Iraqi Protesters Storm the American Embassy in Baghdad — But There’s More to the Story

January 3, 2020

Tens of thousands of people in Iraq are demonstrating against the government there, the United States, and Iran. York University's Thabit Abdullah explains that at the heart of the story is Iraq torn asunder by the United States.

Tens of thousands of people in Iraq are demonstrating against the government there, the United States, and Iran. York University's Thabit Abdullah explains that at the heart of the story is Iraq torn asunder by the United States.


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Story Transcript

MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner. Good to have you all with us. And Happy New Year, everybody.

Now, we’ve all seen the news and footage of Iraqi protesters storming the American embassy in Baghdad. What do we know from our government and mainstream media? Well, we know that some Iraqi militia attacked a military base, killing a U.S. contractor and a number of Iraqi soldiers. Then in retaliation, the United States bombed the militia sites in Iraq and Syria. And that was followed by the storming of the U.S. embassy compound by protesters and militias. The U.S. government and our major media outlets are framing this as a sectarian pro-Iranian Shiite attack. That may be true in some cases, but what does it really mean? All this is occurring in the midst of massive antigovernment, anti-U.S., and anti-Iranian demonstrations that have shaken Iraq, leading to over 500 people killed and 25,000 wounded. What really happened last week? And what is our media missing?

We’re now joined by Dr. Thabit Abdullah, who’s chair of the history department at York University in Toronto. As well, Thabit was a leader of the opposition activists in Iraq against Saddam Hussein; fled the country. And while opposing Saddam, he also opposed the U.S. war in Iraq and has stayed part of the struggles his whole life. At the moment, Thabit Abdullah and I are working on a project for Real News that you’ll see next week that tells the story the media here are not telling us about the leaders, and from the voices of leaders of those demonstrations that I just spoke about. And he joins us now to parse us through the madness of the headlines and what’s really happening with the attack on the U.S. embassy. And Thabit, welcome. Good to have you with us here on The Real News.

THABIT ABDULLAH: Thank you very much. Good to see you, Marc.

MARC STEINER: Good to see you too. So let me begin with this, just to start here. This is Donald Trump in response to the attack on the embassy and the U.S. attacking the militia sites.

DONALD TRUMP: Well, I think it’s been handled very well. The Marines came in, we had some great warriors come in and do a fantastic job. As you know, this will not be a Benghazi. Benghazi should never have happened. I also want to thank the Iraqi government, they really stepped up.

MARC STEINER: So Thabit, that was the headline that we saw. And we’ve seen people storming. And this is being kind of framed as this Shiite militia attack on the U.S. embassy. Talk to us about what you think is missing.

THABIT ABDULLAH: What’s missing is the whole discussion of the incredible uprising that started in Iraq on the 1st of October. This is a mass popular uprising. You alluded to it when you mentioned that 500 have been killed; 25,000 have been wounded. That’s massive. And it has been going on daily, shaken the establishment in Iraq to its core. And these attacks must be seen in that light. Actually, the pro-Iranian militias have launched several attacks for the past two months against U.S. bases. I believe that there’ve been at least 11 attacks in the past two months. All of which is really designed to try and export the internal crisis. This is an age old tactic, of course, to export the internal crisis of the regime in Iraq to a broader conflict between Iran and the United States.

One of the things that the protesters have been truly angered by is the fact that Iraq has lost its sovereignty and has become an arena for Iranian-American conflict. And this is yet another example of this. The storming of the U.S. embassy has had the effect of energizing and even increasing the anger in the Iraqi street, because it’s yet another demonstration of how the country has become a simple arena. What the protesters often say is that Iran and the and the U.S. are fighting and spilling the Iraqi blood. And this is something that is really missing in the whole discussion of what’s been happening.

MARC STEINER: So if you look at this montage of what the U.S. media has been saying, I’m going to come back and talk about this in context, what you were just saying.

SPEAKER: It was a sudden and brazen attack. Thousands of Iranian backed demonstrators chanting, “Death to America” as they stormed the U.S. embassy in Iraq.

SPEAKER 2: This is in retaliation for that missile strike on five locations of the militia. They are backed by the Iranians, although affiliate with Iraq.

SPEAKER 3: The mob setting fires, scaling the walls, breaking through the outer barricades. Protesters smashing doors and windows, U.S. military choppers overhead firing flares to protect Americans on the ground.

SPEAKER 4: Videos show the protesters chanting “God is great, America is the greatest devil” and “down with the USA.” And here is the bigger picture: Iran and the U.S. are vying for influence in Iraq, a country that is fractured and inured to bloodshed nearly 17 years after the U.S. invasion.

SPEAKER 5: A lot of analysts expect that now Iran will probably increase efforts on the ground through protest and other things to try to push the U.S. completely out of Iraq.

MARC STEINER: So in seeing what they were saying, Thabit, I mean it seems to me that one of the things that… Even if you do not accept the simple narrative, this was a Shiite attack on the Americans and sectarian warfare. The reality is that there must also be this internal conflict going on inside of Iraq between some of those militias, who are also against the demonstrators, and also there are opposition to the Americans, that they’re trying to push the Iraqi government to make the Americans leave. So how does that fit into all of this? I mean, it sounds a great deal more complex than we give reason to.

