Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Iraq Warning Intelligence Update: “October Revolution” Anniversary Protests Set to Resume

By Katherine Lawlor 

Key Takeaway: Iraq’s popular protest movement, set to recommence on October 1, may incite intra-Iraqi violence and could present a risk to US personnel and facilities in Iraq. Iraq’s popular protest movement is planning to resume mass memorial protests on the one-year anniversary of the “October Revolution” protests; these demonstrations will continue to condemn government corruption, Iranian influence, poor government services, mass unemployment, and the failure of the Iraqi government to hold security forces accountable for the mass killing of protesters in 2019. Iranian proxy militias and followers of nationalist Shi’a cleric Moqtada al-Sadr are likely planning to infiltrate the anniversary protests and use them to achieve their own objectives. This co-optation of the otherwise largely peaceful protest movement may spark clashes between Sadrists, Iranian proxy militants, and Iraqi protesters. In an unlikely but most dangerous scenario, Iran’s proxies could use the chaos of mass protests as a cover for attacks on the US Embassy, on Kadhimi’s government, or on any individual or organization affiliated with the United States or the US-led Coalition. 

Tripwire: Iraq’s popular protest movement is planning to resume mass anti-corruption protests on October 1, 2020, the one-year anniversary of the movement’s beginnings. The armed wings of political blocs, Iran-linked militia groups, and supporters of nationalist Shi’a cleric Moqtada al-Sadr are each likely also planning to participate in and co-opt the protest movement to advance their different political agendas.

Historical Context:

  • September 2019: On September 25, 2019, recent university graduates demonstrated in front of the office of the prime minister, demanding jobs, improved basic services, and an end to government corruption. Overzealous security forces used armored vehicles, water cannons, and mass arrests to disperse the peaceful demonstrators, sparking nationwide outrage and calls for solidarity protests.[1] On September 27, then-Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mehdi undertook a perceived purge of Iraq’s security forces, firing leaders who objected to increasing Iranian influence in Iraqi security services. The firing of the immensely popular deputy commander of the venerated Iraqi Counterterrorism Service, Lieutenant General Abdul Wahhab al-Saadi, inspired additional anti-government fervor and popular anger over Iranian influence in Iraq.[2] Iraq’s mass popular protest movement, the “October Revolution,” began on October 1, 2019.
  • October 1-8, 2019: Protests quickly spread to 11 Iraqi provinces, mostly in the Shi’a-majority south. The Iraqi government quickly moved to crush the burgeoning movement through intermittent internet cuts, the imposition of a three-day curfew, and violent crackdowns on demonstrators. Iraqi intelligence and proxy militia forces intimidated and attacked journalists who covered the demonstrations. Meanwhile, unidentified snipers appeared on Baghdad’s rooftops and security forces used live ammunition against protesters and medical workers trying to treat injured participants.[3] Iraqi security forces and likely Iranian proxy forces killed more than 100 protesters between October 1 and 7, wounding an additional 6000.[4] Protest violence eventually killed at least 600 protesters and injured over 30,000.[5] What began as a protest against corruption and unemployment quickly evolved into a protest demanding the overthrow of the Iraqi political system. The protests also took on increasingly anti-Iranian and anti-foreign interference tones as the extent of Iran’s proxy militia violence became clear.[6] Protests briefly paused for the Shi’a religious observance of Arba’een on October 8, which may have provided cover for Iranian Law Enforcement Forces (LEF) and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) forces to deploy to Iraq and prepare to suppress the next round of protests.[7]
  • October 25-November 28, 2019: Protesters called for the resumption of the “October Revolution” on October 25 and set up tents in city squares across the country, even as security forces—including likely Iran-backed groups—killed hundreds more protesters over the next month.[8] The mass violence by Iraqi and Iran-linked security forces eventually drew the condemnation of Iraq’s highest Shi’a religious authority, forcing then-Prime Minister Mehdi to resign on November 29.[9]
  • December 2019-January 3, 2020: Political gridlock gripped Iraq following Mehdi’s resignation as politicians failed to determine a compromise candidate to replace him. Protesters remained on the streets and faced regular violence, kidnappings, torture, arrests, and assassinations by government and Iran-linked security forces. This pattern of violence and the emboldening of Iran-linked groups led to the Iranian proxy attack on the US Embassy in Baghdad on December 30 and the US retaliatory strikes that killed Iran’s IRGC-Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani and the de-facto Iranian proxy militia leader in Iraq, Abu Mehdi al-Muhandis, on January 3, 2020. Their deaths led to additional upheaval in the fragile Iraqi political system.
  • January 4-31, 2020: Nationalist Shi’a cleric Moqtada al-Sadr turned on the protest movement on January 24, 2020, throwing his support behind Iran-backed militias to combat the US force presence in Iraq.[10] The loss of Sadr’s supporters reduced protesters’ numbers. Nevertheless, protesters remained in their sit-in squares and continued to reiterate their demands for free and fair elections, an end to corruption, and an end to foreign influence in Iraq. The coronavirus again reduced protesters’ numbers but did not end the movement or its coordinated calls for systemic change.[11]
  • March-September 2020: Protests continued as Iraq’s political elites tried and failed to choose a replacement candidate for Prime Minister Mehdi. Iran’s political proxies failed to agree on a viable candidate; Iraqi politicians from across the political spectrum instead supported the politically independent Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. Iran did not red-line Kadhimi’s premiership likely because it was viewed as a temporary stopgap measure to avert state collapse; in fact, the Iranian regime initially supported Kadhimi’s administration and ascensionHowever, Kadhimi’s support for the anti-corruption demands of the protest movement and his campaign to erode the funding streams and influence of Iran’s proxy militia network in Iraq have soured the opinions of the Iranian regime. Iran’s proxies have since attempted to undermine Kadhimi’s government and legitimacy through attacks on US and Coalition facilities, kidnappings and assassinations of activists, and parliamentary procedures.[12]

