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Wednesday, 26 February 2020

Will Iraq's parliament follow through?

As Iraq continues to shake under protests, the government has moved to cut elite benefits and privileges. But does the move have force of law, and will it satisfy protesters, asks Nadine Khalil

Nadine Khalil, Thursday 31 Oct 2019
Iraq
An Iraqi studend holds a sign reading in Arabic: "stop the bloodshed" during ongoing anti-government protests in the central city of Diwaniyah on October 31, 2019 AP
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Better late than never, or so the saying goes. Decisions by the Iraqi parliament on Monday after a session discussing demands of protesters and government reforms attended by 222 out of 328 members came late, including a decision to dissolve irregular provincial councils and district councils whereby parliament oversees and monitors governors until the next local elections slated for mid-2020. Since Kirkuk is a special case, oversight and monitoring of its governor will be done by Kirkuk MPs.

Parliament also voted to immediately eliminate all the privileges and benefits of the three presidencies, MPs, senior officials, advisers, ministry undersecretaries and general directors, as well as all benefits for independent institutions, the judiciary, the Commission of Integrity, the Federal Court, the Supreme Judicial Council, governors and others of that rank.

MPs also decided to eliminate double dipping income from social justice laws, including the political prisoners and families of the martyrs (political prisoners under the Baath regime and families of those who were executed) and civil servants who were exempt from a law preventing from double dipping from government salaries.

Rafha benefits are huge sums that were given to Iraqis who were at the Saudi Arabian Rafha refugee camp after participating in an uprising against the regime following the end of the 1991 Gulf War. Since the mid-1990s, most of them live in the US, Canada, Australia and Europe. As well as the astronomical restitution they received for suffering in the refugee camp, they are given a monthly stipend per family member, even if they were born in asylum countries.

Parliament never once considered the suffering of Iraqis inside the country during years of sanctions and under UN Resolution 661 (August 1990-April 2003) which caused the death of 500,000 children under the age of five due to lack of medicine, and resulted in Iraqi families selling even the doors to their houses.

Before demonstrators knew any of their demands are being fulfilled, MP Fayeq Al-Sheikh Ali, member of parliament’s legal committee, tweeted: “I always speak honestly to my people and never deceive them since I am a man of the law. I address my people and say do not be overjoyed by parliament’s decisions today, because they were only taken to absorb the anger and have no force of law. The laws of privilege and benefits can only be repealed or amended by law, not political decisions. You will find out later that what I am saying is true.”

The Supreme Federal Court gave protests further legitimacy in their demand for abolishing quotas in senior positions, which is the cornerstone of corruption, in a decision on Monday. The court decided Paragraph 6 of Parliament Resolution 44 of 2008, which was adopted by parliament and ratified by the Presidential Council and published in issue 4102 of Iraqi Chronicles on 24 December 2008, is unconstitutional.

The section states the approval of “Implementing agreed demands by [political] lists and political blocs based on their entitlement to positions in state agencies as ministry undersecretaries, heads of agencies and special ranks. Parliament must immediately approve special ranks.” According to the court ruling, the entire cabinet is now illegitimate because every government post in Iraq was appointed based on quotas referenced in Paragraph 6, which is now deemed unconstitutional.

MP Mohamed Al-Okaili told Al-Sharqiya TV that the court ruling to end quotas should have come years ago, and taking such a decision under the current circumstances means it is finally rid of political control. Commenting on parliament’s decisions, he said the demands of citizens are rights, and not favours, and that although the decision to form a committee to amend the constitution is overdue, it has four long months to finish its work.

Also, on Monday, the Iraqi Teachers Syndicate went on strike until Thursday to pressure the government into accepting their demands. The Bar Association also declared a strike starting on Wednesday, until 4 November, and the Labour Union urged its members to participate in protests to demand better wages and the reopening thousands of laboratories, and public and joint stock factories.

School and university students took to the streets in Baghdad, Karbala and Diwaniyah as the sit-in in Tahrir Square in Baghdad continues, while victims are falling on both sides.

A statement by the High Commission for Human Rights in Iraq documents violations during protests 25-27 October in Baghdad and other governorates. It said it continues to monitor protests in Baghdad and other places through teams that are present day and night at flash points. While the Human Rights Commission asserts freedom of opinion, expression and peaceful demonstration, as guaranteed by the constitution and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, it noted the following: “Security Forces used teargas, hot water, sound bombs and batons to disperse protesters during clashes in Baghdad and elsewhere and while entering the Green Zone.

"Many protesters and police were injured, amounting to 3,654, mostly due to teargas, and the majority of them have left hospital. Some 74 were killed, mostly by gunfire after clashes between demonstrators and guards at political party offices as protesters tried to raid these buildings. Some victims also died due to asphyxiation caused by teargas.”

The Human Rights Commission called on the Iraqi government to accept the legitimate demands of demonstrators, which uphold and guarantee human rights. Based on media reports, there have been more deaths and injuries since this statement was issued. An announcement by the governor of Karbala on Monday said 463 security personnel were injured, but did not mention victims among protesters.

Iraqi officials say peaceful demonstrations were penetrated by “infiltrators” who are settling scores, attacking and torching public government buildings and private party headquarters. In the media, political analysts and MPs refer to “uncontrolled weapons” in Baghdad and elsewhere, in direct and indirect reference to armed militias.

As demonstrators’ demands escalate, and amid concerns the crisis will continue, the death of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi (who caused the death of tens of thousands of Iraqis, the displacement of millions, enslavement of thousands of Iraqi women, destruction of museums, priceless historic statues and religious shrines during IS rule in Nineveh, Salahuddin and Anbar between June 2014 until November 2017) seemed insignificant.

Although Iraqi intelligence participated in the US operation in Idlib, Syria, on Sunday, according to the Iraqi News Agency quoting Iraqi intelligence sources, the focus of Iraqi media remained the protests and assertions by officials that they support the demands of peaceful demonstrators, but warned against violence and assaults on public and private property, and party headquarters. They describe anyone who does this as terrorist.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 31 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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