Iranian consulate in Iraq torched as anti-Tehran protests intensify

Almost 400 killed by Iraqi security forces and unknown gunmen since protests began last month


Protesters have burnt down an Iranian consulate in southern Iraq in the latest evidence of popular anger over Tehran’s alleged interference in Iraqi life.

The diplomatic building attacked on Wednesday night in the city of Najaf is the second Iranian consulate that has been targeted during weeks of anti-government demonstrations.

Many protesters, frustrated by corruption, poor public services and low living standards, have attacked Iranian targets because of Tehran’s backing for the Iraqi government.

Almost 400 people have now been killed by Iraqi security forces and unknown gunmen since the protests began in October. Neither the crackdown nor promises from Iraq’s leaders to curb corruption and change electoral laws have succeeded in quelling the unrest.

Most protesters come from Iraq’s Shia majority and analysts say their anti-Iranian message has taken Tehran’s Shia 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 backing 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 that toppled Iraq’s Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein.

Iran’s consulates, providing services to their countrymen 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 Irbil.

‘War zone’

Nobody was killed in the Najaf blaze as Iranian diplomats were evacuated before the fire was started, according to local press reports. But violence then escalated on Thursday morning in Nasiriyah, about 200km south-east of Najaf, with 25 people killed in clashes with security forces, according to Amnesty International.

“The scenes from Nasiriyah this morning more closely resemble a war zone than city streets and bridges,” said Amnesty International’s Lynn Maalouf.

Iraq’s foreign affairs ministry immediately condemned the arson in Najaf. “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 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 Ayatollah Sistani. 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. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019