Timing and Actors: The planned protests on October 1 are not intended to signify the resumption of permanent demonstrations, but rather the resolve of the protest movement to resume when the coronavirus fades and continue to demand systemic change in Iraq.[13] However, recent tensions between the Kadhimi government, Iranian proxy militia groups, and nationalist Shi’a cleric Moqtada al-Sadr may manifest within these demonstrations, undermining the goals of the movement and potentially leading to violence between opposing factions.

  • Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi and the Iraqi Government: Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi generally supports the goals of the popular protest movement but is under tremendous pressure from domestic political actors and from the United States.[14] US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reportedly threatened in late September to close the US Embassy in Baghdad and to indiscriminately target Iran-linked militia groups in Iraq if Kadhimi did not immediately end Iranian proxy attacks on diplomatic facilities.[15] Iran’s proxies do appear to have ceased their rocket attacks on embassies in recent days, but have continued their improvised explosive device (IED) attacks on Iraqi-operated convoys contracted by the US-led Coalition.[16] Kadhimi needs to ensure that the demonstrations do not come near the Green Zone, where international embassies are located, while also preventing violence by Iraqi Security Forces against protesters.
  • Iran’s Proxy Militias and Political Allies:
    • Iran’s proxy militia network in Iraq reportedly intends to infiltrate the protest movement and use it to undermine Prime Minister Kadhimi and to target the United States.[17] The same militias that are likely responsible for hundreds of protester deaths in late 2019 will likely not attempt violent crackdowns to end the demonstrations this time around. That violence previously only hardened the resolve, and anti-Iranian sentiments, of the movement.[18] Instead, Iran’s Iraqi proxies are likely to join the movement, flying their own flags and chanting their own slogans against Kadhimi and the West. Protesters are likely to resist this co-option of their movement and may attempt to eject the interlopers from their demonstrations, risking clashes between usually unarmed protesters and often heavily armed Iranian proxies.
    • Iran’s proxies may not limit their violence to protesters. Likely Iranian proxies have conducted at least 17 IED attacks on Iraqi logistics convoys contracted by the US-led Coalition since September 1, 2020.[19] They fired a rocket at a British security contractor on September 3.[20] They detonated an IED on September 18 at the American Institute for English Learning in Najaf likely exclusively because of its name; the institute is not affiliated with the United States.[21] These attacks demonstrate that Iran’s proxies are willing to target any entity perceived to be associated with the United States or the Coalition to drive out US forces and to undermine the legitimacy of Prime Minister Kadhimi.
    • Nationalist Shi’a Cleric Moqtada al-Sadr: Sadr distanced himself on September 23, 2020, from the Iran-linked militias with which he has been tacitly allied since January.[22] Sadr called on them to end their attacks on diplomatic facilities and to expel US forces from Iraq through legal and parliamentary means rather than military means. Sadr explicitly accused the Iranian-infiltrated Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) of “weakening” Iraq through “attacks and assassinations.”[23] He called on Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi to form a security committee to investigate attacks by Iran’s proxies.[24] Kadhimi immediately agreed, capitalizing on Sadr’s power to create another avenue to target Iran-backed militia groups.[25] Sadr is the leader of the largest parliamentary bloc and remains influential among the Shi’a people. Anonymous sources told Arabic media outlets that Sadrist supporters will be a major presence in the memorial protests.[26] Sadrists fought against Iran’s proxies in October and November 2019 to defend protesters, but then fought and killed protesters in February 2020 after Sadr turned on the movement.[27] Protesters could clash with Sadrists if they attempt to implement a political or sectarian agenda on the largely anti-elite, anti-sectarian movement. Sadr’s supporters, who remain better organized than the protest movement as a whole, are also more likely to clash with Iran’s proxy militants following Sadr’s condemnations of the PMF.
