Protesters burnt tyres as they held huge rallies demanding a complete overhaul of the political system AHMAD AL-RUBAYE, AFP
As protests peaked, Sadr called for the government he helped form to resign.The Hashed took the opposite position, saying it was ready to crush the "conspiracy" aiming to bring down the government.Since then state institutions have been paralysed by division, effectively preventing concrete responses to protester demands for jobs, services and ending corruption.Caught in the middle, Abdel Mahdi is "even weaker and more vulnerable to pressure from the largest political blocs," said Maria Fantappie, an International Crisis Group Iraq analyst.This could favour Tehran, she said, as "the prime minister will be increasingly dependent on Iran's ally Fatah, which has stood by his side during the crisis".Polarisation is complicating the premier's pursuit of "a foreign policy aimed at insulating the country from the unfolding US-Iran competition," Fantappie said.But in a crisis-ridden and increasingly fractured region, a country like Iraq -- which attempts to maintain relations with all, from Iran to the United States, Saudi Arabia to Syria -- is a major asset for all.Neither Washington nor Tehran "would like to see the situation spin out of control," Fantappie said.A stable Iraq is vital for Iran.
Stifled by US sanctions, Tehran is committed to maintaining its six billion euro ($6.6 billion) annual exports to Iraq.Likewise Washington needs Iraq to contain the danger of a resurgent Islamic State group, and to keep Iran's regional influence in check.- 'Pandora's box' -The danger now, Fantappie said, is that some in the US administration interpret anti-Iran slogans by protesters as evidence of mounting anti-Iranian sentiment overall.
The recent wave of protests was the deadliest in Iraq since the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein AHMAD AL-RUBAYE, AFP
US officials who see Abdel Mahdi as indecisive and powerless may even push to replace him in light of the demonstrations, she said.But this "could be like opening a Pandora's box, given a stagnating political system, mounting popular frustrations and the perennial difficulty of forming a government" in a country caught between rival powers.The shifts in Iraq's political arena go beyond the pro-US and pro-Iran camps -- other factions have also made moves since the start of the month.Firebrand Sadr maintains the ability to paralyse the country with sit-ins -- as he has done in the past.Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's highest Shiite spiritual leader, said in his sermon Friday that he "had no interest in any party in power" and only defended "the interests of the people".Even as calm appears to have returned to Iraq, the protests may yet be rekindled, particularly if public anger grows as videos showing last week's crackdown continue to circulate online.