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Tristan Dunning

After Chilcot: Iraqis stand up to sectarianism and corruption

Iraqis are again demanding better accountability from officials who are responsible for security [Getty]

Date of publication: 14 July, 2016

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Comment: Iraq's destitute population continues to suffer the depredations of war and terrorism, but is determined to rectify the damage of the 2003 invasion, write Tristan Dunning and Damian Doyle.

The precis of the Chilcot Report largely confirmed what we already knew about the invasion of Iraq in 2003 - that it was based on shoddy evidence, and that it had been predicted in advance that regional and sub-state actors would exploit the post-invasion chaos.

The most recent spate of IS bombings killing over 280 in Baghdad, once more throws into sharp relief the bloody price that everyday Iraqis (and Syrians) continue to pay for the pandemonium unleashed when western adventurism opens the proverbial Pandora's Box of externally induced instability in the Middle East. In the first week of July alone, 507 Iraqi civilians lost their lives. 

Not only do Iraqis continue to be killed en masse, but what continues to go scandalously underreported in the mainstream western media is that, as discussed in both September 2015 and March 2016, there has been a large, varied and ongoing popular movement of Iraqis striving to reclaim their country from the kleptocratic political class installed following the US-led invasion.

Not only were the political elite largely imported from abroad, in addition, the institutionalisation of a sectarian political system and the ongoing support of western powers have continued to enable their rapacious behaviour to the ongoing detriment of Iraqi citizens. Today's street demonstrations are only the latest manifestation of popular discontent that has been expressed through protests time and time again since 2003.

When the international media takes note of Iraq's ongoing protests - which after a quiet Ramadan are expected to resume this weekend - it characterises them as "mobs loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr", the "firebrand cleric" who has mystified outside observers since 2003. It is certainly true that al-Sadr has attempted to position himself as moral overseer of a broader protest movement, and that his movement has the ability to bring people onto the streets.

Yet the movement also comprises a wide range of civil society organisations that oppose the sectarian quota system, recognise its role in perpetuating Iraq's entrenched corruption, and link the debilitating effects of corruption to the country's tragic vulnerability to terrorist violence.

Despite the international fixation on the group that calls itself Islamic State, everyday Iraqis often perceive the Iraqi political elite as an equal or greater threat

Indeed, despite the international fixation on the group that calls itself Islamic State, everyday Iraqis often perceive the Iraqi political elite as an equal or greater threat, identifying corruption - and the system that enables it - as the true enemy of the Iraqi people.

The conflict between the Iraqi people and their supposed representatives came to a climax recently when Iraqi protestors climbed blast walls to peacefully 'storm' the Green Zone and 'occupied' the federal parliamentary building. 

Participants in the pro-reform movement showcased their PR acumen by taking selfies in the luxurious surrounds of the Green Zone, distinct from the "red" or unsafe zone that is the rest of the country. They checked in to the parliament on Facebook and hung out for a while, then made sure to (be seen to) sweep up the mess before departing a day later.

As predicted by commentators in the know, security personnel stood aside and watched these shenanigans unfolding. The political elite turned tail and fled in a manner which wouldn't have been out of place in Mosul circa June 2014. 

On his return to parliament, an anguished, upset and angry Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi was photographed surveying the minor damage inflicted on a white luxury couch and the photo was soon circulated throughout Iraqi media, in some government boffin's PR attempt to pull at the heartstrings of the Iraqi masses.

The stated aim of this programme is that the new Iraqi state will have 'the wellbeing of its citizens as its first objective'

Far from chastened, Iraqis immediately took to social media to mockingly vent their fury at the political elite for seeming to care more about minor damage to a couch, than about the thousands of Iraqis slaughtered by war and terrorism, or the millions more left bereft of basic amenities such as electricity and drinking water. This, in turn, gave rise to the #My_Couch_Is_My_Pride hashtag.

Tragically, a subsequent attempt to penetrate the Green Zone was thwarted by state violence that international human rights organisations are demanding be investigated. After the repressed 20 May 2016 protest, activists told us how they had planned to perform a symbolic funeral inside the Green Zone, simultaneously honouring the victims of a horrific terrorist attack in Baghdad's Sadr City and demanding government accountability for inadequate security.

Family members of some of those killed in the bombing were to take part in the ceremony. The protest was repressed by security forces before the funeral could be performed. Activists learned their lesson: They responded to tear gas attacks by obtaining gas masks and training people to use them in preparation for future events.

The gas masks are just one example of learning and sharing. A group of civil society organisations assembled following the first infiltration of the Green Zone in order to discuss what they had learned: The need for nonviolence and good relations with security forces, the importance of solidarity links and the need to go beyond protest slogans to develop a political programme to replace the sectarian quota system.

The stated aim of this programme is that the new Iraqi state will have "the wellbeing of its citizens as its first objective". 

A picture is now emerging of a capable and evolving political movement motivated by a sophisticated critique of corruption and sectarianism

A picture is now emerging of a capable and evolving political movement motivated by a sophisticated critique of corruption and sectarianism. It also recognises the link between a deeply dysfunctional political system and the ongoing horrors of terrorism.

It has the ability to penetrate the Green Zone, makes effective use of social media to organise and share political messages, and demonstrates a capacity to share the lessons that it has learned through its political actions.

Through our research on socio-political popular movements in Iraq, our engagement with activists reminds us that protests are only the most visible part of the movement's broader activities. Out of sight, there is organising and planning, alliance building, education and independent short film-making projects.

Yet supposedly well-informed analysts seem blind to these facts on the ground - or, perhaps, are just unwilling to engage with the reality of Iraqi political and social agency.

Instead, they portray protestors as easily-manipulated "mobs", effectively dismissing the motivations, frustrations, and desires of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who have taken part in nonviolent political action in cities across the country - a classic manifestation of neo-Orientalism.

But perhaps this should not be surprising: Since 2003 outsiders have acted in the paternalistically arrogant belief that they know what Iraq needs best and, consequently, have sidelined the voices of the Iraqi every(wo)man, ie the very people to whom the US-led invasion was supposed to bring democracy and representation.

Iraqis are once more demanding accountability from officials who are responsible for security

Meanwhile in Karrada, the Baghdad suburb that suffered this month's devastating terrorist bombing - the deadliest attack since 2003 - Iraqis have again shown their frustration and anger with the political elite. Prime Minister Abadi was chased from the site of the atrocities when he visited to pay his condolences.

Other politicians attempting to make appearances at the makeshift memorial have been similarly criticised. In short, Iraqis are once more demanding accountability from officials who are responsible for security.

Finally, there is an exquisite irony involved when commentators castigate Iraqi "mobs" for "invading" the Green Zone and "occupying" the parliament given that the parliament is ostensibly symbolic of Iraqi democracy; ie the building is supposed to be the representative of the Iraqi people

In short, the choice of words describing the "invasion" and "occupation" of their own building, notionally symbolic of democratic representation, speaks volumes about the seriousness with which others take the sovereignty of the Iraqi masses. 

Damian Doyle is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University in Canberra. His research is focused on the Sadrist Movement in Iraq. Follow him on Twitter: @toaf

Dr Tristan Dunning is an adjunct research fellow in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Queensland in Australia.  He is the author of Hamas, Jihad and Popular Legitimacy: Reinterpreting Resistance in Palestine published as part of Routledge’s Critical Terrorism Studies Series in February 2016. Follow him on Twitter: @trisdunning

The authors have a forthcoming chapter, "Politics or Piety? Problematising the Sunni-Shi'a Schism in raq" coming out soon in the edited volume, "Islam: Global Issues, Challenges and Perspectives of the 21st Century".

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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