The growing discontent in Iraq, fuelled by gross state failure, has led to a political crisis. The protests entered their second month this week, with no signs of abating. Protesters have been in the streets of Baghdad and across Iraq’s southern cities, galvanising the opposition to the ruling political factions and Iranian hegemony.
Ahram Weekly looks at the questions of who is who on the ground in Iraq, the demands of protesters, the response of the government as well as various local and regional players, and what could happen next
What is happening? Anti-government demonstrations have pitted protesters against the police, local government, and the country’s ruling elite. Young people, the unemployed and the disgruntled by government policies have played a key part in triggering the protests.
How did this start? The protests erupted in largely Shia-populated neighbourhoods in Baghdad on 1 October as a result of corruption, unemployment, a lack of basic services and government mismanagement, but they quickly turned into a massive national movement.
The anti-government demonstrations resumed on 25 October after a three-week hiatus to observe a major Shia religious festival that draws millions of pilgrims.
The protests soon spread like wildfire to other cities in the mostly Shia-populated part of southern Iraq. Some young people from Baghdad’s largely Sunni-populated neighbourhoods also later joined the protests.
Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, a plaza in the downtown area, became the epicentre of the protests, where hundreds of thousands of protesters now meet daily to call for the fall of the regime.
The square and the wide boulevards leading into it are packed with flag-waving protesters, as the security forces reinforce barricades on the two bridges leading to the heavily-fortified Green Zone, the seat of the Iraqi government.
Tahrir, which means “liberation” in Arabic, soon became a symbol of freedom. The square has witnessed key moments and carved out a position for itself in Iraq’s modern political and social history.
Who is providing logistics to the protesters? As tens of thousands of Iraqis massed in the square, they started to organise themselves for a long stay and arranged to protect themselves against the security crackdown.
An abandoned multi-level block was turned into a control tower for the protesters, while its rooftops overlooking the Jumhuriya Bridge where government forces were barricaded were used to monitor the movements of the government forces.
Hundreds of rickshaw carts, or tuk-tuks, appeared in the square, with drivers volunteering to ferry wounded protesters free of charge to hospitals and risking their lives as they whizzed through tear gas and bullets.
Women, men and children were running to makeshift kitchens to cook hot meals and provide water and soft drinks to the protesters. Medics were setting up tents where they were treating the wounded or protesters affected by tear gas.
As Tahrir Square witnessed further violent crackdowns amid the intensive firing of tear gas by the security forces and heavy smoke from burning tyres, celebrations, funerals and even weddings were held by the protesters.
Who are the protesters? The core of the protests are by young Shias, many of them university or secondary school graduates who cannot find jobs, but soon they were joined by ordinary people fed up with Iraq’s entrenched ruling class.
Most of the protesters are not linked to organised movements. They have called for the kind of sweeping changes seen in the 2011 Arab uprisings that brought down four Arab leaders but bypassed Iraq.
A key problem is that the protesters are not well-organised and lack a clear programme. Though they have succeeded in uniting people around a shared purpose, they lack political experience of past revolutions.
What are the protesters’ demands? The protests started over the need for comprehensive reform, the end of corruption and the improvement of public services and job opportunities, but they soon turned against the country’s leadership and demanded sweeping changes to the political system established after the 2003 US-led invasion.
Some of the protesters have also demanded a new transition period to rewrite the Iraqi Constitution and election law and enforce measures to return money embezzled by Iraqi politicians and placed in foreign countries.
In order to do this, the protesters insist that Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi resign and that a new transitional government is formed to carry out the reforms.
What has been the government’s response? The government has promised a package of reforms that the protesters have seen as too little, too late, but Abdul-Mahdi has refused to resign. Iraqi President Barham Salih said Abdul-Mahdi was ready to step down once the country’s political leaders had agreed on a replacement.
Many believe the country’s ruling elite are procrastinating and that the government is more focused on containing the demonstrations than meeting the protesters’ demands.
What is the position of Iraq’s top Shia cleric Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani? Al-Sistani has urged the government to listen to the protesters and an inquiry to determine who has been killing the demonstrators.
He played a key role in shaping the post-Saddam regime that empowered the Shia political groups after the collapse of the government of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in the 2003 US-led invasion.
He has warned the government against using non-state armed groups against the protesters. He has also warned foreign actors against interfering or trying to “seize the will of the Iraqi people and impose its will on them.” The remarks were seen as referring to Iran.
What is the Iraqi Sunnis’ position? There have been no protests in Iraq’s Sunni-populated provinces, though Sunnis in Baghdad have joined the protests in the capital. The Sunni political leaders have remained aloof.
What is the Iraqi Kurds’ position? As the demonstrations have continued, the Iraqi Kurds have played no role, while their leaders have thrown their weight behind the embattled prime minister and refused calls to rewrite the post-Saddam constitution.
Iraqi Kurdistan strongman Masoud Barzani said the constitution “should not be changed by force” and stressed that any change would undermine the gains the Kurds have made in Iraq following Saddam’s fall.
Where does Iran stand? The protesters in many cities have decried the Iranian interference in Iraq and its backing for the Shia ruling class, and Iranian officials and media have blamed foreign countries such as the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia for fomenting the uprising.
Iran’s Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has suggested that the Iraqi authorities give “priority to dealing with riots and instability instigated by the Americans, the Zionist entity [Israel] and some Western nations with funding from backward countries,” remarks seen as a green light for Iran-backed militias in Iraq to crack down on the protesters.
Beyond the rhetoric, Iran has stepped in to prevent the ouster of Abdul-Mahdi by another Shia figure and even sent its point man to Baghdad to pressure Tehran’s allies to end the uprising.
Both the Associated Press and Reuters have reported that the commander of the Quds Force, a unit in Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), in Iraq, Qassem Suleimani, has been heavily involved in efforts to end the uprising, including working to prevent the ouster of Abdul-Mahdi and coordinating efforts to crack down on the protesters.
What is the US involvement? The United States must be pleased by the protests against Iran’s interference in Iraq, because this helps its effort to confront the Islamic Republic’s influence in the country.
Washington, which still provides Iraq with military, political and financial aid, said the Iraqi government “should listen to the legitimate demands made by the Iraqi people who have taken to the streets to have their voices heard.”
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged the Iraqi government to “relax recently imposed restrictions on the media and free expression.” He said that the Iraqi government’s probing into the violence that occurred in early October “lacked sufficient credibility.”
How has the world reacted to the protests? The United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), mandated to ehlp fix Iraq’s fragile state, has condemned the Iraqi authorities for committing serious human-rights violations in their response to the protests.
Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert visited Tahrir Square to engage with the protesters and later suggested a national dialogue to “identify prompt, meaningful responses to break the vicious cycle of violence.”
Leader of the Roman Catholic Church Pope Francis called on the Iraqi authorities “to listen to the cry of the people for a dignified and peaceful life.”
Secretary-General of the Arab League Ahmed Abul-Gheit called on the Baghdad government “to respond to the demands of the Iraqi people.”
The international rights group Amnesty International has said that the security forces in Baghdad have fired military-grade tear gas grenades directly into crowds of protesters, causing horrific wounds
What happens next? With neither the protesters nor the government and its security forces willing to back down, the uprising now hangs in the balance.
As the protesters continue to gather in defiance of the security forces that have killed scores of people, the question is how this nail-biting game will end before events get more out of hand.
The uprising no longer consists of routine street protests that the government hopes will fizzle out. Instead, it has become a massive movement that is mobilising millions of people across Iraq.
If Abdul-Mahdi and his allies had done a bit more homework, they would have realised that the price of betting on the uprising’s defeat will be dear and the result catastrophic.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.