thursday, October 24, 2019

Iran Pushes Iraq to the Brink

By Samantha Leathley

Protests have restarted in Iraq as of late evening on October 24, 2019 and are likely to escalate violently. This renewed backlash against governance failures, Iran’s influence, and a heavy-handed Iraqi government response to discontent marks a new phase of the unrest that erupted in early October 2019.

Iran and its proxies are pursuing a military and informational campaign to establish mechanisms for long-term population control in Iraq. The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) previously warned that Iran had likely intervened to help suppress popular protests in Iraq between October 1 - 8. A diplomatic source has since confirmed that Iran deployed Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) advisers to help suppress Iraq’s protests.[1] Iran broadened this effort to prepare for a prolonged repression of Iraq’s Shi’a southern region to prevent further Shi’a-majority mass protests.[2] Iran has amassed significant influence over Iraq’s civilian government and security institutions; it views a Shi’a popular revolt against Baghdad as an existential threat. Meanwhile, Iraq’s highest Shi’a religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, issued a sermon on October 11 holding the Iraqi government responsible for the violence that security forces and ‘extralegal militias’ inflicted on protesters. Sistani issued the Iraqi government an October 25 deadline to identify, arrest, and punish the forces responsible for violence.[3] Sistani’s sermon challenged Iran’s intervention in Iraq by singling out ‘extralegal militias’ – an indirect reference to Iran’s proxies – and by calling for greater accountability within a weak Iraqi government that is amenable to Iran’s influence and which Iran seeks to protect. Sistani therefore introduced a second source of Shi’a opposition to Iran, heightening Iran’s perception that it may face an existential threat.


Iran’s IRGC advised elements within the Iraqi government during its initial crackdown on protests. Iran is now likely advising Iraqi efforts to establish a new law enforcement force to suppress future protests. IRGC commanders traveled to Iraq shortly after the first wave of protests began in order to share intelligence with and advise unidentified elements within the Iraqi government.[4] Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mehdi announced that the Iraqi government expedited the creation of a new Iraqi Law Enforcement Agency (LEA) on October 14 to replace Iraq’s riot police within the Ministry of Interior (MOI).[5] The MOI has not begun integrating the riot police into the LEA. Falih al-Fayyadh, the Iran-friendly National Security Advisor and Chairman of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Commission (PMC), reportedly spearheaded this initiative.[6] The MOI then announced the reactivation of personnel whose contracts were dissolved in 2008 for security reasons, when the MOI was purged of militia members.[7] The Badr Organization, a leading Iranian proxy in Iraq, has thoroughly penetrated the MOI.[8] Former MOI Operations Director Abdul Karim Khalaf may lead the LEA, according to an Iraqi parliament member.[9]

Iran may now be preparing to use its own Law Enforcement Forces (LEF) to advise and assist the new Iraqi unit. An Iranian LEF commander announced the deployment of 11,500 LEF forces to the Iraqi border to protect the Arba’een pilgrims on October 8.[10] Iran has also deployed additional IRGC Quds Force personnel to Iraq, according to an IRGC brigadier general’s October 10 statement.[11] Similarities between the Iranian LEF’s mandate and the LEA’s role suggest LEF elements may train and advise the new LEA, alongside the IRGC advisers already assisting the Iraqi government. The Iranian LEF was the first Iranian force deployed to Syria in 2011 to advise the Bashar al-Assad regime in its violent suppression of anti-regime protests.[12]

Sistani broke from his historical ‘quietist’ tradition in his October 11 sermon.[13] Sistani challenged Iran-backed militias and the weak Iraqi government. In response, the Iraqi government opened an investigation into security forces on October 11, but the committee’s final report fell short of Sistani’s demands.[14] The report fails to hold Iran’s known proxies or ‘extralegal militias’ responsible for killing protesters. It instead recommended the dismissal of a series of police and army commanders.[15] The Iraqi government’s failure to meet Sistani’s demands could prompt Sistani to redouble his pressure on the Iraqi government, further threatening Iran’s interests. Sistani, by intensifying his stance against Iran, could heighten Iran’s perception of his behavior as an existential threat, even if this is not Sistani’s intent.

