Protesters burnt down an Iranian consulate in southern Iraq on Wednesday night in the latest evidence of popular anger over Tehran’s alleged interference in Iraqi life.
The diplomatic building in the city of Najaf is the second Iranian consulate that has been targeted during weeks of anti-government demonstrations. Iran has trained Iraqi Shia paramilitary groups and many protesters accuse Iraq’s government of loyalty to Tehran.
Hundreds of protesters and security personnel have been killed in the violence since October. Neither a brutal crackdown by Iraqi security forces nor promises from Iraq’s leaders to curb corruption and change electoral laws has succeeded in quelling the unrest.
Most of the protesters come from Iraq’s Shia majority and analysts say the demonstrations’ anti-Iranian message has taken Tehran’s leaders by surprise.
“[Iran] underestimated this group of protesters,” said Randa Slim of the Washington-based Middle East Institute. But Tehran, which is thought to be directly supporting the Iraqi government’s crackdown, was unlikely to change its approach, Ms Slim said. “The only way forward for them is to double down on repression”.
With a long shared border and majority Shia Muslim populations, Iraq and Iran have become commercially and culturally intertwined since the 2003 US-led invasion, which toppled Iraq’s Sunni Muslim dictator Saddam Hussein.
Iran’s consulates, providing services to Iranians from business people to religious pilgrims, have become a lightning rod for public frustration over the Islamic Republic’s growing role in Iraq. Tehran’s diplomatic outpost in Basra was torched during demonstrations in September 2018 and protesters attacked Iran’s consulate in Karbala earlier this month. Iran also has a diplomatic outpost in the Iraqi Kurdish capital Erbil.
Nobody was killed in the Najaf blaze as Iranian diplomats were evacuated before the fire was started, according to local press reports. Violence then escalated in southern Iraq on Thursday morning with 16 people reportedly killed in clashes between security forces and protesters in Nasiriyah province.
Iraq’s foreign affairs ministry immediately condemned the arson. “We believe that its purpose is clear; to harm the historical relations between Iraq and Iran,” it said in a statement.
Pro-Iran Iraqi militia leaders sought to frame the Najaf consulate attack as an affront to Iraq’s highest Shia religious leader, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
“Anyone who thinks they can touch any bit of the Eminence Sistani is delusional,” Qais al-Khazali, the leader of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, one of Iraq’s most feared Shia militias, said on Twitter. “We are in the square and ready (and who ever decides to face us we welcome them).”
The protesters have generally had backing from Iraq’s Ayatollah. His representatives have used Friday sermons to voice support for the demonstrations and to call on the government to listen to their demands. The Ayatollah, who is seen as independent from Iran, rarely makes political interventions but there have long been disagreements and competition between the two countries’ Shia religious establishments.
The Iraqi military’s Joint Operations Command said on Thursday that “crisis cells” would be set up to co-ordinate the state’s security response.
Additional reporting by Asmaa al-Omar