Some four years ago in Iraq’s Anbar province, a leader of a local Shia militia took me on a tour of areas nominally under his men’s shaky control. The war against Isis was in its first year, and the militia had seized control of an area just east of Fallujah, which was then under the control of the jihadi groups. A man and his father wearing black traditional gowns approached us, and we shook hands.
The commander, who had just spent hours boasting about how beloved his men were among the Sunni population, let his guard down. “When they pull their hands out of their pockets, you never know if they’ll pull out a grenade,” the commander said. “By day, they are friendly and greeting us. By night they’re laying roadside bombs.”
The statement was stunning, coming from an Iraqi, especially since I had heard similar statements a decade earlier by American troops attempting to bring order to Iraq after toppling Saddam Hussein and taking on the role of occupier.
Military intervention in someone else’s land is never easy and straightforward, and always has unintended costs and blowback. Even if there’s insurgency, there’s what former US secretary of state Colin Powell famously called the “Pottery Barn Rule” of foreign intervention, in reference to the American retail home furnishings chain. You break it, you own it, he warned presciently about the perils of the US invasion of Iraq.
(For the record, Pottery Barn itself has spent a decade and a half insisting it applies no such rule, and that if you or your toddler accidentally break something in one of its stores, you don’t have to pay for it.)
The US has learned and relearned its lesson the hard way several times over the last 50 years – so much so that President Donald Trump’s vow to avoid foreign military entanglements plays well among many on both the American left and right.
But as the US draws back from the Middle East, the countries of the region are increasingly getting caught up in risky foreign interventions. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are entangled in a messy conflict in Yemen. Egypt and the United Arab Emirates are pushing a fruitless and endless war against the UN-backed government in Libya.
Iran, which often takes up the anti-imperialist banner against western powers, got a taste of its own medicine this month in Iraq. There, thousands of protesters took to the streets, many of them chanting anti-Iranian slogans, to rally against endemic corruption, persistent unemployment, and crappy services under successive Shia-dominated governments strongly supported by co-religionists in neighbouring Iran.
The rebels this time were not in Fallujah but in overwhelmingly Shia districts of the capital, and Shia cities of southern Iraq, including in Nasiriyah, Karbala, and Najaf, who took to the streets for nearly a week this month in protests triggered by the demotion of a popular and competent military commander who reportedly was cracking down on corruption.
“Nasiriyah was in revolt,” Hoshyar Zebari, Iraq’s former foreign minister, told me. “They burned down all the party offices and government offices in Najaf and Karbala.”
At first, the protests were supported by some key political players including the cleric Moqtada Sadr and Nouri Maliki, the former prime minister. But as the slogans shifted from opposition to the government of Adel Abdul Mahdi to the overall regime change, the country’s political factions and their allied gunmen turned against the protesters.
According to people briefed by Iraqi government officials, Iranian-backed militias of the Popular Mobilisation Units supported the armed forces in suppressing the rebellion, as well as rampaging through the offices of media outlets deemed sympathetic to the protesters, and gunning down and arresting activists considered ringleaders.
Just as America blamed Iran and Syria for its troubles in Iraq during the 2000s, Tehran also pinned the troubles on “foreign hands”, blaming Saudi Arabia and the US for the revolt. Given the incompetence, corruption, myopia and even treachery of Iraq’s ruling class, the bigger question is why haven’t there been such revolts more often, and when the country will explode again.
“This revolt was led by protesters who are fed up and don’t see any future for themselves,” says Zebari. “It was leaderless and mostly spontaneous. This was a warning signal to the ruling Shia establishment.”
Publicly, Iran played down the protests. “Iran and Iraq are two nations whose hearts & souls are tied together through faith in God, love for Imam Hussein and the progeny of the Prophet,” Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said, according to his Twitter account. “This bond will grow stronger day by day. Enemies seek to sow discord but they’ve failed and their conspiracy won’t be effective.”
But it must have been shocking to Khamenei and the leadership of the powerful Revolutionary Guard that the protesters this time were not the Sunnis who fought against Baghdad’s governments or the smattering of whiskey-swilling liberals still in Iraq, but kids from pious Shia neighbourhoods who were stomping on the Iranian flag.
“The scary part for the IRGC is that these are Shia shouting anti-Iran slogans and chants,” Randa Slim, an expert at the Washington-based Middle East Institute in touch with both Iranian and Iraqi political elites, told me.
Iranian officials occasionally let the boast slip that they control capitals across the Middle East, from Beirut to Damascus to Baghdad to Sanaa, Yemen. But as imperial powers of yore have learned, dominating another land means getting the blame and paying the costs when things go wrong.