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The Iraq Report: Iraq ablaze as protesters defy curfews leaving dozens dead Open in fullscreen

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The Iraq Report: Iraq ablaze as protesters defy curfews leaving dozens dead

Protesters in the Iraqi capital Baghdad's central Tayeran Square [Getty]

Date of publication: 4 October, 2019

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Iraq finds itself caught in the throes of civil unrest and violence as anti-government protests launch themselves anew in the corruption-ridden Middle Eastern country.
Once more, Iraq finds itself caught in the throes of civil unrest and violence as anti-government protests launch themselves anew in the corruption-ridden Middle Eastern country.

Demonstrators took to the streets on Tuesday as the almost annual ritual of protesting against graft, no public services, a miserable economic outlook, and political subservience to foreign powers went into full swing. 

Iraqi authorities have imposed curfews, particularly in the capital Baghdad, and security forces have used live rounds to disperse protesters, leaving at least 33 dead, including a child.

While activists have asserted that the death toll is in fact higher, it has proven impossible to verify due to the fact that the government has also imposed a media blackout and has cut off internet access to minimise the chances of demonstrators being able to broadcast what is truly happening to the rest of the world.

Less Arab Spring, more Iraqi Autumn

While some have sought to draw parallels between the protests in Iraq to the pivotal events of the Arab Spring that irreversibly marked the region for the better part of a decade now, this is not a helpful comparison. 

The government has also imposed a media blackout and has cut off internet access to minimise the chances of demonstrators being able to broadcast what is truly happening to the rest of the world

For one, the Arab Spring revolutions were, in large part, revolutionary in nature. The popular refrain "the people want the collapse of the regime" was chanted in protests from Libya to Syria and everywhere in between.

Arab Spring demonstrators also frequently spoke about their demands of "bread and dignity", highlighting the importance of priorities such as being able to feed one's family and to live and work without being subjected to fear and humiliation from the authorities.

Explainer: Why are people protesting in Iraq?
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Iraqis, on the other hand, have been protesting about the same things year after year for almost as long as the Arab Spring has been a studied phenomenon.

Iraqi demands have focused on revitalising public services, fighting corruption, and providing economic opportunity to its citizens, particularly its youth.

Currently youth unemployment stands at 25 percent according to World Bank figures, with many job opportunities being either paid for with bribes or given to party loyalists in a corrupt system of patronage.

Public services are similarly shambolic, with most Iraqis getting between five to eight hours of electricity a day, with some – particularly hundreds of thousands still held in displacement camps – receiving even less.

With summer temperatures reaching highs of 50 degrees Celsius, it is not surprising that Iraqis' tempers flare along with the soaring heat. This is particularly the case when, as has repeatedly occurred in Basra over the past few years, the water that people use to cool down is itself contaminated and causes outbreaks of deadly diseases.

This level of gross mismanagement of public services has led large proportions of the population to suspect that, despite the billions of dollars invested in bringing Iraq's power network and water supplies back up to modern standards, nothing has been achieved because of corruption.

Transparency International has consistently ranked Iraq as one of the most corrupt countries on the face of the planet.
Iraq currently holds the unenviable spot of being number 12 on the list ahead of nations such as Egypt ruled by President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, a country notorious for its corruption.

Further, and as in the case of Egypt under Sisi's unelected predecessor Hosni Mubarak, all the Arab Spring countries were clearly perceived as being autocratic dictatorships and did not even have the slightest veneer of democratic governance.

Iraq, on the other hand, is acknowledged as being a democracy by governments around the world despite the fact that, in practice, its grip on democratic standards is tenuous at best.

Currently youth unemployment stands at 25% according to World Bank figures, with many job opportunities being either paid for with bribes or given to party loyalists in a corrupt system of patronage

During the last elections in 2018, there was less than a 45 percent voter turnout, with millions opting to eschew voting in what they perceived to be such an inherently corrupt and fixed political process that it was not worth even casting a vote as nothing would change.

