Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Iraq's Sustained Protests and Political Crisis

By ISW's Iraq Team with Blane Wallace and Isabel Ivanescu

Key Takeaway: The Iraqi government is poised to face a new phase of unrest after its heavy-handed crackdown on popular demonstrations that erupted across Baghdad and Southern Iraq on October 1. Iran likely supported this crackdown through its proxies and could be preparing for an overt intervention into Southern Iraq. The crackdown temporarily stifled further protests but public anger remains high with protesters reportedly planning a new round of demonstrations for Friday, October 25. This instability opens new opportunities for ISIS to reestablish itself in Iraq. The instability also raises the risk of violent competition within Iraq’s Shi’a population that could result in direct intervention by Iran or the collapse of Iraq’s government.

This publication draws in part on a series of ISW Overwatch: Crisis Brief podcast episodes, which can be accessed here.

The Government of Iraq (GoI) temporarily quelled popular protests in early October 2019, but conditions remain primed for a further escalation of violence on Friday, October 25. Demonstrations against poor governance began in Baghdad on October 1 and spread to eleven provinces primarily located in Southern Iraq, including Dhi Qar, Babil, Najaf, and Basra Provinces. The GoI in response imposed a three-day curfew, intermittently cut internet service, and blocked access to social media.[1] The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) responded violently – using live ammunition to dispel protesters in some cases and systemically targeting activists and journalists for assault and arrest.[2] Unidentified snipers also reportedly targeted both demonstrators and security forces.[3] The violence killed more than 100 individuals and injured more than 6,000 others.[4] The crackdown temporarily stifled the protest movement, but demonstrators are reportedly planning a nationwide return to the street on Friday, October 25.[5]

The protest movement has criticized Iran’s influence in Iraq. The current crisis can be traced back in part to the contested May 2018 Iraqi Parliamentary Election. That election resulted in the installation of a compromise government – headed by Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mehdi – acceptable to Iran but incapable of addressing the long-standing grievances of Iraqis.[6] Under Mehdi, Iran and its proxies in the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) have expanded their power despite resistance from powerful nationalist figures such as Shi’a cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Many protesters thus blame Iran for the endemic corruption and insufficient social services in Iraq. Protesters chanted against Iran and tore down posters displaying an image of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Karbala in Southern Iraq on October 6.[7]

Iran likely intends to suppress any further protests in Southern Iraq.[8] Iran has a strategic interest in maintaining a stable yet subservient government in Iraq, formerly one of its main competitors for dominance in the Middle East. Iran also has a stake in preventing the spread of anti-government sentiment from Iraq into Iran. The outbreak of the protest movement coincided with the Shi’a Islamic holiday of Arba’een, during which tens of millions of Shi’a Muslims (including millions of Iranians) participate in a pilgrimage to Karbala.[9] Iran likely feared that these pilgrims could carry the protest movement into Iran. Iran reportedly enlisted the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF) and its proxies in the PMF in efforts to suppress the demonstrations in Iraq.[10] It also announced the mobilization of 10,000 Law Enforcement Forces (LEF) personnel to support security for Arba’een.[11] The LEF has previously played a notable role in the violent dispersal of protests in Iran and Syria.[12]

Iraq could witness a new wave of violence among Iraqi Shi’a that results in direct intervention by Iran or the collapse of the GoI. Iraq will likely experience further demonstrations now that Arba’een has passed. Iran has already waded into the crisis to bolster the current GoI. Yet it could decide to intervene even more directly to protect its position or force a political reshuffle that further expands the power wielded by its proxies in the PMF. Sadr and other nationalist political actors would likely resist any such intervention, prompting a violent competition among Iraqi Shi’a. Meanwhile, some protesters have responded to the repressive crackdown by demanding the fall of the entire GoI.[13] The regeneration of the protest movement and a return to violence in the coming days could ultimately force Prime Minister Mehdi to resign and usher in the GoI’s collapse at a critical juncture for the wider Middle East.

[1] Hamdi Alkhshali, Mohammed Tawfeeq, and Tamara Qiblawi, “Death Toll Rises to 93 in Iraq Amid Ongoing Protests,” CNN, October 5, 2019,
[2] Louisa Loveluck and Mustafa Salim, “Iraqi Military Admits to ‘Excessive Force’ in Crackdown Against Protesters,” Washington Post, October 7, 2019,; “Unidentified Assailants Raid 4 Broadcasters in Baghdad, Assault Staffers,” Committee to Protect Journalists, October 7, 2019,; Hiwa Osman, Twitter, October 8, 2019,
[3] BBC Arabic Alerts, Twitter, October 4, 2019,; Simona Foltyn and Lucile Wassermann, “Snipers Blamed for Bloodshed as Iraq Death Toll Nears 100,” France24, October 6, 2019,
[4] Qassim Abdul-Zahra, “Death toll in Iraq anti-government protests top 100,” PBS, October 7, 2019,
[5] “Crisis Brief: A New Phase of Unrest in Iraq?” Overwatch, Institute for the Study of War, October 21, 2019,
[6] Mustafa Salim and Tamer El-Ghobashy, “After Months of Deadlock, Iraqis Name New President and Prime Minister,” Washington Post, October 2, 2018,
[7] Steven Nabil, Twitter, October 6, 2019,; Bobby Allyn, “More Than 100 Killed and Thousands Injured in Anti-Government Protests in Iraq,” NPR, October 6, 2019,
[8] Hayder Hamzoz, Twitter, October 4, 2019,
[9] Ahmed Rasheed and Ali Hafthi, “Death Toll Climbs, Unrest Spreads in Iraq in Days of Protests,” Reuters, October 3, 2019,
[10] Michael Georgy, “Exclusive: Iran-Backed Militias Deployed Snipers in Iraq Protests - Sources,” Reuters, October 17, 2019,
[11] “Deployment of 10,000 Special Forces Officers to Restore Order at the Country’s Borders,” Mehr News, October 7, 2019, http://mehrnews(.)com/news/4739834/به-کارگیری-۱۰-هزار-مامور-یگان-ویژه-برای-خدمت-به-زائران-اربعین.
[12] Nicholas Carl and Kyra Rauschenbach, “Iran File: October 8 Iraq Crisis Update,” Critical Threats Project,
[13] Qassim Abdul-Zahra, “Security Forces Kill More Than 80 in 5 Days of Iraq Protests,” ABC News, October 5, 2019,