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Protests in Iraq

October 11, 2019

Protests in Iraq

Since 2018, Iraq has been in the throes of sporadic protests flaring up every now and then due to the endemic level of corruption and deteriorating economy. The latest round of protests started on October 1, 2019 in Baghdad, spreading to several provinces with a wide participation from Iraqis of almost all walks of life. Security forces reacted in a very heavy-handed way killing scores of protesters while these protests can be classified the largest that Iraq has seen in decades. By October 9th, the death toll has risen to more than 110 whereas nearly 6000 people have also been injured.

Reasons for the protests

Experts have raised several reasons for the ongoing street protests in Iraq. First of all, despite being one of the world’s largest oil producers, the country suffers from regular power outages in the summer in the midst of the scorching heat. In fact, routine power cuts leave consumers without mains electricity for up to 20 hours a day and, according to the World Bank, youth unemployment runs at around 25 percent, or double the adult rate.

State services in such vital domains as health and education have been insufficient, due in large part to the endemic levels of corruption and favoritism, as an important chunk of state revenues is pocketed by the ruling officials. In fact, the corruption in Iraq is so pervasive that according to a recent anti-corruption index published by Transparency International, Iraq ranked 168 of 180 worldwide, making it one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Many demonstrating Iraqis feel robbed of their future. What is distinctive about these protests is that they are taking place independently of any political party; in fact, the liberal newspaper Al-Bayina Al-Jadida said the protests were, “for the first time without flag, without poster or party slogan”. Demographically, protesters hail mostly from the younger generation and they’re not affiliated with any civic and political forces such as the Sadrists, the Communists and the Civic Trend that had previously organized demonstrations.


Anger towards Iran

Iran’s involvement in the political landscape of Iraq through the support that it gives to various Shi’a militias and through political maneuverings has long created a deep-seated resentment amongst Iraqis of various ethnic and religious origins including the majority Shias. One of the most conspicuous motives of such resentment was the recent firing of Abdel-Wahab al-Saadi, a popular general who previously served as second-in-command of Iraq’s counterterrorism service. Al-Saadi was an important figure in the fight against the ISIS. However, he was recently transferred to another post, which, according to his supporters was because he was standing up to Shia militia groups within the Iraqi army with close ties to Iran. Al-Saadi led a counter-terrorism service, also known as the “Golden Division” that was quite influential in the liberation of Mosul. However, the fact that this division received training from the coalition forces rather than Iraq’s pro-Iranian Popular Mobilization Forces, also irked Iraq’s pro-Iran political elite. Over the past few months, nine other Iraqi officers with similar backgrounds were also retired against their will as some Iraqis attribute the development to the influence pf the IRGC in Iraq.


Reactions from the Iraqi politicians:

The sheer size and the spontaneous propagation of the protests caught Iraq’s political elite off-guard. The political elite, including the Prime Minister and the President were compelled to condemn the police brutality towards protesters while at the same time promising change. The Prime Minister, Adel Abdel Mehdi, said protesters’ demand for confrontation with corruption was “legitimate” but that it would take “time” to address the issue. Mahdi announced three days of mourning starting Thursday for those killed in the protests, his office said in a statement.

In a rare intervention, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, whose word is law for most of Iraq’s majority Shi’ites, called on protesters and the security forces to avoid violence while also ordering political factions to respond to protest demands. Iraq’s ministers met provincial governors to address grievances in the country such as crumbling infrastructure, toxic water and high unemployment; however, these proposed reforms, some of which have been recycled from a package of proposed reforms after protests in 2015, are unlikely to ease public anger.

In the grand scheme of things, as a new generation of Iraqis come of age after the invasion of the country by the US in 2003, Iraq’s fragile stability is threatened by weak institutions and Iranian influence. While such protests are not new in Iraq, the fact remains that every time they are repressed, a new and larger wave of demonstrations flare up at a later time.  Iraq’s political elite faces the daunting task of handling corruption and listening to the voices of the new generation asking for a more representative government.


Vahid Yucesoy for iStrartegic