Iraqis angered by Iran's influence in their country are increasingly agitated by the presence of Hizbullah power-broker Muhammad Kawtharani, widely perceived as a replacement for slain Iranian general Qassem Soleimani.
A dual citizen of Lebanon and Iraq, Kawtharani emerged as Iran's point man in Iraq after Soleimani, who had commanded the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force (IRGC-QF), was killed in January.
The transition took place amid general upheaval and protests that began in October, during which thousands took to the streets to denounce Iran's interference in Iraq, government corruption and the state of the country.
The US on April 19th announced a $10 million cash reward in return for "any information on Kawtharani's movements, networks and partners".
Iraqi activists recently circulated photos online showing Kawtharani with Shibel al-Zaidi, leader of the Iran-backed Imam Ali Brigades militia, in the courtyard of a house in Baghdad's al-Jadriya neighbourhood.
They declared Kawtharani's presence in their country as unwelcome and denounced his engagement with militia leaders.
Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhemi has banned the entry of any non-Iraqi into the country without an official visa, according to an Iraqi government official who asked to remain anonymous.
"This applies to Kawtharani and others who were entering Iraq [without a visa]," the official told Diyaruna.
Kawtharani's activities in Iraq involve co-ordinating with the IRGC and its proxy militias on support for the Syrian regime. He also is involved in financial activities, all of which the government wants to stop, the official said.
Kadhemi's government has inherited "a very heavy legacy", the official said, and now seeks to dismantle Iran-backed militias with the support of the Iraqi people, who have rejected Iran's interference in their country.
'Offensive to Iraqis'
Many Iraqis question the purpose of Kawtharani's visits to Iraq, and believe his actions are "definitely not in the interest of Iraq or the Iraqi people but rather serve Iran", said political activist and al-Muwatana party head Ghaith al-Tamimi.
Ali al-Saadi, a member of the Iraqi Civil Movement who is involved in co-ordinating protests in Baghdad's Tahrir Square, told Diyaruna that Kawtharani’s presence in Iraq "is no longer acceptable".
"There is no explanation for it other than that [Kawtharani] works to recruit youth to fight in Syria, steal money from Iraq, engage in illegal activities in the country or threaten the US-led international coalition forces," he said.
All these actions bring nothing but instability and ruin, he added, noting that Kawtharani should not remain in Iraq.
Kawtharani's presence in Baghdad and his engagement with politicians is "offensive to Iraqis", as he is acting with Iran's support to violate Iraq's sovereignty, said a Basra activist who asked to remain anonymous.
The activist accused Kawtharani of playing a role in suppressing protests that took place while the government of former Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi was in power, as he had been overseeing Iran-backed militias in place of Soleimani.
Increased political engagement
Iraqis are taking a keen interest in Kawtharani's presence and activities, which points to a "major revival of Iraqi society", Iraqi affairs expert Abdullah al-Rikabi told Diyaruna.
"Previously, people used to think that their opinions were not important, but this changed significantly after the protests," he said.
Now Iraqis reject Kawtharani and call him derogatory nicknames, he said, such as "the face of evil", "the owl" and "gatekeeper", in reference to his role as point man in the post-Soleimani era.
It is especially significant that the anger against Soleimani is coming from southern cities such as al-Najaf and Karbala, a sign that Iraqi Shias "reject the exploitation of religion in service of the Iranian regime's aim", al-Rikani said.