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For Iraqi demonstrators, Iran protests are the Islamic Republic's 'punishment from God'

Iraqi activists voice solidarity with Iranian demonstrators as three main bridges in Baghdad fall to protesters
Protesters blast music from a sound system and dance on Ahrar bridge in Baghdad (MEE/Alex MacDonald)
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Baghdad

Iraqi activists expressed solidarity with protesters in Iran on Monday, as they managed to recapture one of the main bridges leading to Baghdad's government buildings.

Activists retook the eastern half of Ahrar Bridge on Sunday afternoon after having lost it to Iraqi security forces earlier this month. The protesters reinforced their position on the bridge with steel plates and other materials.

The bridge leads off the famous al-Rasheed Street over the Tigris river into the fortified Green Zone that houses the Iraqi parliament, the Iranian embassy and other key institutions.

Map of Baghdad

Iraqi demonstrators' pushback comes as similar protests broke out in neighbouring Iran over the weekend. The Iranian protests erupted after the government announced an unpopular hike in petrol prices, but demonstrators have focused more broadly on the country's ailing economy and government corruption.

Anger at the Iranian government in Iran, however, is matched and arguably surpassed by Iraqis, who accuse the Islamic Republic of effectively treating their country like a puppet state and of helping funnel cash into the pockets of Iraqi politicians in exchange for their loyalty.

(MEE/Alex MacDonald)
The Ahrar bridge leads off al-Rasheed Street towards Baghdad's Green Zone (MEE/Alex MacDonald)

In addition, numerous protesters have accused Iran of embedding agents in the Iraqi security services and using lethal force against protesters.

Protesters have regularly chanted "Out, out Iran" at protests.

"We stand by the Iranian people," said Ahmed, an activist and volunteer medic at the Ahrar bridge. "We are not against Iran. We are just against the Iranian government and their intervention into Iraqi matters."

"I've visited Iran before. Most of the people there are dissatisfied about the government," he told Middle East Eye. "They are poor people who are suffering while the government is a dictatorship."

Another protester, Awathal, said that the protests were divine retribution against the Islamic Republic's actions.

"This is God's punishment. The Iraqi people are angry and now God is punishing them [the Iranian government] with this public revolt against them," he said.

"We have no problem with the Iranian people. We have a problem with the authorities. We have a problem with [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander] Qassem Soleimani. We have a problem with [Iran Supreme Leader] Ali Khamenei."

"They are ruled by those clerics and are suffering. God willing, their revolution will be victorious."

'We will die here'

Qassem Soleimani, the powerful chief of the elite Quds Force and one of Khamenei's top officials, has reportedly visited Iraqi government officials to advise them on how to deal with the protests, which have so far seen more than 330 people killed and thousands injured by security forces.

Three of the main bridges in central Baghdad, along with Tahrir Square, are now in the hands of demonstrators who have been protesting since early October against corruption, unemployment and a lack of public services in Iraq.

Al-Rasheed Street, which in normal times is a bustling high street, was blocked off at intervals by cement blocks.

Tuk-tuks and trucks weaved in and out of gaps made in the fortifications, bringing food, water and other supplies to activists.

(MEE/Alex MacDonald)
Al-Mansour hotel, in the Green Zone, visible from Ahrar bridge across the Tigris (MEE/Alex MacDonald)

A number of people brought warm clothing to the protesters, who have been sleeping out at the bridge camps despite the drawing in of winter.

One protester was killed and 32 were wounded on Sunday, hours after Ahrar bridge was retaken by the protesters.

Awathal said that men had come "wearing civilian clothing and even doctor's robes" and burned protesters' blankets and tents before detaining a number of them, himself included.

Despite this, Awathal - who said he had been camped out for 24 days - said he would not be deterred.

"I've been 24 days here and we will die before we leave."

A 'wake up call' for Iran

A report released jointly by The Intercept and the New York Times on Monday, based on leaked intelligence documents, revealed the extent of Iranian control over Iraqi affairs.

While Iran's wide influence in Iraq has long been an open secret, the report detailed a number of specific cases, including the tapping of a CIA intelligence source network by Iran's secret service.

One leaked document warned that Iran's actions in Iraq, among the country's Sunni Muslim population at least, meant that resentment had built to such an extent that some were "now wishing that not only America, but even Israel, would enter Iraq and save Iraq from Iran’s clutches”.

The source of the leaked documents, an Iraqi, reportedly told the US media outlets to which he anonymously sent the documents that they needed to "let the world know what Iran is doing in my country Iraq”.

(MEE/Alex MacDonald)
A protester wearing Joker make-up waves a flag (MEE/Alex MacDonald)

A number of protesters on Ahrar bridge went as far as suggesting that the protests in Iran were responsible for the pullback by security forces in Iraq, alleging that Iranian forces embedded with Iraqi security had left to deal with the protests at home.

MEE could not verify the veracity of this claim. However, on Saturday, the Iraqi defence minister said in a televised interview that a "third party" had been responsible for the deaths of protesters in Iraq, although he did not elaborate who this might be.

"This is an illegal government because they kill their citizens and they've been quiet about a 'third party' who's been killing their citizens since 1 October," Laith, a protester on Ahrar bridge, t0ld MEE.

He added that the protests in Iran were a "wake-up call" for the government there.

"Yesterday on television I saw that the protesters were carrying both Iraqi and Iranian flags - even the Iranian people are not happy about what their rulers are doing in Iraq."

Names of protesters have been changed for their safety.