Information Operations

Iran is using disinformation to avoid an intra-Shi’a civil war galvanizing the ‘Shi’a Street’ (demonstrators) and the Iraqi Shi’a religious establishment (Sistani). This disinformation campaign could allow Iran to legitimize LEA violence and population control against any future anti-government demonstrations and to retain Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) as a lethal tool to crush dissent.

Iran claims falsely the Shi’a-majority mass protests in Iraq are backed by foreign actors. In his first public comments on the Iraq protests, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei stated that the protests were meant to sow divisions between the Iranian and Iraqi people on October 6.[16] Other Iranian leaders and Iran’s proxy leaders in Iraq followed suit, characterizing the popular protests as “sedition.” IRGC Spokesman Brig. Gen. Ramezan Sharif stated on October 10 that the unrest in Iraq is a conspiracy to disrupt unity between Iranians and Iraqis, referring to Iraq’s demonstrations.[17] PMC Chairman Fayyadh later accused the U.S. and Israel of inciting Iraq’s protests to overthrow the Iraqi government on October 15.[18]

Iran’s proxies have claimed innocence regarding violence against protesters. Qais al-Khazali, commander of the Iranian proxy Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), stated on October 10 that “foreign security companies” were responsible for sniping Iraqi demonstrators.[19] Iranian proxies then sought to sidestep Sistani’s October 11 sermon with a rhetorical campaign redirecting blame for killing demonstrators away from Iranian proxies. Khazali took to Twitter on October 14 to urge the Iraqi government’s committee responsible for investigating lethal force against protesters to be “impartial.” In the same tweet, Khazali equated any interpretation of Sistani’s October 11 sermon that implicates the Iranian-influenced PMF in killing demonstrators with “sedition.”[20] Khazali’s use of the word ‘sedition’ to invalidate such interpretations mirrors Iranian officials’ earlier condemnation of the protests. Ali al-Yasiri, leader of an Iran-backed militia accused of violently suppressing demonstrations, adopted Khazali’s narrative on October 15.[21] Yasiri accused unspecified “enemies of Iraq” of sniping demonstrators.[22]

Iran Faces a Renewed Challenge

Iran is facing renewed backlash from the ‘Shi’a Street’ and the Shi’a religious establishment as the two appear poised to converge imminently. Multiple Iraqi newspapers report that political activists plan to resume protests across southern Iraq on Friday, October 25, when Sistani’s deadline expires. The Iraqi government’s failure to meet Sistani’s demands could confirm protesters’ fears about Iranian intervention in Iraq and inflame protests. Sistani is likely to issue a Friday sermon addressing the government’s performance, intensifying Sistani’s confrontation with Iran. Separately, a Facebook account affiliated with Shi’a cleric Moqtada al-Sadr released a statement supporting protesters planning to demonstrate on October 25, arguing that the Iraqi government is corrupt and beyond reform.[23] The same account called on Sadr’s political wing, Sadr’s militia, and Sadr’s popular base to “prepare” for October 25 and stated that Sadr’s militia will defend demonstrators on October 24.[24] Sadr likely did not organize or lead the first wave of October protests, and Sadr is unlikely to lead the upcoming protests. However, Sadr’s appeal to Shi’a-majority demonstrators and his preparations to mobilize on October 25 could magnify popular protests and increase the risk of intra-Shi’a conflict between the Iraqi government, Iran’s proxies, and the ‘Shia Street.’ Therefore, the Iraqi government – and Iran – may face a combined challenge from Sistani, Shi’a demonstrators, and Sadr on October 25. In the most dangerous scenario, these various escalations could trigger an intra-Shi’a war.

The author would like to thank the Iran Team at the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute for its analytical contributions to this publication. 

