Bloodshed as Iraqis make anger towards Iran clear

By torching Tehran's consulates and slapping muddy shoes against photographs of Iranian officials, Iraqi protesters have shattered a taboo on public criticism of the Islamic Republic.

BAGHDAD - Iraqi security forces shot dead at least 45 protesters on Thursday after demonstrators stormed and torched an Iranian consulate overnight, in what could mark a turning point in the uprising against the Tehran-backed authorities.

At least 29 people died in the southern city of Nassiriya when troops opened fire on demonstrators who blocked a bridge before dawn on Thursday and later gathered outside a police station. Police and medical sources said dozens of others were wounded.

Four people were killed in Baghdad, where security forces opened fire with live ammunition and rubber bullets against protesters near a bridge over the Tigris river, the sources said, and twelve died in clashes in Najaf.

By torching Tehran's consulates and slapping their muddy shoes against photographs of top Iranian officials, Iraqi protesters have shattered a taboo on public criticism of their influential eastern neighbour.

But even as it faces red-hot rage in the streets, Tehran has consolidated its influence within Iraq's political class and among armed actors, analysts say.

In the latest expression of fury, protesters crowded around the Iranian consulate - already emptied of diplomats - in Iraq's shrine city of Najaf late Wednesday.

Shouting "Iran out, Iran out", they set fire to tyres and other items before storming the consulate itself.

"Iran's interference in Iraqi affairs has angered many Iraqis," a young protester in Najaf told AFP news agency.

"The consular fire is a clear message to Iran to reconsider its role in Iraq," he warned.

It was the second Iranian consulate attacked by protesters since the grassroots movement erupted on October 1 in anger at a government deemed corrupt and inefficient.

Unprecedented outcry

With unprecedented bluntness, demonstrators in Baghdad and across the restive south have charged Iran with overreaching.

They say Iran interferes too much in Iraqi politics, holds undue sway among its armed actors and has even hamstrung Iraqi industries by flooding markets with its own goods.

Protesters have slapped their shoes against pictures of Qasem Soleimani to insult the commander of the Revolutionary Guard Corps' foreign operations arm and Tehran's pointman on Iraq.

Soleimani has played a key role in convincing Iraqi factions to keep backing embattled Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi, further fuelling protester outrage.

"Anti-Iran sentiment isn't new, but how openly it's being expressed is unprecedented," said Fanar Haddad, an expert at Singapore University's Middle East Institute.

"The epicentre of public anger is at the Iraqi political system, but (anger at) Iran is a by-product of that. You cannot disentangle them."

For decades, Iran has carefully crafted ties to a vast range of Iraqi political and military actors, from Shiite opponents of ex-dictator Saddam Hussein to Kurdish factions in the north and even Sunni tribes in the west.

Tehran also backs many of the factions in Iraq's Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary force, formed in 2014 to fight the Islamic State group.

On top of that, it sells crucial electricity and natural gas to supplement Iraq's gutted power sector and is the second-largest source of imported goods, from food to cars.

So when demonstrators hit the streets in outrage at a lack of jobs, unreliable electricity and corruption among the ruling class, Iran was on the brain.

Natural reaction

"Iran intervenes in the formation of the government and in the economy, and the parties it supports are the ones dominating political life," said demonstrator Hussein.

Young protesters like him had hoped the defeat of IS in 2017 could usher in a phase of relative stability, financial recovery and even some new political parties, said Maria Fantappie, the International Crisis Group's Iraq analyst.

But their hopes were "crushed", Fantappie said, when they saw the political class, Hashed factions and Iran maintain the same ruling system criticised as corrupt.

"There was a simmering anti-Iran feeling and the uprising lifted the cover on the pot that was already boiling," she said, saying the sentiment was "now on the surface".

The protests have uncovered the enormous rift between the public and the political elite, as well as between rival Iranian and Iraqi religious authorities, Fantappie said.

Iraq's highest Shiite religious authority Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has backed the protesters and urged outside powers not to intervene.

Many have interpreted his words as a veiled warning to Tehran, including Sistani's Iranian counterpart - and rival - Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

But swelling public criticism of Iran could also trigger more bloodshed, observers fear.

"The burning of the consulate is obviously a blow to Iran, but it can also be used as a pretence for strengthening the security response," Haddad said.

"While Iran's reputation and credibility eroded in the public scene, the natural reaction was to cement power in security sector and in politics," Fantappie said.