US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Saturday demonstrations in Iraq are partly against Iran’s involvement in the country and called the protests “a telltale sign.”
“People [are] coming out across Iraq protesting under any number of issues, whether it’s a job opportunity, economic pressures, but also saying we want Iran out of our country. And so that's a telltale sign,” said Esper at a gathering of top US defense and military officials in Simi Valley, California.
Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps - Quds Force, reportedly visited the capital city of Baghdad twice last month ‘to advise,’ according to sources.
David Schenker, the top US diplomat for the Middle East, said on Friday that Soleimani’s presence in Baghdad is “unorthodox.”
“It is incredibly problematic and it is a huge violation of Iraqi sovereignty,” said Schenker.
Anti-government protesters set fire to the Iranian consulate building in southern Iraq three times last week and removed the Iranian flag from the building, replacing it with an Iraqi one.
Esper described the Iranian regime as being “under stress” and said that the US was “prepared for any contingency.”
At least 400 people have been killed in Iraq since October 1, when thousands took to the streets in mass protests in Baghdad and the predominantly Shi’a south. The protesters accuse the government of being corrupt and decry growing Iranian influence in Iraqi state affairs.
Esper acknowledged that he was worried by instability in Iraq and stressed the US does not want the country to collapse.
“What we don’t want is [Iraq] to collapse. They’ve been good partners of ours and we need to continue to support them in the way we do currently,” said Esper.
Iraq’s parliament approved the resignation of Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi on December 1, amid ongoing violence and anti-government demonstrations in the capital. Lawmaker Mohamed al-Daraji said that parliament faced a “black hole in the constitution” that didn’t clearly set out how members of parliament should deal with a premier’s resignation.