Who turned Iraqi protests violent?

Nermeen Al-Mufti , Thursday 17 Oct 2019

Iraq’s government and judiciary will investigate the circumstances that led to 108 deaths in recent protests, with eyewitnesses reporting an influx of unknown provocateurs that unleashed chaos, writes Nermeen Al-Mufti

Who turned Iraqi protests violent?
An injured protester is rushed to hospital after being shot during a demonstration in Baghdad (Photo: AP)

Despite the tragic loss of life, demonstrations in Baghdad and other cities in central and southern Iraq have attained their aims. Protesters have made their demands heard and created a new political climate that compelled the government and political forces to make asome stark choices.

While fingers pointed to anonymous actors for the excessive force unleashed against peaceful protesters, the supreme religious authority held the government and security forces directly responsible.

Sheikh Abdel-Mahdi Al-Karbalai, representative of Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, the highest Shia authority in Iraq, demanded an impartial investigation into the violence, giving the government two weeks to identify those responsible for the violence that caused 108 deaths, including eight security personnel and around 7,000 wounded, including hundreds of policemen. Al-Karbalai, in his sermon last Friday, urged the government to act “before it is too late” by introducing the necessary remedies in order to improve social services and reduce unemployment. 

The following day, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdel-Mahdi formed an investigatory committee in response to the religious official’s demand. “In response to the speech delivered by the high religious authority on Friday, 11 October, and to follow through on the current investigations, the government has formed a high investigatory committee, bringing together the relevant ministries, security agencies and representatives of the Supreme Judicial Council, parliament and the Human Rights Commission, in order to reach objective and definitive conclusions so that those responsible can be tried and justly punished,” he said in a statement posted on the official government website. 

A statement released following a meeting of Iraqi President Barham Salih, Parliamentary Speaker Mohamed Al-Halbusi, Prime Minister Adel Abdel-Mahdi and the head of the Supreme Council of the Judiciary Fayeq Zidan stressed that there would be no laxness in the pursuit, apprehension and prosecution of all responsible, regardless of their affiliations or positions.

Before the investigations concluded, Iraqi media cited Farqad Al-Issawi, police chief of the southern Diwaniyah Province, where dozens of protesters were killed and wounded during the protests, as saying that arrest warrants had been issued against nine individuals alleged to have incited murder and destruction in the province.

According to this source, Hussein Al-Bediri, a member of the Diwaniyah municipal council, absconded after a warrant was issued for his arrest. “Al-Bediri had been summoned for questioning several days ago on the basis of complaints lodged by a number of demonstrators after he and members of his protection team verbally and physically attacked them during a peaceful demonstration in Al-Shamiya town,” Al-Issawi said. “A security unit went to Al-Bediri’s home to carry out the arrest warrant but he was not there because he had fled to an unknown destination.”

Prime Minister Abdel-Mahdi also announced two reform packages, in connection with which nine high-ranking officials had been referred to the judiciary for prosecution on charges of corruption. The officials were unnamed, but they include ministers, deputy ministers and former provincial governors, according to a statement by the Iraqi Supreme Anti-Corruption Council. One of the demonstrators’ main demands is for the government to step up the fight against corruption and to bring corrupt officials to justice. Other demands include unemployment compensation, job creation and the distribution of plots of land on which to build houses as a solution to the housing crisis. 

Iraq’s young protesters have repeatedly made it clear that they are aware of the corruption that has been delaying development and progress and obstructing efforts to improve the standards of living of the people.

The majority of demonstrators, who were children or had not yet been born at the time of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, took all political forces by surprise, not just by their persistence but also by their rejection of the ethnic/sectarian quota system which they claim voids democracy of its true meaning.

Youth forces believe that the established political blocs are only motivated by their own interests and narrow agendas. In the peaceful protests staged throughout the country, demonstrators pointedly raised only Iraqi flags and national banners. 

The demonstrators were resolutely peaceful but were infiltrated by provocateurs. One demonstrator, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Al-Ahram Weekly that someone had tried to give him a bottle to throw at security forces. He refused. Later he realised that it was a molotov cocktail. He said that the protesters carried nothing at all that could be used as a weapon. They only carried Iraqi flags and banners. The people who started throwing stones and petrol bombs at security forces had begun to mingle among the demonstrators about two hours after the marches began. The demonstrators had no idea where those people came from or who was behind them. 

Captain Haidar Al-Yasiri said that members of the various security agencies needed no orders or instructions to tell them to protect demonstrators. They know it is their duty to protect Iraq and the Iraqi people. Nevertheless, he stressed, explicit instructions had indeed been given to protect the protests.

Al-Yasiri, who himself was shot during the protests, continued: “We know that the [protesters] were pressing demands for their legitimate rights. The investigations will show who was really responsible for the use of excess force against the demonstrators and for the violence that caused so many casualties among the protesters and the security forces.”

Mohamed Haidar, 19, relates that the marches, which were spontaneous and without leadership, were splendid models of peaceful protest. He recalled: “We were marching, chanting slogans against corruption and the lack of equal employment opportunities and the like. Then, at one point, someone up front pointed out that we were approaching a hospital so we turned to a different direction so as not to disturb the patients. Afterwards we resumed our peaceful chants.” Only later did some unknown agencies hijack the marches and turn them into violent clashes. 

Hassan Al-Miyahi, 25, an unemployed university graduate, relates that when some demonstrators saw a policeman wounded in the course of the violence, they risked their lives to come to his aid and carry him to an ambulance so that he could be rushed to hospital. 

This was not the first time Ghassan Mohamed, 20, had taken part in a peaceful demonstration to express his views. He was therefore surprised when suddenly the demonstrations turned into bloody confrontations. He was shocked by the violence unleashed against peaceful demonstrators by unknown parties. 

According to the political analyst Nijm Al-Qassab, there was not any “foreign conspiracy.” Al-Qassab said that most of the protesters are young people who are just angry. “They’re not affiliated with any political party or political project. Also, the government has said that their cause is just and it has designated the ones who killed as ‘martyrs’ and declared three days of official mourning to commemorate them.” 

Asma Aziz, a university professor, agrees that the demonstrations were spontaneous and were borne of widespread anger against corruption and poor public services. “Most of the demonstrators have aired legitimate demands and have a great vision for our country. But it was obvious that some conspiring was afoot, which is neither surprising nor new. Ultimately, the political forces are responsible for creating the conditions that have turned Iraqis into this volcano that anyone could trigger.”

Professor Aziz underscored the pathos of one of the demonstrators’ chants: “I want a homeland”.

Currently, a tense calm prevails in the streets of Baghdad and other cities in the country. Demonstrators have called a temporary moratorium on their marches until the end of the Arbaeen Pilgrimage during which millions of pilgrims from all parts of Iraq and from Gulf countries, Iran, Pakistan, Lebanon and elsewhere, converge on the city of Karbala to commemorate the 40th day after the martyrdom of the grandson of the Prophet, the Imam Hussein Ibn Ali, in the Battle of Karbala in 680. 

The majority of demonstrators and activists who had been detained have been released. Activists and rights organisations are pressing for the release of the remaining few under investigation as well. The top three authorities — Salih, Al-Halbusi and Abdel-Mahdi — and a number of other political figures have defended the release of the demonstrators against critics of this step, saying that the right to freedom of expression is enshrined in the Iraqi constitution and international human rights law.

Activists, a number of politicians and local and international organisations also harshly condemned the five-day internet blackout during the demonstrations.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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