Baghdad, Iraq – Tahrir Square was jubilant as anti-government protesters poured into the occupied roundabout for the daily show of support for the country’s continuing uprising.
Since early October, Iraqis have taken to the streets to demand basic services, economic opportunities, and an end of corruption among the country’s political elite. More than 300 people have been killed and at least 15,000 wounded as a result.
But morale remained high in Tahrir Square on Monday evening as music boomed in the streets, young men danced in groups, and families kept warm with cups of sweet tea and biscuits. They were undeterred by the day’s news: hundreds of leaked Iranian intelligence documents detailing operations inside Iraq.
The New York Times and The Intercept said they verified about 700 pages of reports by Iran‘s Ministry of Intelligence and Security between 2014 and 2015, offering a “detailed portrait of just how aggressively Tehran has worked to embed itself into Iraqi affairs”.
A secret source, who refused to meet the reporters in person, said those involved in the leak wanted to “let the world know what Iran is doing in my country, Iraq”.
According to the Times, the leak details Iran’s “painstaking work” to infiltrate every aspect of Iraq’s political, economic and religious life – while also keeping the country from falling apart. That influence includes breeding Sunni-Muslim fighters, preventing Iraq from descending into sectarian violence, and halting the spin-off of an independent Kurdish region.
But to protesters in Tahrir Square, the news reports merely confirm what Iraqis already knew.
“We’ve known for years that the Iranian government destroyed and killed our people,” said 22-year-old Omar, a medical volunteer working in Tahrir Square.
‘Spread the revolution’
While the protests have largely focused on overhauling the government, Iraq’s deep-seated resentment towards Iranian meddling is also at the heart of the uprising.
Iranian consulates have been attacked and set on fire, and a video in early November showed two Iraqi protesters hitting images of Quds Force leader Qassem Soleimani and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
In Baghdad, a demonstrator painted the Iranian flag on the ground for people to walk on, while the hashtag “Expel Soleimani and [Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei from Iraq” appeared on Twitter.
“From the moment Ayatollah Khamenei stepped foot in Iran in 1979 he wanted to spread the revolution, particularly to Iraq, which is home to Shia Islam’s holiest sites,” Kasra J Aarabi, from the London-based Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, told Al Jazeera.
“Thereafter, Tehran invested in hard and soft means to expand its influence in Iraq, with these efforts accelerating following the fall of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein,” said Aarabi.
During Saddam‘s rule, political dissidents residing in Iran forged strong bonds with Tehran’s ruling elite, nurturing and maintaining them to this day.
“Some of Iraq’s most powerful figures today … were the same people who were recruited by the IRGC [Revolutionary Guard] in the early 1980s to spread the Islamic revolution to Iraq,” said Aarabi.
Last month, Reuters news agency reported that Iran had stepped in to prevent Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s resignation following violent protests, a move that suggested Tehran’s growing influence in Iraq.
“Ask any Iraqi, we know that the Iranians have the influence to pick the prime minister and meddle in religious parties,” said 76-year-old Abu Hayder.
“We know about Qassem Soleimani’s intervention [and] we don’t want it,” said Abu Hayder. “One of the reasons for the protest is to stop Iran from intervening in our affairs. Iran and other foreign powers.”
According to news reports, Iran’s deep roots in Baghdad have “allowed the Americans to return to Iraq with greater legitimacy”. “And groups and individuals who had been fighting against the Americans among the Sunnis are now wishing that not only America, but even Israel, would enter Iraq and save Iraq from Iran’s clutches.”
But most protesters in Baghdad remain sceptical of all foreign intervention, including an American one.
“For us, America and Europe don’t think about us, they care only about their interests,” said 69-year-old teacher Sabri.
“Especially the US, they’re the reason this is happening to us,” added Sabri’s friend Abu Hayder in reference to the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq and its failed policies.
Others, such as medical volunteer Omar, say the only way Iraqis could accept American meddling was if they returned to “clean up the mess they made”.
Military and intelligence
The documents outline Iran’s involvement in Iraq’s intelligence and military during 2014-15 when Iran-backed militias were actively involved in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS).
The cables connect senior Iraqi officials such as former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to Tehran. The former leader took to Facebook to deny allegations that he ever held a meeting with an Iranian agent.
“There was no such meeting on his schedule and it is unreasonable that a figure like the prime minister would meet and coordinate with a person with an obscure and unknown rank. It is a stupid and suspicious claim,” Abadi said.
Referring to one of the cables, The New York Times said it was “obvious” that Iran controlled the Shia militias operating in Iraq. During the protests, hundreds of Iraqis were killed by security forces largely believed to be Iranian-led armed groups.
“Everyone at the protests knows that the Iraqi forces are linked to Iran,” said 30-year-old local journalist Saif Ali. “That’s also why we’re here protesting against this.”
But while the cables are likely to galvanise protesters both in Iran and Iraq, they will not deter Tehran’s interference in its neighbouring nation.
“The cables confirm already what the protesters in Iran and Iraq both knew,” Ali added. “Iran has been committing swathes of its regime resource to impose a command-and-control relationship on Baghdad.”