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Iran's Influence Blamed For Iraq's Daunting Problems As Protests Rage On

Demonstrators defy a curfew, two days after the nationwide anti-government protests turned violent, in Baghdad, October 3, 2019.

Three days into widespread protests in several Iraqi cities, the country's Prime Minister Adil Abd al-Mahdi promised on Friday October 4 that he would follow up on their demands, although there were no "magic solutions" for Iraq's problems.

Three days of protests have left tens of people dead and hundreds of others wounded in Iraq. The latest reports put the number of demonstrators shot to death at more than 40.

The Prime Minister said protesters' demand for confrontation with corruption is "legitimate" but it takes time to address the issue.

In a rare intervention, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, whose word is law for most of Iraq's majority Shi'ites, called on protesters and the security forces to avoid violence. But he also ordered political factions to respond to protest demands.

Meanwhile some protesters have reportedly pointed fingers at Iran and its influence in Iraq. The Iraqi Foreign Ministry summoned Iran's ambassador to give an explanation about his controversial remarks last week.

In a local television interview aired last Thursday, the ambassador Iraj Masjedi, an Islamic revolution Guard Corps (IRGC) officer who was an aide to Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani, said Iran will not hesitate to target American forces in Iraq if these forces threaten his country.

"If they [U.S. forces] don't cause any problem for the Islamic Republic, Iran won't respond to this presence [of US forces in Iraq],” Masjedi said. "If the Americans want to cause any problem for the Islamic Republic, they have to expect a response and reaction," Masjedi added.

In another development, the Iranian Foreign Ministry has warned hundreds of thousands of Iranian pilgrims to delay their visit to Iraq for Arbaeen, Shiite annual religious gathering.

A senior Iranian cleric on Friday accused the United States and Israel of stoking unrest in Iraq to disrupt the pilgrimage this month, the semi-official news agency Tasnim reported.

"The enemy is now determined against the Islamic nation, America and Zionism ... are targeting the Arbaeen and Iraq, and causing trouble because it is hard for them to accept the presence of millions (of pilgrims) in Karbala," Ayatollah Mohammad Emami-Kashani said in a sermon, according to Tasnim.

Usually at this time of the year, up to two million Iranians travel to Iraq on foot or using various means of travel.

During Wednesday and Thursday Iran closed its borders with Iraq "at Baghdad's request."

While the demonstrations in Iraq are mainly about the people's opposition to financial corruption as well as unemployment and shortage of health and educational facilities in the country, some demonstrators have also voiced concern about Iran's influence in Iraq.

Iran maintains close ties to militant clerics and Shiite militia it has been training and using in its proxy wars in the region.

One of the events that ignited the protests was the recent removal of the commander of Iraq's Counter Terrorism Force, General Abd Al-Wahab Al-Sa'edi. He played an influential role in taking back Mosul from ISIS. Many Iraqis believe that Iran-backed Iraqi politicians were worried about Al-Sa'edi's popularity.

During the past months nine other Iraqi officers with similar backgrounds have also been retired against their will. Some Iraqi's attribute the development to IRGC's influence in Iraq.

Commander of IRGC's Qods force Qassem Soleimani (L) with Iraqi pro-Iran militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis (R) in Karbala in June 2019.
Commander of IRGC's Qods force Qassem Soleimani (L) with Iraqi pro-Iran militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis (R) in Karbala in June 2019.

Many Iraqis suspect that IRGC Qods Force Commander Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandas are involved in the restructuring of Iraqi armed forces.

Iraqi observers have said that it was the "fear of Iran's plans to weaken the Iraqi army and raise the level of tensions with the United States" that has brought many Iraqi protesters to the streets.

These protesters do not like their country's armed forces to be used by Iran as a toy and its anti-ISIS officers' humiliation after what they have done for the country.

The protesters carry pictures of Al-Sa'edi and charge that Iran is trying to replace the Iraqi army with the Iran-backed militia Hashd al-Sha'bi which is a copycat created after the IRGC model.

They also accuse the Iran-backed militia of suppressing last year's protests in Basra where 30 Iraqis were killed and Iran's consulate in the city was set on fire.

In his televised message on Friday, Prime Minister Abd al -Mahdi said that Iraq is now facing the two options of "survival" or the "collapse" of the government.

The prime minister declared curfew regulations on Wednesday in a bid to control the protests, but protesters have been defying the regulations and taking to the streets in greater numbers since.

The Iraqi government has cut the Internet and social media access. As a result, most of the footage showing the protest on social media date back to Wednesday or earlier.

According to the International Monetary Fund, Iraq has the world's fourth largest oil reserves. Nevertheless, its population of 40 million are struggling with problems such as poverty, lack of medical services, lack of access to free educational facilities and fresh water.

With reporting by Reuters, Iraqi media, Iran media