The current protests in Iraq did not subside this week despite government measures to meet the demands of the protesters, including welfare payments to unemployed young people. Though demonstrations have been recurrent in Iraq since the US-led invasion in 2003, for many observers the present round of protests mark a new development.
Not only has the violence claimed more than 100 lives, with 6,000 other protesters being injured, but the nature and timing of the protests have caught the government off-guard. The authorities expect demonstrations in the summer when people suffer water and power shortages in Iraq, but these protests have continued into the autumn when water and electricity supplies are improving.
More confusing for the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi is the fact that many of the demonstrators, most of them young people, do not identify with any particular political or sectarian faction. It would have been easier if this had been the case, since then the government could have sought a compromise with its leaders.
However, the protesters have no factional, tribal or sectarian slogans, and they say they are simply ordinary Iraqis frustrated at government corruption and incompetence while they suffer from poverty in one of the world’s leading oil-producing and exporting countries.
The protests are concentrated in the capital Baghdad and the south of Iraq where the majority of the population is Shiite. The country’s Sunni political blocks have been refraining from joining the protests, and the country’s Kurds keep away from such developments and only protest in their autonomous region in the north.
Abdul-Mahdi’s government, now one year in power, is mainly backed by the Shiites and has good ties with Iran. The protesters are shouting slogans against the “Iranian control of the country” and corruption associated with Shiite militias backed by Iran.
The demonstrations started on 1 October in response to the Iraqi security forces violently dispersing a peaceful gathering of university graduates in front of government buildings in the Green Zone of Baghdad. The graduates were seeking employment, as the government is a main employer, with almost 80 per cent of the Iraqi workforce made up of government employees.
The government wants the protests to remain apolitical, and it has focused on economic measures in its response. However, the violent response of the security forces has emboldened the demonstrators who are now calling for ousting the government.
Most of those taking part in the demonstrations are young people who did not witness the US-led invasion and occupation of the country earlier at the beginning of the century. They are mostly students or fresh graduates who cannot find work in a country producing more than 4.5 million barrels of oil a day and exporting more than three million generating revenues of billions of dollars a month.
A striking example of the problem is in the southern Basra region, where almost 70 per cent of Iraqi oil reserves are located amid widespread poverty and an unemployment rate of 40 per cent.
When protests erupted there in July last year, reports quoted some Basra young graduates talking about corruption. One bitterly said he could not find a job and when he found one in an oil company he needed to pay a bribe of $5,000 dollars to secure it.
The corruption started under the US occupation, with billions of dollars of Iraqi wealth embezzled or unaccounted for. The country’s political elite, Sunni or Shiite, has since continued to indulge in the practice which has infested the entire Iraqi bureaucracy.
Many observers are pessimistic about the government’s ability to keep the protests economic in character, fearing that they will become more and more politicised.
The main party supporting the government, led by the populist Shiite leader Muqtada Al-Sadr, has not sided with protesters but is finding it more and more difficult to stay on good terms with a government linked to Iran and the US.
Further political chaos looks inevitable, especially with the sharp polarisation in the Gulf region. Iraq cannot escape its strong relations with Iran but cannot oppose the US policy of squeezing Iran either. It is finding it increasingly difficult to take sides in a seemingly Arab-Persian struggle, while Shiite armed militias sympathetic to Iran have replaced the regular army disbanded by the Americans and not yet reformed.
Previous mass protests in Iraq were largely sectarian, like the Sunni demonstrations against former prime minister Nouri Al-Maliki whose Iran-backed government discriminated against them. But this time round, the Shiite community is protesting against a largely Shiite government and implicitly against Iranian influence.
The Gulf countries are not offering support that would persuade Iraq to change sides, and the Iraqi parties that have sought Gulf support have not managed to overtake the parties allied with Iran.
The Gulf countries are trying to sway the Iraqi Shiites away from the ideological link with Tehran. This policy has not worked well in the past, but it may now yield dividends as a result of the mounting pressures on Iran.
However, any Iraqi government will find it difficult to sever relations with Iran. Bilateral trade between Baghdad and Tehran stands at $12 billion, and Iraq has no alternative source of the electricity, petrol, natural gas and water that it buys from Iran.
The Saudis have promised to help Iraq develop its own electricity system or to sell it electricity, but it will be a long time before any such new system is built.
The US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 handed this Arab country to Iran, and the Arabs have not been able to reclaim it. There is mounting Iraqi bitterness towards both sides as a result of mounting poverty, and the situation is sliding further into the general chaos of the Iran-Gulf Arab dispute.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.