[1] “Exclusive: Iran-backed militias deployed snipers in Iraq protests-sources”, Reuters, 17 October 2019,
[2] “Crisis Brief: the Risk of an Iranian Military Response in Iraq”, Institute for the Study of War Overwatch, 9 October 2019,
[3] “Friday Sermon (the second)”, Karbala Satellite Channel YouTube, 11 October 2019,
[4] “Exclusive: Iran-backed militias deployed snipers in Iraq protests-sources”, Reuters, 17 October 2019,
[5] “The National Security Council holds an extraordinary session under the chairmanship of the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, Adel Abdul Mahdi”, Iraqi Prime Minister Facebook Page, 14 October 2019,
[6] “The National Security Council holds an extraordinary session under the chairmanship of the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, Adel Abdul Mahdi”, Iraqi Prime Minister Facebook Page, 14 October 2019,
[7] “Announcement from the Ministry of interior about those whose contracts were dissolved”, Iraqi Ministry of the Interior, 16 October 2019,
“ISW Webcast with Maj. Gen. Mike Jones”, Institute for the Study of War, 28 July 2008,
[8] “The Endgame: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq, From George W. Bush to Barack Obama”, Michael Gordon and Gen. Bernard E. Trainor, 2012.
[9] “Representative: Law enforcement personnel will be drawn from these military and security formations”, Iraq Akhbar, 15 October 2019, https://iraqakhbar(.)com/2041597
[10] “Deploying 6,000 Special Forces officers to restore order at the country’s borders”, Mehr News, 08 October 2019, https://www(.)
[11] “Quds Force, Hashd al-Shaabi to provide security of Arba’een pilgrims in Iraq”, Mehr News Agency, 10 October 2019, https://en.mehrnews(.)com/news/151058/Quds-Force-Hashd-Al-Shabi-to-provide-security-of-Arbaeen-pilgrims
[12] “Iranian strategy in Syria”, Institute for the Study of War, May 2013,
[13] “Quietist” Shi’a clerics believe perfect Islamic governance cannot be established until the return of the twelfth imam. “Quietist” clerics advise political leaders against laws or actions that violate Islamic law, but do not seek to establish Islamic government or govern directly. Sistani’s set of demands are a uniquely direct form of intervention in Iraqi governance in the context of Sistani’s historic quietism.
[14] “Yahya Rasool Tweet 11 October”, Yahya Rasool Twitter, 11 October 2019,
[15] “Investigative report of Supreme Ministerial committee for investigative regarding the events…” Lawk Ghafuri Twitter, 22 October 2019,
[16] “Iran and Iraq are two nations whose hearts & souls are tied together through faith in God and love for ImamHussein…”, Khamenei Twitter, 6 October 2019,
[17] “Quds Force, Hashd al-Shaabi to provide security of Arba’een pilgrims in Iraq”, Mehr News Agency, 10 October 2019, https://en.mehrnews(.)com/news/151058/Quds-Force-Hashd-Al-Shabi-to-provide-security-of-Arbaeen-pilgrims
[18] “Moqtada al-Sadr calls on Arba’een pilgrims to chant anti-Israel and anti-US slogans”, Fars News, 15 October 2019, https://www.farsnews(.)com/news/13980724000269/%D8%AF%D8%B1%D8%AE%D9%88%D8%A7%D8%B3%D8%AA-%D9%85%D9%82%D8%AA%D8%AF%DB%8C-%D8%B5%D8%AF%D8%B1-%D8%A7%D8%B2-%D8%B2%D8%A7%D8%A6%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%86-%D8%A7%D8%B1%D8%A8%D8%B9%DB%8C%D9%86-%D8%A8%D8%B1%D8%A7%DB%8C-%D8%B3%D8%B1%D8%AF%D8%A7%D8%AF%D9%86-%D8%B4%D8%B9%D8%A7%D8%B1%D9%87%D8%A7%DB%8C-%D8%B6%D8%AF-%D8%A7%D8%B3%D8%B1%D8%A7%D8%A6%DB%8C%D9%84%DB%8C-%D9%88
[19] “Qais al-Khazali: foreign security companies including Blackwater are the snipers of the demonstrators!”, Haydar Malik YouTube Channel, 10 October 2019,
[20] “We emphasize the need for the commission of the investigation to accelerate its duty impartially…” Qais al-Khazali Twitter, 14 October 2019,
[21] “Rasha Al Aqeedi Tweet 03 October”, Rasha al-Aqeedi Twitter, 03 October 2019,
[22] “Islamic Resistance Brigades al-Khorasani statement”, Ali al-Yasiri Twitter, 15 October 2019,
[23] Salih Muhammad al-Iraqi post 19 October, Salih Muhammad al-Iraqi Facebook, 19 October 2019,
[24] Salih Muhammad al-Iraqi post 22 October”, Salih Muhammad al-Iraqi Facebook, 22 October 2019,
“Salih Muhammad al-Iraqi post 24 October”, Salih Muhammad al-Iraqi Facebook, 24 October 2019,