Baghdad: Deadly protests in Iraq have exposed a rift within the country’s Shiite political factions benefiting hardliners ready to embrace authoritarianism, experts say.

Many Shiite leaders, particularly in pro-Iran armed groups, believe the anti-government unrest was the product of “foreign conspiracies”, said Renad Mansour, a researcher at the Chatham House think-tank.

Iran itself said the protests were a conspiracy aimed at weakening its ties with neighbouring Iraq, which have grown stronger since the US-led invasion toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.

For Mansour, the protests revealed important fault lines in Iraq, “not just between citizens and elite, but between the different sides” of the Shiite establishment.

Calm has prevailed since Tuesday in Iraq after the country descended into violence last week as protests calling for an end to rampant corruption and chronic unemployment escalated into calls for a complete overhaul of the political system.

More than 100 people were killed, mostly by live fire, and more than 6,000 wounded.

For hardline pro-Iran forces, demonstrators taking to the streets to demand the fall of the government is “an existential threat that needs to be snuffed out”, according to Fanar Haddad, an expert at Singapore University’s Middle East Institute.

‘Saviours of Iraq’

To protect the system, certain factions are willing to turn to repression, Mansour said, including “killing protesters, turning off the internet, (and) intimidating civil society”.

The same intimidation techniques were deployed last summer in Basra, he noted, following a week of social unrest.

That could explain why last week’s protests were muted in the southern oil-rich city near the Iranian border.

“Most people who didn’t go out this year said it was because they were scared,” Mansour said.

In Baghdad though, crushing dissent is “much more challenging”.

The idea an Iranian takeover in Iraq faces resistance “both from the street and from different elements of the state”, Mansour said.

“Whether it’s the PM, president, speaker, or chief justice, they all have an institutional role but they are all quite weak leaders and don’t have de facto power,” he added.

“They may be for the protests and against what’s happening, but the question is to what extent they can push back against it.”