Similarly, countless more voters, predominantly Sunni Arabs displaced by the fighting against Islamic State (IS) militants, were effectively barred from voting due to the fact that they could not return home and found it difficult to obtain new identity documents due to bureaucratic roadblocks.

There is also the impact of foreign powers to take into consideration. A lot of anger has been expressed by Iraqi demonstrators at those interfering in their country's affairs, with some bearing slogans "we want a country" and "just give us a country".

With activists openly criticising particularly Iran's role in Iraq's woes, this is indicative of how anger is not only being directed at the federal and provincial governments, but also at those who have been pulling their strings for close to 17 years since Saddam Hussein's dictatorship was toppled by an illegal US-led invasion in 2003. 

While it is attractive to compare Iraq's annual protests to the ongoing effects of the Arab Spring phenomenon, Iraq is in its own unique paradigm and cannot be so easily compartmentalised or categorised for simplicity's sake.

What next for Iraqi demonstrators?

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With the death toll steadily creeping up, questions have been raised about what to expect from these protests and where they differ from previous years.

Although these demonstrations are very much organic with no organised leadership but mainly being mobilised through social media and alternate technologies to stay concealed from the authorities, they are undoubtedly influenced by events going on around them.

For one, the ongoing US-Iran tensions in the Arabian Gulf as well as the renewed and reinvigorated bickering over the now collapsed Iran nuclear deal have played a decisive role in events in Iraq itself that have influenced local political action.

The sacking of deputy Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) chief, Lieutenant General Abdulwahab al-Saadi, last Friday was motivated by an Iranian desire to cull any elements viewed as being pro-Washington from within Iraq's security command structures.

While Saadi and the CTS were instrumental in the defeat of IS earning him recognition particularly in the Iraqi Shia-dominated south, he has a somewhat marred population in central and northern areas where he is seen as having contributed to the destruction of Sunni cities, including Mosul, Beiji, and Tikrit.

Also, as Saadi is perceived as someone who is willing to play ball with the United States, his pro-Iran rivals within other military units including the Iran-backed but Iraq-sanctioned Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) and their political pressure groups in parliament led to his sacking. He has now become something of a poster boy for activists seeking to throw shade at Iranian involvement in Iraq.

Iraq has also recently reopened its Qaim border crossing with Syria on Monday in what has been touted as an attempt to improve bilateral trade and ties between the two former foes.

This is, however, not very believable as trade with Syria is obviously precarious given the ongoing civil war there and the fact that the Syrian economy is in freefall thanks to its own problems with graft, mismanagement, and its debts to backers Iran and Russia.

The border reopening comes at a time when Iran is trying to pile pressure on the US Trump administration to force them to reinstate the terms of the now defunct 2015 nuclear deal that the incumbent American leader walked away from.

The Iraqi side of the border will be policed and secured by the PMF who are loyal to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) despite being a formal part of the Iraqi armed forces themselves. Meanwhile, the Syrian side of the border will be protected by a sprawling Iranian military base that is allegedly capable of holding and transporting arms such as ballistic missiles.

What this demonstrates is that, far from facilitating relations between Syria and Iraq as two sovereign countries, it is Iranian strategic priorities that are taking control of domestic affairs in both countries. Both sides of the border are secured by Iran's assets. 

What this demonstrates is that, far from facilitating relations between Syria and Iraq as two sovereign countries, it is Iranian strategic priorities that are taking control of domestic affairs in both countries

With so much for Iran, the US, and the participants in the Iraqi political process to lose from the current system of corruption, patronage, nepotism and mismanagement, it is unsurprising that they have opted to cut off all communications.

This will likely result in what happens annually in that activists will be subjected to death and violence, including imprisonment, being forcibly disappeared, and torture. However, this bleak state of affairs cannot continue, and as Iraqis mobilise underground political movements, the central authorities run the risk of dealing with a problem they will no longer be able to control.

The Iraq Report is a fortnightly feature at The New Arab.

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