NAJAF, Iraq — For weeks, Iraq's Shiite heartland has turned against the central government in open revolt against a system it helped sustain — going from reliable backers of Baghdad's ruling elite to a potentially powerful voice of opposition.
The mostly Shiite provinces, which stretch across southern Iraq, voted Shiite politicians into power, stood behind leaders when they faced a Sunni-led insurgency and sent thousands of men to battle the Islamic State.
But now Iraqi Shiites, fed up with poverty, angered by corruption and frustrated by their sacrifices, are battling the system they helped build.
Anti-government demonstrators have seized squares and bridges, blocked roads and burned or ransacked government buildings including diplomatic missions belonging to Shiite power broker Iran, which has close ties to Iraq’s leadership.
In the southern cities of Najaf and Nasiriyah, security forces killed scores of demonstrators in a single day last month — part of the unrest that has claimed more than 500 lives since October and forced the prime minister to resign.
It’s a show of anger that, if maintained, could upend a system in place since the U.S. invasion in 2003 and possibly remake the political future of Iraq, whose minority Sunni Arabs and Kurds have been largely left on the sidelines.
“For 16 years, these Shiite parties have been in power and they haven’t provided us with anything,” said 30-year-old Hasanain al-Khasibi, an activist from Basra, Iraq’s southern oil hub.
Demonstrators have called for changes, from a rewrite of the election law to abolishing political parties and eradicating corruption. The movement’s chief slogan — “We want a homeland!” — has underscored their deep sense of alienation.
But the Iraqi state is lashing back with a show of force of its own.
Iraq’s Supreme Human Rights Commission says more than 500 people have died in the clashes. In recent weeks, at least a half-dozen activists have been targeted for assassination by masked gunmen and in crude bomb attacks in the capital, Baghdad, and other cities in the south.
'They are thieves'
The protests have been fueled by an overriding refrain: money, influence and opportunity remain in the hands of a select few.
Protesters say that Iran-backed political officials and commanders, including the Shiite militias that fought the Islamic State, have grown rich off the power-sharing scheme that underpins Iraq’s political order and divides government spoils among ruling parties.
The pact treats government ministries like fiefdoms, they say, while doing little for ordinary Iraqis.
“This is why we are protesting against the same Shiite parties we voted for,” said the Basra activist Khasibi. “It’s because they are thieves.”
Across Iraq’s southern provinces — from the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala to the impoverished marshlands in Dhi Qar and Maysan, which borders Iran — students, residents, clerics, tribal leaders and even local officials conveyed similar sentiments of betrayal and dismay.
After the U.S. invasion, Iraqi Shiites who had been repressed under Hussein’s regime reemerged to build a new state. They claimed legitimacy through elections and mobilized under threats from Sunni insurgents at the urging of their spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Sistani.
But as public anger simmered through the years, over woes from power cuts to joblessness to corruption and a lack of clean water, political leaders in Baghdad often ignored the region’s plight — even as they counted on the Shiite provinces for backing.
“The south has sacrificed a lot — first under Saddam Hussein, then al-Qaeda, then the Islamic State,” Nassif Jassim al-Khatabi, the provincial governor of Karbala, said in an interview at his office.
Khatabi and his city, about 70 miles south of Baghdad, have outsize influence in shaping Shiite views. Karbala is home to the shrine of Imam Hussein, one of the most revered figures in Shiite Islam.
“But now they have reached a point where they are saying: ‘How long will we have to sacrifice while the government neglects us?’ ” Khatabi said. He said he was sympathetic to the protesters’ demands.
Last month, protesters in Karbala stormed the local Iranian Consulate, a large, fortresslike building with high walls and concrete barriers, and hoisted the Iraqi flag.
Farther south, in Najaf, the center of Shiite learning and home to the shrine of Imam Ali, demonstrators torched the Iranian Consulate last month, chanting “Iran, out, out!” as they ransacked the building.
“We are very angry with Iran,” said Yasser Malik, 28, a dentist and civil society activist in Najaf. “They are the driving force behind the misery we are suffering.”
Iran, a Shiite theocracy, has steadily expanded its influence in Iraq, nurturing political and religious allies, funding local media outlets and flooding Iraqi markets with cheap Iranian imports.
'State within a state'
The most potent symbol of Iran’s authority is the array of powerful Shiite militias funded and equipped by Tehran.
The groups belong to the Popular Mobilization Forces, or Hashd al-Shaabi, a coalition whose members helped vanquish the Islamic State. Now these forces run their own ministry, hold seats in parliament and have commandeered key sectors of the economy.
Protesters say they believe Iran-backed militias — the Badr Organization, Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kata’ib Hezbollah, among others — have helped security forces crack down on activists.
“These militias and their allies, they created a state within a state,” said Jawad al-Khoei, a cleric based in Najaf. “They took advantage of the absence of real authority and used it for their own benefit.”
Khoei, who says he supports the protesters’ quest for reform, is close to Sistani and other clerics who promote the quietist school of Shiite Islam, which advocates a hands-off approach to the state. This tradition stands in stark contrast to Iran’s leaders, who believe in clerical rule.
Senior clerics in Najaf “have been saying for a long time that the situation will explode,” Khoei said in his office overlooking the gold-domed Imam Ali shrine.
The militias’ entrance into Iraq’s economy has stoked particular ire. Merchants and others often share unconfirmed stories of armed groups demanding bribes or shares of profits — and issuing death threats for those who refuse.
In a demonstration of the Shiite militias’ power, Iraq’s minister of construction and housing transferred ownership of the state contracting firm, al-
Mutasim, to the Popular Mobilization Forces ministry late last year. The company is responsible for such major infrastructure projects as highway and bridge construction in Najaf and Nasiriyah.
“The Iran-backed militias are controlling the entire economy here,” said 50-year-old Raheem Mohammed, a tribal leader in Maysan.
“They control the border crossings with Iran, they control the parking lots and they seized a lot of land that belonged to the government and sold it” for profit, he said. “No one can get a job or contract unless he is affiliated with them.”
Loay al-Yassiri, the provincial governor, conceded that widespread corruption had spurred demonstrations. In a particularly high-profile case, Iraq’s Commission of Integrity, a government-linked investigative body, subpoenaed several senior officials in Najaf for allegedly facilitating a fraudulent contract to build a new airport. Among those referred to court was an adviser to the governor, the commission said last month.
“Everyone is participating in” corruption, Yassiri said in his office in Najaf as he nervously thumbed a string of prayer beads. “And in Iraq, it has become a phenomenon.”
“Of course, the people didn’t go out into the streets for nothing,” he said. “The system is bad.”