Assessment: Iraq’s incendiary political scene sets the stage for potential violence surrounding the anniversary protests. Protests could lead to a number of potential outcomes:
  • The incompatible political agendas of Iraqi protesters, Iran’s proxy militias, and Sadr’s supporters may lead to violence between opposing factions. This violence would likely come not from Iraqi Security Forces as it did in 2019 but rather from politically-motivated and potentially armed groups attempting to impose their own agenda on the protest movement.
  • Iranian proxies could infiltrate either the protesters or the Iraqi Security Forces in order to spark clashes between the two, thereby undermining the legitimacy of the Kadhimi government. Kadhimi has vowed to protect protesters from violence and to hold Iraqi Security Forces accountable for previous violence against protesters.[28] He has struggled to keep both promises. Iran’s proxies have already utilized this approach; each Iranian proxy assassination or kidnapping for which Kadhimi cannot hold perpetrators accountable undermines the electorate’s faith in his ability to gain control over the security forces and to protect protesters and activists.
  • Protesters could spark conflicts by setting fire to political, proxy militia, or Sadrist offices. Protesters have repeatedly set fire to militia and political offices, Iranian consulates, politicians’ homes, and regional administrative buildings since October 2019.[29]
  • Anniversary protests could take place without violence. The notoriously mercurial Sadr could again change his position, removing his supporters from the equation. Iran’s proxies may be deterred by the intense political pressure from the United States, the Kadhimi government, and potentially the Iranian regime to end attacks on diplomatic missions. However, that pressure to end attacks has not deterred IED attacks on Coalition-affiliated logistics convoys operated by Iraqi contractors in recent days. Those attacks demonstrate that Iran’s proxies remain willing to injure or kill Iraqi civilians to pursue their own political agendas.
  • Protesters could postpone their demonstrations in an attempt to avoid co-optation. Protest leaders are aware of militia and Sadrist plans to co-opt their peaceful memorial demonstrations. They may choose to postpone their calls to protest to October 25, leaving only Sadrists, militias, and politically affiliated demonstrators on the streets on October 1. This outcome is unlikely; protesters began arriving in sit-in squares on September 23 in preparation for the October 1 demonstrations.[30]
  • Iran’s proxies and potentially Sadr’s supporters could use the protests as cover to attack Kadhimi or the US Embassy in Baghdad. This potential outcome is immensely dangerous but highly unlikely. Should Iran’s proxies in Baghdad successfully shift the tone of the crowd or use the crowd’s movements to shield their own, Iraqi Security Forces would likely be unable to protect Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone in which Kadhimi and the US Embassy reside. Violent or destructive demonstrations in front of the Embassy could easily escalate to destruction like the US Embassy witnessed when proxies attacked in December 2019. Iranian proxy militia Kata’ib Hezbollah has already demonstrated its ability to enter the Green Zone and threaten Kadhimi’s residence during his tenure.[31] Iran’s proxies understand that their attacks on diplomatic and Coalition facilities undermine Kadhimi’s legitimacy. Iran’s proxies could therefore use the cover of the protests to attack the US Embassy, US allies, or Kadhmi’s government inside the Green Zone. However, any attacks or shelling of diplomatic facilities would contradict the public statements of Iran’s foreign ministry and of Iraq’s top proxy leaders.[32]


