Iraq’s uprising, one year on

Salah Nasrawi , Friday 23 Oct 2020

A year after the massive protests in Iraq led by young people hoping for a better life in a better country, change remains elusive

Iraq’s uprising, one year on

It began with so much hope. On 25 October last year, tens of thousands of Iraqis took to the streets to push for the political and economic reforms that are badly needed to fix the country’s broken governing system.

The uprising had started three weeks before, when people took to the streets of Baghdad and cities in the south of the country to express their anger at endemic corruption, high unemployment, dire public services and increasing Iranian interference in Iraq.

But most importantly, the Iraqi protesters aimed to shake off the fossilised and unaccountable regime of kleptocrats that has ruled Iraq since the fall of the regime of former dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.  

That would never have been easy, as the country’s political class had consolidated its grip on Iraq over nearly 17 years. But after a month of unprecedented tumult, former Iraqi prime minister Adel Abdel-Mahdi finally stepped down. 

Abdel-Mahdi submitted his resignation in response to a call from Iraq’s top Shia Muslim cleric grand ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, who condemned the government’s use of force against the protesters and called for lawmakers to withdraw their support for it.

The marchers rejoiced at Abdel-Mahdi’s fall, although they had to wait for six months for the ruling oligarchs to agree on an alternative after two failed attempts to set up a viable government.

When Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, the head of Iraq’s National Intelligence Service, was endorsed by the country’s parliament for the job, he made wide-ranging promises to improve the government’s performance so that it could respond to the protesters’ demands.

Al-Kadhimi said that his government’s top priority would be to fight widespread corruption, tackle bureaucratic incompetence and restructure an economy that had plummeted due to mismanagement.

He also maintained that he would bring those responsible for the deaths of nearly 600 protesters and activists to justice and address other grievances associated with the crackdown on the uprising.

Among his pledges was overhauling Iraq’s security forces, reining in the country’s militias under a broad-banner slogan of restoring state sovereignty, and preventing the country from becoming a proxy war zone between the United States and Iran.

His other main promise was to hold early elections, a key demand of the anti-government protesters who were pressing for a new election law and free-and-fair balloting in new elections that could bring in a new government.

Yet, six months later the country’s multiple political, economic and security crises have continued to spiral, even as the Covid-19 pandemic has descended upon the beleaguered nation, which has registered nearly half a million cases since its beginning.

Since he took office in May, Al-Kadhimi has been making the defence of Iraq’s national sovereignty and restoring the state’s authority a major goal of his government in protecting Iraq from subversive influences from outside powers and domestic anti-state actors.

But Al-Kadhimi’s figurehead premiership has kept power in the hands of Iraq’s entrenched oligarchs, who control the parliament, the bureaucracy and large sectors of the security forces and pose a main challenge to the government.

Al-Kadhimi has so far failed to adequately address the economic crisis facing Iraq, as the financial collapse accelerates and the government fails to get the country’s fiscal system in order.  

In a sign of near bankruptcy, the government has been unable to pay the salaries of millions of employees on time, while Iraqi pensioners have had to deal with delays and threats of pension cuts. 

In order to provide liquidity, the government has been pressing parliament to pass a law allowing it to borrow $5 billion from foreign sources and up to 15 trillion Iraqi dinars locally.

Amidst the political and economic uncertainty, Iraq’s security situation also remains fragile, and the country remains especially vulnerable to the continued spread of violence and extremism.

Despite the territorial defeat of the Islamic State (IS) group, it continues to pose a threat to Iraq and has persisted in its operations in many parts of the Sunni-populated centre of the country.

Perhaps most important has been the continued sense of insecurity owing to the presence in Iraq of armed groups that Al-Kadhimi vowed to disarm but that remain as powerful as ever and have been raising growing fear and resentment.

Protesters who have long been threatened by the militias are still being abducted and killed, while the security forces have been failing to find the perpetrators and bring them to justice. 

A female political activist was shot dead in the Iraqi city of Basra on 19 August in the third such attack in the space of a week. Riham Yaacoub, a doctor who had led local anti-government protests, was killed by unidentified assailants.

In all such cases, including the assassination of prominent activist Hisham Al-Hashimi on 6 July, Al-Kadhimi vowed that he would “do everything necessary for the security forces to undertake their duties.”

But on 20 September, an activist was kidnapped by unknown gunmen in Iraq’s southern city of Nasiriyah. Al-Kadhimi ordered the country’s elite Counterterrorism Force to free Sajjad Al-Iraqi from his abductors, but the soldiers were rebuffed and sent back by local tribes.

On Saturday, supporters of Shia militias set fire to the Baghdad offices of the Kurdistan Democratic Party in a protest against statements made by a party official questioning the deployment of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) in the Green Zone of the capital.

On the same day, unidentified gunmen disguised in security uniforms kidnapped 12 people from a village north of Baghdad and later executed eight of them.

Clashes among tribes and lawlessness and criminality continue in many parts of Iraq, worsening a political void and threatening security at oil and other strategic installations.

In many such cases, Al-Kadhimi orders the arrest or suspension of officers in charge of local security, signalling complacency, negligence, and disobedience by law-and-order enforcers.  

Though Al-Kadhimi has pledged to make demands by the protesters for early elections a main priority of his government, he has been unable to push the country’s political groups to agree on a new election law.

Iraq’s parliament approved a new electoral law in December that was widely hoped to ensure fairer elections, but a political deadlock is still holding up an agreement on the distribution of seats and constituencies.

The law abolishes the proportional representation system hitherto used in Iraq in favour of one that will mean that each MP represents a specific electoral district and the candidate who receives the most votes will be declared the winner.

Iraq’s ruling political factions have been manoeuvring to rewrite the law in order to allow them to maintain control of the parliament and government, undermining the protesters’ demands for fair and credible elections.

In sum, the protesters who had hoped that Al-Kadhimi would fulfill his reform pledges have now seen all their expectations dashed, and disappointment has turned into shock as Iraq has remained stuck in the same lingering stalemate.

In addition to stalling on reforms and the incompetence of his transitional leadership, Al-Kadhimi has failed to change the rules of the political game, an imperative in challenging the oligarchs’ monopoly on power and stifling their cronies who still have their hands on the government.

As political appointments go, Al-Kadhimi appeared to be either blind to history, or politically naïve, or perhaps both. He has failed to inject new blood into his administration, especially from among the protesters.

A list published in Baghdad of officials accompanying Al-Kadhimi on a trip to Europe this week included “advisers” from Iraqi diaspora communities in places as far away as the United States and Singapore but no representative from the protesters.

Given the increasing public frustration, the protesters are expected to be back in the streets soon, and they constitute a tremendous challenge to Al-Kadhimi’s government.

Until the coronavirus pandemic started in March, thousands of people were regularly taking to the streets across Iraq to express their anger at the authorities. The protests have been resuming on a limited scale since May to pressure Al-Kadhimi into fulfilling his promises. 

With too little change having taken place, the protesters are now expected to return to their previous effectiveness due to the proven incompetence of Al-Kadhimi’s government and the continuing deterioration of the economic and financial situation.

The question now is whether the protesters will be satisfied with unseating Al-Kadhimi or whether they will succeed in forming a political movement that can offer a viable democratic alternative in Iraq.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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