Change a Motive Behind Iraqi Protests


Photo source: United States Institute of Peace
By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe UpFront

There have been antigovernment protests going on regular basis in Iraq, but in October 2019, massive protests took place, which were the largest seen since the U.S invasion in 2003. People took to the streets of Baghdad and in the south, to express their anger against endemic corruption, high unemployment, dire public services, and foreign interference.
People had begun to chant, ‘We want a nation.’

The protestors also believed that Iran was meddling in their internal affairs, as Iran's influence in its political sphere has grown steadily since 2003: Iraq has had close links to its Shia politicians who are part of the ruling elite. Adel Mahdi, then prime minister, had eventually resigned, but protestors wanted to break down the entire political establishment.

A government committee found one hundred forty-nine civilians died during the first wave of protests, mostly as a result of bullet wounds. At least two hundred twenty people had been killed since the second wave began, according to medics and security officials. Other inputs suggest that a total of six hundred people were massacred. More than a dozen security personnel had also died in clashes. Human rights activists said that they had documented unlawful use of lethal force to disperse protesters, including with military-grade tear-gas grenades, live ammunition and sniper attacks.
What triggered the protests was demotion of Iraq’s popular counter terrorism chief. The decision was met with anger on social media. The biggest protest took place in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square. From there, when people tried to enter the Green Zone, the security people opened fire.

The protestors were mainly under the age of thirty, and belonged to a cross section of the society, unlike the 2015 protests which were mainly initiated by Sadrists.

The protestors believe the narrow elite had been able to keep a firm grip on power because of a quota system that allocated positions to political parties, based on sectarian and ethnic identity, known as muhasasa. It was put in place after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, and its critics argue that it encouraged patronage and corruption. Thus, Iraqis want a state with strong institutions, a state with real citizenship, a state that protects all its people.

The 2019 Iraq protests also have had some major repercussions. As per an article in Middle East Institute written by Randa Slim: ‘As more violence was wielded by Iran-linked groups to stop the protests, Tehran’s standing with Iraqis, the majority of whom are Shi’a, would continue to suffer.

What made things worse was that Adel Mahdi had not succeeded in bringing Iran-linked Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs) under control. Seven to eight of these large militias operate outside state control, and in parallel to Iraqi security forces. Executive orders issued by the prime minister’s office to integrate them into the security forces and bring their weapons under state control were not heeded. That’s why, these militias, other than being criminated of Iran’s influence upon them, now stand accused by Iraqi protesters of leading the violent crackdown against them.

In its past, Iraqis had suffered a lot through Saddam’s dictatorship, the Gulf War and the international sanctions. They also suffered in a sectarian war, which transformed their national, political and societal outlook. It also witnessed a rise of ISIS, which despite falling in 2017 did not end their miseries. Due to this history, they had placed their hope in a change.

That’s why it won’t be wrong to conclude that the Iraqi society, has been at war, in uncertainty and chaos for a while. In an Oped by Mustafa Saadon in the New Humanitarian, the author pondered: ‘Iraqis do not want religious fiefdoms, or state bodies that are nothing more than party headquarters. They do not want a country where even football has fallen into the hands of armed groups.’

After violence intensified at the end of November 2019, Iraq's top Shia Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, urged parliament to reconsider its support for the government. He also called on politicians to speed up the passing of a new electoral law. But even he was criticised by protestors, as he didn’t speak out earlier against the killings of people.

The UN also made a series of recommendations, including investigations into killings of protesters, declarations of assets by politicians, corruption trials, electoral reform and constitutional changes. In December 2019, the parliament, due to increasing pressure, approved a new voting law, which increased the size of electoral districts and gave candidates a choice to run independently or be on lists to be agreed by lawmakers. President Barham Saleh had said that the new law will "allow for elections that are more just and better represent the people".

These reforms, however, didn’t ameliorate the tensions and the anarchy which Iraq witnessed in October 2019. Exactly one year after, on its anniversary, people again marched into the streets. Although security officials were equipped with only batons and sticks, they fired water cannons and tear gas. About fifty protestors and police personnel’s were injured. Peaceful demonstrations, however, went ahead in several cities in the south including Basra, Najaf and Nasiriyah, although the size of protests didn’t reach what happened a year ago.

Other Arab countries have been mostly quiet on the power struggle and the economic fiasco inside Iraq. But previous prime minister Adel Mahdi tried to renew the diplomacy with them. In 2019, Iraqi officials worked to bring the country back into the Arab neighbourhood, mainly to relieve the economic problems. In his first foreign trip in March 2019, then prime minister Adel Mahdi travelled to Cairo for a tripartite summit with Jordan on measures to strengthen economic cooperation. In April 2019, thirteen agreements and memoranda of understanding were signed with Saudi Arabia to promote cooperation on security, trade, and energy, along with Riyadh pledging $1 billion for the construction of a sports city, as well as four consulates.
In terms of social peace, Mustafa Al Kadhimi, the new prime minister, in September 2020, also announced that families of victims could apply for compensation from the state, but no funds have been disbursed yet. He also promised to investigate into the killings, but no one has been held accountable yet.

Iraqis have had a minimalist view of the future, and protests were meant to slow down the worsening of their living standards. “The fact that protests have continued for over a year and are being renewed today shows the pressure is still on the ruling elite and that no significant reforms have yet been achieved which could placate demonstrators,” said an independent Iraqi analyst Sajad Jiyad, to Al Jazeera.

Economically, Iraq is not working enough to set itself free from reliance on energy imports from Iran. The Kadhimi government had indicated that it wanted to initiate reforms and investments that could address this issue, but it will take a longer time to make any progress on it.

For Iraqi Shiites, these protests signified a deep desire for change, as they took their resistance to their religious space during religious ceremonies and rituals like Arabaeen, which commemorates the 40th day of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein. The Iraqi youth had presented themselves as representing Imam Hussein's symbolism of standing against oppression and injustice, despite all odds.

The social contract seems controverted, as several other activists have also long complained of a campaign of kidnappings and killings to intimidate them into halting demonstrations. They also complained that young people didn’t come on streets for nothing, but to shake up thrones they had been sitting on.


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