Iraq’s anniversary protests are unlikely to overthrow the Kadhimi government but have the potential to again reshape the balance of power in Iraqi politics. Sadr’s recent alignment with Kadhimi against Iran’s proxy militia network could be further solidified by clashes between Sadrists and militia members, empowering Kadhimi’s government and providing him a substantive plurality in Iraq’s parliament until Sadr next decides to switch sides. Kadhimi’s government is worthy of US support and protection. The protests alone are unlikely to pose a direct threat to his legitimacy. However, Iranian proxy activities under the guise of the protests could prove dangerous to Kadhimi and, therefore, to the long-term stability of Iraq and the long-term achievement of US policy interests. Kadhimi remains Iraq’s best shot at meaningful, evolutionary reform. The protest movement may provide him with the boost he needs to get there, if it can avoid co-optation by Iraq’s anti-Kadhimi political elites and by Iran’s proxies.

Conversely, if the protests take on a largely anti-Kadhimi bent or are co-opted by Iran’s proxies to undermine Kadhimi’s legitimacy, they could reduce his momentum on combatting corruption, implementing important electoral reforms, and constraining the criminal activities of Iran’s proxy militias. The co-optation of the otherwise largely peaceful protest movement could spark clashes between Sadrists, Iranian proxy militants, and Iraqi protesters. Most dangerously, Iran’s proxies could attempt to shift the momentum of the protests to enter the Green Zone and target US or other allied embassies. This unlikely course of action would threaten the safety of Kadhimi’s administration and of US and allied personnel in Iraq. Violent repression of protesters or any attacks on diplomatic missions would undermine the legitimacy of Prime Minister Kadhimi and threaten the stability of the already fragile Iraqi state.


  • Protesters and proxies alike use protest slogans and signage to signal to the Iraqi government and to the broader international community. Some anti-Kadhimi and general anti-government signage should be expected. The presence of militia flags, photos of Soleimani and Muhandis, weapons carried by ostensible protesters, and explicitly anti-US or anti-Israeli chants would all mark the presence of militants in a crowd of protesters.
  • Attacks by small groups of men wearing the uniforms of Iraqi Security Forces are possible and would indicate that militia groups or subgroups are attempting to infiltrate security forces and spark confrontations between the government and protesters.
  • Photos of Sadr should be expected but may trigger clashes between various groups of demonstrators. Large crowds of men in white t-shirts or blue baseball caps would also indicate the presence of Sadrist militants, including Saraya al-Salam and his ostensibly-disbanded “blue hats,” a less formal organization formed to protect protesters which later turned on them alongside Sadr.
  • Protesters will distribute social media statements if they choose to postpone their demonstrations. They will also likely distribute a unified statement articulating the demands of protesters across the country should the demonstrations take place as planned.
  • Mass crowds on Baghdad’s central bridges are to be expected. However, if those crowds begin anti-Kadhimi or anti-US chants, flying anything other than the Iraqi flag, producing weapons, or clashing security forces defending the Green Zone, US and Iraqi officials should be on watch for unlikely but dangerous potential attacks on government and diplomatic facilities and personnel.
  • Any massing of crowds inside the Green Zone should be viewed as a threat to the safety of US and allied embassies and to the Kadhimi government.



[1] “[Translation] The Interior Inspectorate Issued a Statement Regarding the Assault on Holders of Higher Degrees.” NRT, September 26, 2019.

“[Translation] “Popular Protest Committee calls for a pause in Baghdad to condemn the dispersal of the graduates’ sit-ins.” Baghdad Today, September 26, 2019.

[2] “Controversy Grips Iraq After Removal of Top Commander.” Agence French-Presse, September 28, 2019.


[3] Simona Foltyn and Lucile Wassermann, “Snipers Blamed for Bloodshed as Iraq Death Toll Nears 100,” France24, October 6, 2019,

[4] Louisa Loveluck and Mustafa Salim. “Iraqi Military Admits to 'Excessive Force' in Crackdown against Protesters.” The Washington Post, October 7, 2019.

[5] A Year after Unprecedented Iraq Protests, What Has Changed?” Agence French-Presse, September 29, 2020.

[6] Samantha Leathley. “Iran Pushes Iraq to the Brink.” Institute for the Study of War, October 24, 2019.

[7] Nicholas Carl and Kyra Rauschenbach. “Iran File: October 10 Iraq Crisis Update.” Critical Threats Project, October 10, 2019.

