When massive protests in Basra turned violent on Sept. 4, several pro-Iran parties in Iraq accused the United States of being behind the violence.
Iranian Mehr News Agency accused Iraqi activists linked to the US Consulate in Basra of rioting, vandalizing property and setting fire to the Iranian Consulate in Basra Sept. 8. The news agency claimed it had exposed an “American network targeting the position of Iran and seeking to divide the Middle East.”
Following these accusations, the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) announced Sept. 8 that it would work to preserve security in Basra and other Iraqi cities. The PMU also stated it would stand up to those who vandalize property, after the arrest of dozens of activists who took part in the demonstrations.
Iraqi activists close to pro-Iran Shiite militias began to use the Facebook hashtag #Expel-the-US-consul-in-Basra. According to a Sept. 9 statement from Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of the PMU, “The US Consulate is involved in creating crises in the province, and the PMU will present evidence of its disruptive role.”
The consulate responded Sept. 18, stating that “the fabricated news circulating in the media, about colluding with young people in Basra to create chaos in the city, is totally inaccurate, as well as the rumors about the US consul general in Basra, Timmy Davis, and those who had contacts with the consulate.”
The statement continued, “It is a shame to use these pictures by unscrupulous people in order to harm those public figures and mislead the public opinion.”
Dozens of activists were arrested, according to Ali al-Bayati, spokesman for the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights in Baghdad. “The number of protesters detained in Basra against the backdrop of protests reached 141 people, some of whom have been released,” he told Al-Monitor. "The commission seeks to communicate with the rest [of those arrested] and with the official authorities to determine their fate.”
Bayati said, “The field reports of the commission’s office in Basra assert how erroneous it is to associate all the protests and vandalism with civil right activists linked to consulates or embassies of foreign countries.”
He continued, “Behind the chaos and acts of vandalism, we can mainly find political parties, mafia and smuggling gangs, whose interests conflict with the legal procedures that the government of Basra wants to impose.”
Bayati does not approve of the knee-jerk accusations directed at activists that they are fueling the demonstrations.
In addition to the efforts of the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights to release the arrested demonstrators, Majida al-Tamimi, a member of parliament belonging to the Sairoon Alliance, told Al-Monitor that the alliance had called upon the security authorities, via media outlets and official channels, "to stop arresting demonstrators in Basra."
Basra-born journalist Fakher al-Hamidawi, who covered the protests for local media, told Al-Monitor that "things seriously escalated when security forces used live bullets and tear gas, leaving over 15 people dead and dozens wounded, and made arrests following home raids."
Hamidawi believes the demonstrators are not to blame for the violence and that “slippery groups infiltrated the protests and took advantage of the situation to vandalize state institutions, political parties’ headquarters and national hospitals.”
Hamidawi’s claims matched those of an activist who wished to remain anonymous. The activist participated in the Basra demonstrations and also attended a technical course organized by the US Consulate in Basra at the beginning of 2018. He told Al-Monitor, “Parties in power in Basra are uncomfortable with any communication between the Iraqi youth and the US Consulate, and they made accusations on these grounds.”
A spokesman for Asaib Ahl al-Haq, a faction of the PMU, dismissed these allegations. “The PMU has evidence of a suspicious role played by foreign entities, which are recruiting some young people under the banner of civil society organizations," he said. "[These entities are] pushing them to commit crimes of arson and vandalism in government institutions and party offices, including the official PMU headquarters, while deliberately not damaging the offices of some parties so they would be accused of standing behind the arson attacks.”
Walid al-Tai, an activist close to Asaib Ahl al-Haq in Basra, supported this position. “The US Consulate in Basra organized systematic courses to help young people infiltrate civil society organizations" to target the PMU and Iran in media and society, he said. He pointed out that “the US Consulate did not suffer any damage” during the protests.
Ali Jaber, a legal expert and former judge, told Al-Monitor, “Arrests in Basra violate the law and international pacts, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights."
But Brig. Gen. Saad Maan, a spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, told Al-Monitor, “The Ministry of Interior has confessions from agents who committed the arson and vandalism attacks and used weapons in the demonstrations. Only these agents were arrested, and all innocent detainees will be freed once the investigation is complete.”
All official and unofficial parties agree that protests broke out in Basra due to poor social and economic conditions, but Iraqi political parties close to Iran, including the PMU-affiliated parties, are using conspiracy theories against the protesters as a pretext to arrest them and thus stop the protests from expanding.