By Isabelle Houghton
“A life in dignity and freedom. Or no life. This is what the protests are all about”. UN Special Representative to Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasscharert quoted what one Iraqi protester told her during her recent UN Security Council briefing.
The Iraqi people have united to fight against rampant corruption and a tired political structure, but hopes for a better future have been caught in a time-old tale of powerful men desperately grabbing onto what little power they have, and powerful countries securing their influence through whatever means necessary at the expense of the well-being of their populations. While the wave of protests that broke out this fall in Iraq, Lebanon, Algeria, and Egypt have led to whispers of a “new Arab Spring”, the protests are not receiving the necessary attention of the international community. The severity of the situation in Iraq – with a rising death toll, excessive violence at the hands of government forces, lack of any promising signs of substantial political change and heavy Iranian support for the current regime – indicates that the international community must look beyond naive hope that a renewed sense of patriotism, national identity, and unity driving popular unrest will alone be enough to topple corrupt and repressive regimes. The international community, which has been largely uninvolved until now, can do more to condemn the oppressive Iraq regime and support the protesters.
Iraq is now in its third month of protests, which began in Baghdad on October 1st. The grass-roots movement, which poses the most serious challenge to Iraq’s political order since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, was sparked by popular opposition the political order and high levels of corruption. Since 2003, the country has been plagued by rampant corruption, high unemployment, and poor public services. Iraq is reportedly the 12th most corrupt country in the world. Despite being one of the most oil-rich countries, earning $65 billion in oil revenue in 2018, Iraq’s government fails to provide basic services like clean drinking water and electricity, and the government is known for its inability to distribute the influx of aid money and its lack of political will to combat corruption. These longstanding grievances were heightened by former Prime Minister Abdel Abdul Mahdi’s decision to demote Iraq’s popular counter-terrorism chief, Abul-Wahab al-Saadi at the end of September. Many Iraqis believe his demotion was directly related to al-Saadi’s stance against corruption.
The first wave of protests lasted until October 9th, when the former Prime Minister Mahdi promised to reshuffle his cabinet and launch schemes to reduce unemployment, however his refusal to call early elections caused protesters to return to the streets on October 24th and protests continue today. The protesters, who do not have a clear leader and are largely peaceful, have been met with excessive and increasingly lethal use of force by government security forces and Iranian backed paramilitary groups. Recent reports cite that more than 500 protestors have been killed and 19,000 have been wounded.
In addition, there has been increased kidnappings, arrests, disappearances of activists, doctors treating wounded protesters, and journalists. Amnesty International reports of a “relentless campaign of intimidation and assault,” through the use of military grade tear-gas grenades, live ammunition, and deadly sniper attacks aimed at protesters. The government has also cracked down on media and social media outlets. The UN Human Rights Commission and Human Rights Watch have called on the Iraqi government to halt its lawless crackdown, and demanded that the US and Europe do more to censure the government.
Rather than deterring demonstrators, increased violence at the hand of government forces inspires protesters to keep fighting. As one protest leader, Haithem al-Mayahi said: “The protesters lost hundreds of their friends, their brothers, their family members… It’s either you fight to win or you die.”
Iraqi people are not only demanding an end to corruption and more employment opportunities, but are also insisting on a complete overhaul of the post-2003 political system implemented by the United States. Iraq’s government is currently a quota system which allocates positions to political parties based on sectarian and ethnic identity. The system has allowed a narrow elite to maintain a firm hold on power and has encouraged patronage and corruption.
Government response to the protests has been divided. While some prominent leaders, like the head Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, have called for new leadership and a rejection of foreign influence, others are more concerned with possible power loss rather than effectively addressing the protester’s demands. Parliament has enacted anti-corruption legislation, but it is most likely cosmetic and will not bring any substantial change. Prime Minister Mahdi formally resigned on November 30th, however he remains in a caretaker position and the constitutional deadline to find a new prime minister has past. The challenge of finding someone who both protesters and political parties support reflects the deep divide between political elite and popular opinion.
Aside from the domestic oppression they face from their own government, Iraqis are also caught at the crossroads of a regional power struggle. Iran has benefitted from a post-2003 divided elite political system it was able to capitalize on the Shia majority, economically supporting Shia political leaders and militias, and in turn exerting their political influence on the country. With Washington’s tight economic sanctions on Iran, hoping to curb Iranian power in the region, Iran increasingly relies on Iraq to “breathe economically” – for both markets and military purposes to protect its interests in Syria and Lebanon.
Iranian influence has been prominent during the protests. Senior Iranian political and military operatives have been in and out of Iraq, ensuring that whomever is nominated for prime minister meets Iran’s needs, and many of the militia units blamed for the most violent attacks on protesters by human rights activists are controlled by Shia parties with close ties to (and armed by) Iran.
Protests have undoubtedly united Iraqi people and have sparked a renewed sense of pride and national identity, that when coupled with immense strength and courage in the face of great adversity, has fueled protests for the past three months. However, the lack of cohesive leadership, the government monopoly on coercion, and Iranian influence supporting the incumbent regime, as of now pose seemingly insurmountable obstacles to regime change. The immense tragedy and devastating human rights violations that the government response has caused demands immediate international attention and action that is largely absent as of now. While news sources and advocacy organizations report daily on the excessive use of force from the Iraqi government and continued human rights violations, the international community is largely silent. While the US and other Western governments have issued statements condemning the actions of the Iraqi government and calling for effective legislation, little action has been taken in terms of sanctions or other diplomatic efforts, to effect actual change and help the protesters overthrow a deeply corrupt regime.
The US has a weak position in the country, and Washington’s main focus in the region at the moment – curbing Iranian power by maintaining tight economic sanctions, has only deepened Iran’s need to assert influence in Iraq. The persistence of the protesters is the force behind true change, however the movement may need external powers to exert pressure on the regime in order to effect a complete political overhaul.