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What's behind the Iraq protests?

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Is the United States behind the protests in southern Iraq? Well, the answer to that question is both yes and no, reported Al Jazeera (Qatar).

Yes, because the US led the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, which destroyed much of the infrastructure the country needed to remain a modern society.

No, because before the US, former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein punished the south's residents by not building infrastructure after they rose up against him during the 1990-1991 Gulf War.

But there was another game afoot here that did allegedly involve the US.

The protests in the south, which kicked off in Basra almost two weeks ago, were sparked when Iran stopped supplying electricity to that region after it said it was owed $1.5bn in unpaid bills.

The protesters didn't blame Iran but pointed to what they called an inept and corrupt Iraqi government. However, in recent days Al Jazeera has been told, off the record, that the US put pressure on Iraq not to pay the Iranians.

Following its withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), known colloquially as the Iran nuclear deal, in May, the US is currently preparing new sanctions against Tehran - and it's rallying support for those measures from allies.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Iraqi politician Raheem al-Darajji said he thinks the US is using Iraq.

"I personally believe that there is some sort of pressure being orchestrated by the US government on the authorities in Iraq not to pay Iran for electricity," he said.

When pressed on why he thought the US may be doing this, he replied that "it seems there is an unannounced proxy war carried out by the US against Iran and the US administration clearly wants the Iraqi government to be part of it".

Iraq, however, shares a huge border with Iran and has enjoyed close ties to it since the US-led invasion.

Putting a strain on that relationship by withholding money for bills is seen as dangerous by political observers.

"From my conversations, I think the US has applied pressure on Iraq to withhold Iranian money, but there are other factors at play, including a weak government, unable to stand up to pressure," political analyst Ahmed Rushdi told Al Jazeera.

For the residents of Basra, international political intrigue matters little.

Through the time of Saddam, the US and now Iraqi democracy, they have seen little change in their lives over the decades and have now taken to the streets to express their anger.

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The Islamic State is making a comeback in Iraq argues the Washington Post, a claim which the United States has found particularly sensitive given that Prime Minister Abadi declared victory over IS last December, reported The Region (Turkey).

"We are proud to work alongside these highly professional and brave forces," the Department of Defense said in a press release in reference to a joint operation between Kurdish Peshmerga and the Iraqi military, "who have sacrificed so much in this fight", the statement continued.

The United States doesn't deny that IS operations continue in certain areas, but they renounce any allegations that IS is successfully regrouping.

"We are certainly aware that as ISIS was pushed out of these areas and lost their ability to govern, they would return to some of their traditional terrorist tactics and we certainly see that in some localized areas," Gen Joseph Votel, the head of the U.S Central Command said on Thursday, but overall the General denied that IS was making a comeback in Iraq.

With the Trump Administration hoping to pull out of Syria soon, in spite of recommendations by various senators and the Pentagon to stay for stabilization efforts, an IS resurgence in Iraq could look damaging for the superpower and the International Coalition against IS it leads.

It is apparent that the United States has distributed various press releases to counter the claim, but the claim continues to grow. The Soufan centre, a non-partisan foreign policy strategy centre, recently argued that IS is regrouping by returning to its roots.

"To get back to its heyday of 2014, the Islamic State first needs to get back to 2013, a year in which the terrorist group concluded one very successful campaign to free thousands of its detained members from Iraqi jails, and started another campaign to assassinate and intimidate Iraqi security personnel, particularly local police officers," the report released by the Soufan centre says, making the point that IS's recent decision to the high-profile assassination of 6 security personnel in June.

"A weakened Islamic State is now trying to recreate that past. Targeted attacks on police and government officials have risen in several provinces as the group has stopped its military collapse and refocused on what is possible for the group now," the report concluded.

There have also been growing reports of resurgent violence in the triangle stretching between Diyala, Kirkuk and Salahuddin. In particular, highway robberies are on the rise, with Armed IS fighters pretending to be security forces and manning fake checkpoints. The six security personnel who were first held hostage before they were killed were captured by IS in one of these fake checkpoints.

They released a video, which according to the Washington Post, has had the effect of making travellers nervous, opting instead to use planes instead of driving on the highway.

"The terrorists are attacking from the empty desert and the mountains where there are still small cells.", Imad Mahmoud a member of the Diyala provincial council told the Washington Post, "They are not large in number but they are launching surprise, fast attacks and they have people inside the towns who are helping them."

In January, Foreign Policy reported that an unreleased analysis produced by the United Nations for the United States government warned of five areas where extremism could re-emerge. The Diyala, Kirkuk, and Salahuddin triangle is notably not one of those areas, but is very nearby.

However, West Point Military academy released a report on August 2017 predicting Diyala as a hotspot. "What observers are seeing in Diyala is a full-fledged Islamic State-led insurgency," the report bluntly said.

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Tags: iran, Iraq, Basra
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