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Has Iraq’s uprising fallen into the violence trap?

With the uprising in Iraq showing no signs of abating, fears are growing that the country may be descending into senseless violence

Salah Nasrawi , Friday 20 Dec 2019
Has Iraq’s uprising fallen into the violence trap?
An Iraqi demonstrator shows a bullet that was used during ongoing anti-government protests in Najaf (photo: Reuters)
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The words revolution, uprising and revolt often conjure up images of sudden and forceful social eruptions, sparking random violence and triggering chaos.

The scale of the death and destruction associated with the French and Russian Revolutions, for example, is almost unparalleled in modern history, with millions killed or wounded and societies torn apart.

Violence in social upheavals is nothing new. All revolutions suffer from this phenomenon to a certain extent as a common dynamic of interaction between revolutionaries, disgruntled citizens and security forces loyal to the authorities.

As anti-government demonstrations rock streets around the world today from Santiago to Hong Kong, discussion has focused on the growing violence and chaos in protests billed as rallies against the ruling political class and their Iranian allies in Iraq.

In Baghdad and cities across Iraq, masses of people have taken to the streets since 1 October, angry over corruption, poor governance, a lack of jobs and Iran’s increasing interference in the country’s domestic affairs.

But unlike other protests worldwide, the marches in Iraq have been marred by extreme violence. Some 500 people have been killed by the authorities and their allied militias since the turmoil began, and thousands of others have been left wounded or disabled.

The deadly use of live ammunition and tear gas grenades against mostly unarmed demonstrators and the assassinations and kidnappings of key activists have stoked the protests that began as an eruption of public anger against a corrupt ruling elite seen as serving Iran.

When the protests resumed after a two-week hiatus in October because of Shia religious events, the capital Baghdad was shocked by the security forces unleashing lethal canisters of tear gas that were used to kill rather than disperse the protesters.

The international rights group Amnesty International gathered evidence that pointed to the Iraqi security forces deploying military grade grenades against protesters in Baghdad, apparently aiming for their heads or bodies at point-blank range.

Shocking pictures showed gruesome wounds inflicted by “skull-piercing” tear gas grenades that also cause more severe asphyxiation and trauma wounds than those used against other rallies worldwide.

The Iraqi security forces also used live ammunition extensively against unarmed protesters who showed no signs of leaving the streets.

Hundreds were killed when the security forces fired live bullets in an attempt to stop the protesters trying to reach government offices in Baghdad and Iranian consulates in Basra, Nassiriya, Najaf and Karbala.

In some of the most violent moments in the uprising, the Iraqi security forces shot dead at least 33 protesters in Nassiriya after Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi ordered the deployment of special anti-riot forces.

Lynn Maalouf of Amnesty International described scenes from the city that morning as “more closely resembling a war zone than city streets and bridges.”

On 6 December, gunmen attacked unarmed protesters near the Sinak Bridge in Baghdad and shot 12 people, wounded about 100 others and kidnapped many more.

The attack came as anti-government demonstrators occupied parts of the city’s Jumhuriya, Sinak and Ahrar Bridges in a standoff with the security forces. All the Bridges lead to or are near the heavily fortified Green Zone, the seat of Iraq’s government.

Iraqi President Barham Salih blamed the shootings on criminal gangs, but the protesters said the attackers had been members of Iran-backed militias that are now part of the Iraqi security forces.

Although the Iraqi uprising has prided itself on its peaceful protests, there have been numerous violent clashes with security forces who have been attacked with stones, Molotov cocktails and slingshots.

As the anger soared, the protesters have also resorted to arson, a familiar part of public unrest in parts of the region. Protesters torched the Iranian consulates in the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf, driving the police to fire on them.

In Nassiriya and other southern cities, the protesters also set fire or tried to torch provincial government buildings and the houses of officials and MPs they accused of corruption.

