Rival Iraqi Shi’a powerbrokers are calling for competing protests on Friday, August 31, 2018. Iranian-backed proxy forces, nationalist Shi’a cleric Moqtada al Sadr, and former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki all intend to use street demonstrations to gain leverage in negotiations over the next Government of Iraq ahead of a key constitutional deadline on September 3. These dueling protests in majority-Shi’a Southern Iraq could turn violent. ISW is tracking the situation closely and will continue to provide updates.
Iran and its proxies are likely fueling new protests against the U.S. that erupted in Baghdad on August 29. Protesters near the Green Zone held banners depicting U.S. Special Envoy to the Anti-ISIS Coalition Brett McGurk and warning that “anyone who negotiates with [McGurk] is a traitor to Iraqi martyrs.” Iranian-backed proxy forces have openly threatened to attack U.S. forces as recently as July 2018. ISW warned on August 28 that Iran could retaliate after the temporary disruption of its attempts to select the next Prime Minister of Iraq by renewed engagement of the U.S. on behalf of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi. Iran likely intends to use the protests in Baghdad to discredit and outmaneuver Abadi in the still-ongoing negotiations for the next Government of Iraq. In a most dangerous scenario, Iran may use the protests to set conditions for a kinetic escalation against Abadi, the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), or the U.S. in Iraq or Syria.
Rival Iraqi Shi’a powerbrokers have also called for protests this weekend, raising the risk of violent street confrontations. Nationalist Shi’a cleric Moqtada al Sadr called for a “million-man” protest in Najaf on August 31. Sadr is politically aligned with Abadi and likely seeks to demonstrate his continued clout amidst government formation negotiations. Sadr’s call may fuel ongoing protests over poor government service provision in Southern Iraq. The failure of water-treatment facilities has spread waterborne diseases that hospitalized as many as 18,000 in Basra in August 2018. Iraqi Vice President Nouri al Maliki is also attempting to coopt these demonstrations for political gain. Maliki publicly condemned the “lack of services in Basra and other governorates” of Iraq on Twitter on August 30. Maliki is politically aligned with Badr Organization Chairman Hadi al Ameri - a senior proxy of Iran - and may seek to offset Sadr’s influence in Basra. Violence could thus erupt between competing protests in majority-Shi’a Southern Iraq. Iranian-backed proxy militias could also clash with units of the ISF deployed in Southern Iraq or U.S. forces in Eastern Syria.