[8] Alissa J. Rubin. “'All of Them Are Thieves': Iraqis Defy Security Forces to Protest Corruption.” The New York Times, October 25, 2019.

[9] “Iraq Unrest: PM Abdul Mahdi to Resign after Bloodiest Day in Protests.” BBC News, November 29, 2019.

[10] Katherine Lawlor and Brandon Wallace. “Sadr Withdraws Support for Iraq's Popular Protest Movement.” Institute for the Study of War, January 29, 2020.

[11] Azhar al-Rubaie. ”Coronavirus fears leave Iraq's anti-government protesters divided.” Middle East Eye, May 15, 2020,

[12] Katherine Lawlor with Brandon Wallace. ”New Iraqi Prime Minister Pushes Ambitious Agenda amid Grave Threats and Possibility of US Troop Withdrawal.” Institute for the Study of War, August 21, 2020,

[13] "[Translation] Iraq: Preparations for the commemoration of October revolution and counts for breakthroughs." Al-Araby, September 23, 2020, https://www.alaraby(.)

[14] Katherine Lawlor with Brandon Wallace. August 21, 2020.

[15] Edward Wong, Lara Jakes, Eric Schmitt. “Pompeo Threatens to Close U.S. Embassy in Iraq Unless Militias Halt Attacks.” New York Times, September 27, 2020.

[16] "[Translation] US officials: Iran reduces Katyusha attacks on Coalition forces.” al-Mada, September 22, 2020 https://almadapaper.)net/view.php?cat=230168

Samya Kullab. “Blast targets ‘American’ English school in southern Iraq.” Associated Press, September 18, 2020.

[17] [Translation] Iraq: Preparations for the commemoration of October revolution and counts for breakthroughs." Al-Araby, September 23, 2020, https://www.alaraby(.)

[18] Lousia Loveluck and Mustafa Salim. ”Iraqi military advmits to ’excessive force’ in crackdown against protestors.” Washington Post, October 7, 2019,

[Translation] Iraq: Preparations for the commemoration of October revolution and counts for breakthroughs." Al-Araby, September 23, 2020, https://www.alaraby(.)

[19] The author’s own data.

[20] "[Translation] Rocket attack targets British security company in Baghdad." Al-Quds, September 3, 2020, https://www.alquds(.)

[21] Samya Kullab. "Blast targets ‘American’ English school in southern Iraq." Associated Press, September 18, 2020,

[22] Muqtada al-Sadr. Twitter, September 23, 2020,

[23] Muqtada al-Sadr. Twitter, September 23, 2020,

[24] Muqtada al-Sadr. Twitter, September 25, 2020.

[25] Mustafa al-Kadhimi. Twitter, September 25, 2020.

[26][Translation] Iraq: Preparations for the commemoration of October revolution and counts for breakthroughs." Al-Araby al-Jadeed, September 23, 2020, https://www.alaraby(.)

[26] Al-Araby al-Jadeed, September 23, 2020

[27] Sophia Barbarani. “Several killed after al-Sadr followers storm protest camp in Iraq.” Al-Jazeera, February 5, 2020. https://www.aljazeera(.)com/news/2020/2/5/several-killed-after-al-sadr-followers-storm-protest-camp-in-iraq

[28] ”After promising accountability, Iraq arrests suspect in protester's death.” Al-Monitor, June 11, 2020,

[29] ” Protesters burn headquarters of Iraqi Hezbollah militia in Najaf.” Al-Arabiya, January 19, 2020, https://english.alarabiya(.)net/en/News/middle-east/2020/01/19/Protesters-burn-headquarters-of-Iraqi-Hezbollah-militia-in-Najaf


“Iraq unrest: Protesters set fire to Iranian consulate in Najaf.” BBC News, November 29, 2020.

[30]  [Translation] Iraq: Preparations for the commemoration of October revolution and counts for breakthroughs." Al-Araby, September 23, 2020, https://www.alaraby(.)


[31] Michael Knights. ” Testing Iraq’s Ability to Crack Down on Anti-U.S. Terrorism.” Washington Institute for Near East Policy, June 26, 2020.

[32] Ali Mamouri. "US shakes up Iraqi factions with reported warning on militias." al Monitor, September 25, 2020.;


“[Translation] Iran rejects insulting Sistani and targeting diplomatic missions and designates 'those responsible for the attacks.'" Shafaaq, September 28, 2020.