THABIT ABDULLAH: Look, on the 1st of October as a result of the combination of many years of protest… And I’m glad you mentioned in your opening remarks that we are preparing a larger program on this extremely important uprising. It’s very important, not only for Iraq or not only for the Middle East, but in terms of a new global phenomenon of popular uprisings that seem to emphasize a protest against corruption, a protest against the incredible gap between the rich and the poor. In Iraq this flared up on the 1st of October, it became intensified even more than the 25th of October. And basically, the protestors have demanded four things that they’ve emphasized. First, an end to corruption. And by this they have pointed to a demand for the resignation of the government and more of transparent oversight. Secondly, more democratic reforms. And here, they have called for a revision of the electoral process to make it much more democratic.

Thirdly, they have emphasized the issue of patriotism, as opposed to any kind of sectarian or quota based systems. And also, as part and parcel of their emphasis on patriotism, they have raised the banner of the importance of sovereignty, especially regarding the presence of both Iran and the U.S. Now, the protesters have tended to emphasize more of the Iranian presence, because it’s more direct. The Iranian presence is felt much more on the street in the form of militias that have attacked the protesters. In the form of the flooding of Iraqi markets with Iranian goods at the expense of national produce. But the protesters have not lost sight of the importance of sovereignty in general. Fourthly, they have emphasized the importance of building what they call a ‘civil state’, which means, basically, a separation of religion from politics, equality of all citizens of Iraq regardless of their religion or their political affiliation. And fourthly, a commitment to social justice, which actually means the redistribution of wealth.

So this uprising, again, which began on the 1st of October, has been all encompassing, incredibly powerful. It has achieved already a lot of the demands. They’ve succeeded in forcing the prime minister to resign, they’ve succeeded in getting the electoral commission to resign and to reestablish a new commission, they are in the process now of negotiating for an interim government. Now as this is going on, the Iranians have especially felt threatened because so much of the anger of the demonstrations has been directed toward Iran. As I said, Iran has made itself felt in this, in Iraq through the use of really horrific militias. There are three, especially, that that were implicated in the storming of the U.S. embassy that have … One could say that really they are representatives of the Iranian regime in Iraq. And because of this, Iran, I think, is really itching for some sort of a conflict with the United States on Iraqi territory, as a way to create a broader crisis and would then lead to the end of these protests.

What I want to emphasize here is that the protests are in no way sectarian based. The protesters have used only the Iraqi flag, no sectarian symbols. Their primary slogan has been, “We want a country” as we shall see in the program that you and I are working on. One of the activists says, “Nobody is saying we want a Shiite country or a Sunni country.” They say, “We want a country for all Iraqis.” And this has really shaken the regime and the Iranian backed groups in Iraq. To be honest with you, I think that this is an opportunity for the West. The United States record in Iraq or in the Middle East has not been really glorious one. This is yet another chance that the West and the United States have to play a positive role.

MARC STEINER: So coming back for a moment, before we conclude, just very quickly, to the attack on the embassy, the militias that are involved in this attack. But I mean, as you said though, the root of the crisis in Iraq is the American invasion of Iraq, that you and I have covered a lot over the last two decades. And that is the root. And the demonstrators, what I’ve seen, all this stuff we’ve been doing, are equally upset with United States as they are Iran.

THABIT ABDULLAH: Yeah, absolutely.

MARC STEINER: So what does this particular attack mean in that context?

THABIT ABDULLAH: Look, the roots of the current crisis in Iraq are quite deep. They go back to 40 years of fascist rule, to three of the most destructive wars of the 21st century, including a horrific eight year war with Iran, 13 years of the worst and most severe sanctions ever placed on any country. And then of course, what tops it all off is the 2003 American invasion and complete destruction of institutions of the Iraqi state, without any sort of a meaningful commitment to build something in its stead. Basically, the Americans came in, they destroyed the country, both physically and in terms of institutions, and then basically just left it to rot. It left the situation open for the proliferation of gangs, of all kinds of criminal groups, and of course, of the interference of regional countries like Iran, and Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.

But Iran has been the most forceful in entering Iraq. The various militias that have emerged were essentially organized criminal groups in the absence of any kind of state. So yes, the United States bears an enormous responsibility to what is happening there. And as I said, the demonstrations now, the demonstrators have repeatedly stated that they don’t want either Iran or any other foreign power to interfere in internal Iraqi affairs.

There was one slogan that was raised which stated that Iran and the U.S. are two sides of the same coin. But nevertheless, it is Iranian based militias that are on the ground killing people right now. It is Iranian companies that have bankrupted Iraqi factories. So here is an opportunity for the West to try and play a role in which they will be seen in a positive light. It will be difficult. The last thing that anybody in Iraq wants is American troops pouring in or any more bombings. But at least in terms of moral support, in terms of putting pressure on Iran internationally to withdraw it’s influenced from Iraq. If the West can play this role, I think it can regain a little bit of its credibility in the region.

MARC STEINER: Well, Thabit Abdullah, I do appreciate you taking the time with us here on The Real News today, and look forward to seeing you many more times in our work together here.

THABIT ABDULLAH: It’s my pleasure Marc, it’s my pleasure.

MARC STEINER: It’s my pleasure. I think that all of our viewers here can see from the work we’ve been doing on how the U.S. is trying to strangle Iran on the one hand, and the contradictions inside of Iraq with Iran pouring in and the U.S. using that as maybe a possible theater of war, that these things are very serious and very complex. And it’s the complexity here that we try to tackle on The Real News, not just the simple news headlines. So once again, Thabit Abdullah, thank you so much for joining us. Always great to have you.

THABIT ABDULLAH: You’re welcome.

MARC STEINER: And I look to seeing what you all think about what we’ve been producing. And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you so much for watching. Take care.