Iraqi Prime Minister Resigns as Protests Rage Out of Control

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi has just announced his resignation amid raging protests across Iraqi cities and deadly clashes between security forces and protesters who burned down the Iranian consulate yesterday and insisted on the removal of the current Iraqi government and the prosecution of its corrupt political elite. Hundreds of protesters have been killed over the past few weeks, and thousands have been injured as a result of the heavy-handed response to massive popular unrest that has disrupted life and brought the country to a virtual halt. Tens of thousands of Iraqis have taken to the streets in protest of poor living standards, political high-level and large-scale corruption and the plundering of the national wealth of one of the richest Arab countries. Turmoil in the country has claimed the lives of 45 new victims in Iraq’s mainly-Shiite southern provinces over the past 24 hours only, in one of the bloodiest days so far since protests broke out eight weeks ago. The scene in Iraq is fast becoming a replica, albeit more costly in terms of human life, of the ongoing unrest in Lebanon – now in its fifth-week running – where the prime minister and his cabinet had little choice but to resign under mounting popular pressure.

Has al Sadr tipped balance, forced PM’s resignation?

Adel Abdel Mahdi’s statement of his intention to submit his resignation to the Iraq parliament following the bloody clashes and a call by the influential Shiite cleric Muqtada Al Sadr for a change. Sadr, who visited Saudi Arabia two years ago at an official invitation by Saudi Crown Prince MBS, and forged controversial ties with Riyadh, has millions of supporters in Iraq and has long been believed to be a power broker that could tip the balance in protesters’ favour any time he wanted. The situation in Iraq has entered what many observers consider its most dangerous phase since the downing by the Americans of Saddam Hussein’s regime 16 years ago. Although Iraq has undergone previous anti-government upheavals over the past decade, this uprising is by far the most effective and potentially dangerous revolt that could throw the country into more chaos and unrest.

Many anti-Saudi and pro-Iranian Iraqis have expressed deep concern and profound suspicion over Sadr’s agenda and his real motives for change, especially in light of some controversial statements he made following his landmark visit to Saudi Arabia in August 2017 and meeting with Saudi strongest man, Mohammad Bin Salman. The visit was seen then as an apparent Saudi ploy against Iran’s strong influence in Iraq, and an attempt to split the ranks of Iraq’s Shiite community and spiritual leadership. Al Sadr comes from a prime Shiite family, and his father was among many top clerics who were detained and later executed or assassinated by Saddam Hussein’s regime. Muqtada took over his responsibilities after his father, the Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir Al Sadr and brothers were assassinated, and fast became one of Iraq’s most influential religious and popular figures despite competition with other prominent Shiite leaders including Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim who was exiled to Iran.

Messages of burning the Iranian consulate in Najaf?

The storming by angry Iraqi protesters Thursday night and setting ablaze of the Iranian consulate in the Holy Shiite city of al Najaf was no ordinary incident. Although no Iranian diplomats were injured in the attack, the mere targeting of Tehran’s symbolic presence there, sent a very strong message in various directions, and took violent riots to a completely new level. The Iraqi government was quick to condemn the attack, Iran was understandably outraged and protesters considered the incident a major victory against Iran’s strong influence in their country. The Iranian Consulate General in Najaf is a very busy diplomatic mission, with a pivotal role regarding the holiest Shiite sites there as well as the annual pilgrimage of millions of Shiites from all over the world to the Holy city of Najaf. Some sacred Shiite shrines in the city also came under arson attacks Thursday.

The riots in Najaf and elsewhere in Iraq quickly morphed into some of the bloodiest clashes in Iraq’s revolt so far and culminated in Sadr’s call for change and the Prime Minister’s resignation. Protesters are not happy with just a simple resignation; they demand the prosecution of Mahdi and other politician they had long accused of corruption, and now with blood on their hands, protesters insist. The fast-moving political sands in Iraq made much more precarious by conflicting agendas and affiliations in a country torn by consecutive wars, invasion and upheavals, are set to throw Iraq deeper into the unknown. What will happen after the cabinet resignation, and whether this is enough to stop the sweeping uprising or not, remain some of the many open questions regarding a country- once a cradle for human civilization at large – whose more history has been marred with wars, oppression, violence and bloodshed.