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The Iraq Report: Baghdad attempts to cover up abuses against protesters

The protests began in and around Basra [AFP]

Date of publication: 31 July, 2018

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Our latest round-up of events in Iraq focuses on the repression of activists as protesters find common cause.
The Iraq Report is a weekly feature at The New Arab.
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In what has been a damning month for the Iraqi authorities, international human rights organisations have documented several cases of "excessive use of lethal force" against protesters.

The government also faces allegations that it has intentionally hamstrung social media networks and internet access to stymy the flow of videos showing its forces perpetrating human rights violations against protesters, who have been demonstrating against corruption and a lack of services for more than three weeks.

While Baghdad has attempted to calm the protest movement by sacking officials connected to the energy crisis - one cause that brought demonstrators to the streets - other officials will be put on trial for electoral fraud to try and restore public trust in Iraq's endangered democracy.

However, these measures are likely to fail if the government does not quickly find a way to resolve life-or-death crises, including the ongoing drought and loss of livestock.

Government attempts to cover up human rights abuses

International rights monitors have released several major reports indicating strong concerns regarding Iraqi abuses, including the use of excessive and lethal force against largely unarmed demonstrators.

Protests kicked off across the Shia-dominated south in early July as a dual water and energy crisis, scorching summer temperatures, endemic corruption and a lack of economic opportunities sparked a rash of civil disobedience and demonstrations that has shaken politicians in Baghdad.

Medical officials and protesters say that more than a dozen demonstrators have been killed by government security forces and pro-Iran Shia militias, further fuelling resentment and anger against the post-2003 order.

Amnesty International said earlier this month that it was concerned about reports that the Iraqi government had cut internet access and had heavily clamped down on social media use to prevent protesters from sharing videos of state repression and militia violence.
"We are closely monitoring the situation across southern Iraq and are extremely worried by reports that security forces are beating, arbitrarily detaining and even opening fire on peaceful protesters," said Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty's deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa.

"Deliberately disabling the internet is a sinister restriction to the right to freedom of expression and strongly indicates that the authorities have something to hide," Maalouf added.

While the scale of the abuses is not fully known due to the heavy restrictions on reporting and social media, what has emerged has been horrifying.

Days after Amnesty raised concerns about Baghdad attempting to cover up violence against protesters, Human Rights Watch reported several instances of "excessive use of lethal force". HRW investigated eight protests, in six of which security forces were alleged to have used live ammunition, wounding and killing protesters. In other demonstrations, protesters were detained and beaten, with one claiming to have been beaten so badly he was vomiting blood.

Rights abuses were not limited to the growing protest movement, however, as HRW also reported the existence of detention facilities where the Iraqi government has been detaining suspects accused of terrorism for months without charge.

After previously denying even the existence of such facilities, the Iraqi National Security Services finally allowed HRW access to one such prison complex in east Mosul earlier this month. The human rights group reported seeing "extremely crowded cells", with detainees often complaining they were being held incommunicado without any access to legal assistance, medical attention or family visits.

The 2012-2013 protest movement that was dominated by the Sunni Arab demographic erupted largely due to sectarian discriminatory policies, including the government's use of torture, arbitrary detention, and even turning a blind eye to death squads. The fact that these issues are still extant even after the defeat of the Islamic State group in Iraq shows that Baghdad risks provoking another Sunni-led demonstration movement - one that may easily find common cause with the Shia-led movement to the south.

 
Protests have spread from Basra in the south to the capital, Baghdad [Anadolu]

Officials on trial as protests rage

While Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi seems to have been content to largely ignore Sunni Arab concerns - primarily the reconstruction of their shattered cities after three years of war with IS - he has offered conciliatory gestures to the protesters currently shaking up the south.

Abadi's office announced on Sunday that Electricity Minister Qassem al-Fahdawi had been dismissed from his cabinet position, following weeks of protests demanding that he and other corrupt officials go. The prime minister's office indicated that Fahdawi had been sacked due to the "deterioration in the electricity sector".

Fahdawi is the third electricity minister to be sacked after public uproar against corruption in the energy sector. Iraq has apportioned $40 billion to rebuild the country's power grid since 2003, yet much of this is thought to have been embezzled. Many households still suffer with chronic shortages leading to only a few hours of electricity per day.

The electricity crisis is worsened by the fact that Iraqi summers are scorching, and power outages make it even harder to stay cool, with many opting to buy electricity generators, further adding to their expenses.

The protests have led many religious figures, including Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, to call for the rapid formation of a new government. Speaking from the pulpit during last Friday's sermon in Karbala, Sistani's representative, Sheikh Abdul Mahdi al-Karbalai, said the demands of citizens must be met urgently, and that the new government must prioritise tackling corruption and the provision of basic services.

Sistani's call conflicts with that of election winner and fellow cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose bloc walked away with the most votes in May's heavily boycotted elections. While Sadr is keen on forming a government as soon as possible, he has attempted to ride the wave of discontent by suspending talks until the demands of the protesters had been met.

This arguably allows him to distance himself from shouldering any of the blame for the current crisis, while also pragmatically positioning him as a champion of common people.

Whatever happens with the negotiations to form a new government, they could still be undone by the vote recount that was ordered after allegations of mass electoral fraud. The Iraqi judiciary announced that five electoral officials would be put on trial for vote buying, election violations, fraud and corruption.

Iraqis may view the sacking of a minister and the indictment of several electoral officials as being far too little, far too late. Iraq has some of the highest corruption rates in the world, according to Transparency International, and it is unlikely that the removal of one minister and the prosecution of several electoral officials will be seen as more than a dressing on a still-bleeding wound.

Catastrophic loss of livestock 

Baghdad is also contending with the growing water crisis - now at the point of catastrophe - as the parched land fails to provide sufficient sustenance for either man or beast.

Long described as the "land of the two rivers" due to the Tigris and Euphrates that have historically kept the land irrigated and arable, Iraq is suffering through one of the worst droughts to hit the country.

Desertification has been a growing problem for years, as mismanagement has seen authorities fail to maximise Iraq's already-threatened water supplies. With this year's rainfall being particularly scarce, reservoirs currently stand at only 10 percent full.

Neighbouring Iran and Turkey have also contributed to Israq's woes by diverting and rerouting several rivers and tributaries that have led to one of the worst water crises to afflict Iraq in its modern history.

Turkey in particular has recently constructed its Ilisu dam project on the Tigris, which partially contributed to the June decision of Baghdad's agricultural ministry to suspend the cultivation of rice, corn and other water-hungry crops.

Now, almost half a million livestock-rearing families in southern Iraq have been hit, with almost a third of cattle dying due to the drought and its effects. With such severe water shortages, farmers are unable to keep their herds watered, and have either been forced to slaughter their animals or watch them die of thirst as they can only provide water and hay for part of the flock.

As the agricultural sector suffers, and with dwindling revenues from oil exports, the government is struggling to provide sufficient food and water to an increasingly angry population, while also risking famine. Arguably, without the most important resource of all - water - nothing Baghdad offers its citizens will be enough to quench their fury.

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