But the most serious act of arson was when protesters in Najaf set fire to the entrance of the shrine of Baqir Al-Hakim, a Shia cleric and politician and founder of one of the Iran-backed factions.

When government security forces firing tear gas failed to disperse the protesters from the shrine, Shia militias were deployed to attack them at the scene, risking more bloodshed and a standoff that lasted for days.

As the demonstrations enter their third month, the violence is now increasing, with an increase in threats, kidnappings and the killings of activists and protesters, including of young women and photojournalists by unknown groups.

Hundreds of protesters were kidnapped after leaving Tahrir Square in Baghdad and disappeared for days before they escaped or were freed by the security forces or their abductors.

Zaid Al-Khafaji, a photojournalist known for documenting the protests, was taken from his home in a Baghdad neighbourhood after returning from the Square at approximately 4am. A black car with at least four men in it was seen taking Al-Khafaji away.

In one case last week, 11 protesters who were kidnapped collectively from a bus four days earlier after leaving Tahrir Square arrived in their hometown of Karbala following their release.

The UN Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) meanwhile said it had credible evidence that thousands of demonstrators had been arrested and held incommunicado or abducted by “unknown armed men”.

Several activists were killed at point-blank range in a string of targeted assassinations, fostering fear among the protesters and their families. Early in the protests, masked men killed activist and caricaturist Hussein Adil Al-Madani and his wife Sarah inside their apartment in Basra.

Last week, Ali Al-Lami, who was kidnapped from Tahrir Square, was killed in the Al-Shaab area northeast of Baghdad where his body was found with a gunshot wound to the head.

Several assassinations of protesters have taken place elsewhere, including by car bombs or drive-by shootings. In all these attacks against the protesters, the perpetrators have not been identified.

While the young protesters have shown a remarkable ability to resist being drawn into violence even though they have suffered great losses, a dynamic of political violence seems to be in the making in Iraq, raising fears of further excessively violent crackdowns on the peaceful protests.

Last week, young men in the protests lynched a teenager in Baghdad after they accused him of firing on them. A mob stabbed the boy 17 times, hung him by his ankles from a traffic light, and then cut his throat.

In horrific videos of the scene, people in police uniforms can be seen in the midst of the mob, seemingly turning a blind eye to the attack and ignoring calls from the protesters to intervene.

Pictures and video footage showed scores of people pointing their cell-phones at the body dangling above them in the square.

The leaders of the protests in Tahrir Square quickly distanced themselves from the attack and called for the perpetrators to be brought to justice. They urged the government to put the killers in the hands of the judiciary.

Yet, the brutal episode has underscored growing fears and suspicions swirling around the nearly three-month-old protests, particularly that the excessive violence could radically change the course of an uprising that has claimed to be committed to pacifism in the face of violence.

So far, the Iraqi protesters have insisted on remaining peaceful and seeking change through peaceful means, but a debate has been underway among activists, supporters and analysts whether pacifism will work as a strategy against the killings, kidnappings and arrests of the protesters.

Since the uprising started on 1 October, the protesters have been debating whether they should storm the Green Zone, the fortified area in Baghdad that hosts main government offices and the houses of the ruling elites.

Whether for moral, political or strategic reasons, the debate has not been settled, but analysts believe that the increasing violence against the demonstrators could eventually lead some dispossessed protesters who have seen their friends being killed to think about hitting back.

On the security forces’ side, there is no conclusive evidence of a coordinated or coherent strategy aimed specifically at ending the uprising by the use of massive force. Their responses to the protests thus far have been contradictory, haphazard and appearing to be working at cross-purposes.

But that is not necessarily the case with the Iran-backed militias that form the backbone of the powerful Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF) whose leaders have indicated a willingness to use whatever it takes to crush the uprising.

However, as the conflict escalates and the ruling class in Iraq remains entrenched, the prospects for the protesters, no matter whether they use peaceful or violent methods, look unrewarding.

Even so, they are likely to fight on.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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