Popular protests in neighbouring Iran saw public opinion in Iraq split. But it was a tricky subject. As one commentator on social media put it: Either you are for the Shiite people, or the Shiite government.
Members of an Iraqi militias carry posters of Iranian leaders.
At the end of December, popular protests broke out in Iran. These seemed mostly to be about economic discontent, with rising prices for basics and high unemployment. After six days of protests, the anti-government demonstrations calmed while pro-government marches appeared to grow.
In Iraq, senior officials were mostly restrained about commenting on the unrest in the neighbouring nation. Some cautious comments were made. The politicians who did have something to say about it, showed again the division within Iraq when it comes to matters pertaining to Iran.
These demonstrations are being carried out by Shiite Muslims in Iran. Do you dare to support them, in the same way you supported oppressed Shiites in Bahrain.
Former prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite Muslim politician well known for his affiliations with Iranian leaders, echoed some of the hardliners over the border. “Events taking place in Iran are internal matters,” al-Maliki said in a statement. “But Iran’s enemies and their supporters are trying to stir up riots and confusion.”
In a Friday speech, Iraqi cleric, Jalal al-Din al-Saghir, a senior member of the important Shiite religious and political organisation, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, who is also known as leaning toward Iran, made a similar comment. He said that the protests were about economics not about dissatisfaction with the ruling regime itself and he too said that the US and Israel were trying to cause problems in Iran due to long standing antipathies.
Sunni Muslim politician Atheel al-Nujaifi wrote this on his Facebook page: “It is still too early to talk about the impact of the demonstrations on Iran’s administration but it’s clear there will be an impact in Iraq too. We expect Iran to create problems for US interests in Iraq and to try and make use of its influence in Iraq to boost its own economy”.
The same kind of divide – whether you see Iran as a heroic and helpful ally to Iraq, or whether you see it as interfering unnecessarily – was expressed by ordinary Iraqis commenting on the situation, on social media.
Iraqis know that Iran plays an important role in their own country, wielding political, military, religious and economic influence. Some Iraqis believe that Iran is a trusted ally who has always been there for them. Other Iraqis see Iran as simply acting in its own self-interest, and trying to garner more influence in Iraq.
“The methods used by the mullahs [Iranian clerics] is always the same,” wrote one Iraqi on Facebook. “When there is a demonstration in Iraq, they say it is being caused by the [Sunni Muslim] Baath party and when there are protests in Iran, they say they are supported by Israel. The religious turbans you wear will not stay on your heads forever, your end is near,” the writer said.
One comment that was particularly widely circulated and debated was this one: “Dear Iraqis who are loyal to Iran,” it read. “These demonstrations are being carried out by Shiite Muslims in Iran. Do you dare to support them, in the same way you supported oppressed Shiites in Bahrain and Yemen and Qatif [in Saudi Arabia]?”
The writer is referring to various Shiite Muslim uprisings that brought the sect into conflict with Sunni Muslims. But in Iran, the conflict is between Shiite people and a Shiite-led regime.
“If you don’t support the Iranian demonstrators, that means you actually support the Iranian government - but not the Iranian people, the oppressed Shiites,” the writer argued.
Locals who took part in anti-government demonstrations in August 2015 still angrily recall the comments that Iranian officials made at the time. Hassan Firouzabadi, who was chief of general staff of the Iranian Armed Forces at the time, said that the leaders of the protests were not Muslims and that their goal was to overthrow the Muslim political parties of Iraq.
There were plenty of Iraqis commenting on the other side of the argument as well though, with some commenters on social media siding with Iranian establishment opinions that the protests were a force meant to disrupt the regime there.
“Demonstrations in [the Iraqi, mostly Sunni-Muslim-majority province of] Anbar and in Syria brought us the Islamic State group. The Arab Spring brought us many terrorist organizations,” said one widely shared comment. “What will the protests in Iran bring us?”
Another Iraqi said that the protestors were all Kurdish because, “the Kurds are always creating trouble in their own countries”.
Iraqis on both sides of the debate did not hesitate to use video clips of older demonstrations in Iran and even in other countries, to try and support their arguments.
“The clear divisions we see between Iraqis when it comes to foreign affairs like this shows just how difficult it is to try and build a unified country,” Qassim al-Rubaie, a lecturer in psychology and sociology at Baghdad’s Mustansiriya University, told NIQASH.
The national victory over the extremist group known as the Islamic State has recently fostered more of a sense of national unity, al-Rubaie says, and this feeling needs to be fostered and encouraged. “Then Iraqis would be thinking of their own country’s interests before others,” he suggests.