Iraq may be overcoming its sectarian divisions, at least for now, as protests in different parts of this oil-rich country erupted earlier this month against the background of social and economic difficulties.
However, perhaps more importantly the government has also seemingly shifted its position towards the protesters, offering a reconciliatory discourse for the first time since the protesters took to the streets.
Even major political forces in the country have voiced their support for the protesters, arguably because all religious and ethnic sects have the same concerns.
As the NGO International Crisis Group’s Maria Fantappie put it, “this is a purely street movement, and there is no political party that has actually started the movement. It is the mobilisation of largely young people, which demographically constitute also the large majority of the country.”
Fantappie, who has worked with the European Union in Iraq, believes that the “people are opposing the political system, including the formal political parties that have dominated the system since the aftermath of the US-led invasion.”
The government’s discourse started to change three days after the beginning of the protests when Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, who took office in October 2018, vowed to provide more jobs for all Iraqis.
He ordered all state institutions, including the Oil Ministry, to include a 50 per cent quota for local workers in future contracts with international companies.
The economy of Iraq has started to recover from the effects of the war against the Islamic State (IS) group and the world reduction in oil prices. But there are still many issues to address, and according to World Bank figures almost 17 per cent of the “economically active population is underemployed” in Iraq.
The issue of “under-utilisation” is another concern, as almost 24 per cent of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Iraq are either unemployed or underemployed. Female unemployment reached 11.3 per cent in 2017, while more than a fifth of the “economically active youth” (aged 15 to 24) have neither a job nor are involved in training.
Abdul-Mahdi’s attempts to talk business thus make perfect sense, and on 6 October his government decided to make further reforms on a variety of issues, including land distribution, military conscription and boosting welfare for people who need it.
The government has also spoken out about the violence in the country, and a spokesman of the Iraqi Interior Ministry has announced that 104 people have lost their lives during the recent protests, while 6,107 have been injured. Eight security personnel have been killed and more than 1,000 police and members of the security forces wounded.
Since the majority of those exposed to the use of force during the protests were civilians, the protesters, parliamentary committees and even the country’s political forces, including the Shiite political leaders, have called on the government for explanations.
The government held unidentified snipers responsible for shooting the demonstrators during the early stages, but later Abdul-Mahdi described the use of force by the security forces as “bitter medicine” that Iraq had to take.
The US think thank the Atlantic Council’s Tony Pfaff told Al-Ahram Weekly in an interview that the “short answer is all of the above” when asked about the origins of the violence. Pfaff, who recently served as director for Iraq on the US National Security Council, stressed that “this time it seems that it’s not about the Sunni-Shia divide,” however.
“What seems to be new about these protests is that they were triggered by the perception that Counter Terrorism Services commander Abdel-Ghani Al-Assadi was reassigned due to Iranian meddling. Rather quickly, they came to be about the range of issues that plague Iraq: poor governance, poor services, high unemployment, especially among the youth, as well as sectarian concerns. Most interestingly, these protests are occurring in southern Iraq much more than they are elsewhere,” he said.
“So the Iraqi government has a moment to break down the barriers to real reform and take some meaningful measures to address protester concerns. If they fail to take it, it will boil down to who can last longer, the government or the protests. My guess is the protests will outlast the government.”
On 7 October, the Iraqi army admitted that “excessive force outside the rules of engagement was used, and we have begun to hold accountable commanding officers who carried out these wrong acts.”
The statement came after footage of the violence was widely shared on social media, as well as after political pressures from top politicians.
Shiite cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr called on the government to “respect the blood of Iraq through the resignation of the government and prepare for early elections overseen by international monitors.”
Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, Iraq’s most powerful Shiite cleric, said that the government had to take “practical and clear steps” towards fighting corruption and “carry out its duty” in ending the hardships faced by the Iraqi people.
The statements hinted at the presence of growing problems in the Shiite bloc in Iraq.
Sami Moubayed, a historian and former Carnegie Foundation scholar, noted that several prominent Sunni figures in Iraq had called on their constituencies to stay away from Tahrir Square in Baghdad [where the protests have been taking place], implying that “that this was an inter-Shiite affair and that any Sunni participation would hijack it and give the state a pretext to say that the demonstrators were being infiltrated by Saudi Arabia, or IS, or the US.”
“Most of the demonstrators are young, university graduates, and unemployed. This is their common denominator, more so than sectarianism. A young Iraqi fresh out of college is now 21. This means he was only five when [former president] Saddam Hussein was toppled back in 2003. The current leadership cannot continue to say that ‘this is how we inherited the country,’ or to blame things on the previous regime. The young generation doesn’t buy that anymore – they don’t know the ancient regime and don’t care how it operated,” Moubayed said.
He said that, because “blood was spilled,” the protests in Iraq would likely not end any time soon, especially since the current leadership seems incapable of making the changes the protesters are demanding.
“There are two kinds of people in Iraqi officialdom. One is pragmatic and realises that change is needed and must happen, regardless of whom it destroys along the way. It must be done for the regime to survive. But there are others who believe that any change will be at their expense and are aggressively trying to stop it from happening,” Moubayed concluded.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.