What Is Happening in Iraq?

1 week agoANALYSIS


By Mohammed Hussein

Introduction 

On October 1st, about 500 protesters gathered in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square to show their anger against widespread corruption in public institutions, inadequate service provisions, and lack of job opportunities. The protest, fairly organized by activists who had campaigned for it through their Facebook accounts, faced heavy handed security forces and their live ammunitions, especially when they marched to Green Zone, well-guarded area in the center of Baghdad where most of government institutions, international community and state-leaders’ offices are located. The confrontation quickly invited thousands of Baghdad residents to join the protesters, and violence broke out in four different areas of Baghdad. In the following nights and days, similar protests emerged in most of the Iraqi Shiite majority governorates and cities such as Najaf, Kufa, Karbala, Diwaniya, Basra, and Amarah.
most of the confrontations, protesters were throwing rocks at security forces that responded with live ammunitions. Until October 5th, 93 persons (mostly protesters) were killed and more than 3,978 are injured, according to Iraq’s High Commission of Human Rights. The Iraqi Government took many steps to prevent further protests, but the protesters found ways to gather despite imposed curfews and cut of internet services in the whole country except for Kurdistan Region. 
Although, prime minister Adil Abdul Mahdi reacted quickly by promising serious reform plans in government institutions and salaries for low-income families in addition to improving employment opportunities, the protests continued and security forces used the most violent methods to disperse them. On the official level, the Iraqi Government has asked for dialogue with the representatives of the protesters, but not much success has been achieved. In addition, contrary to what some news outlets have reported, still some of the protest leaders in Nasiriya, Najaf, and Baghdad deny sending any delegation to negotiate with government and parliament, according to activists talked to ICPAR on condition of anonymity.
Who Are the Protesters?
The protesters, in Baghdad and other governorates, are mostly young male Shiites frustrated by lack of job opportunities and service provisions. They are basically constituents of the ruling elite who have been leading the Iraqi governments since 2003. But now they are asking to overthrow the government and change the whole regime believing that it is too corrupt and not able to address any of their demands. The new generation, mostly grew up after the 2003 regime change and never experienced Saddam Hussein Regime’s brutality, can’t be convinced with the political slogans and sectarian values their parents were satisfied with. Therefore, they are more radical in their demands and want to change the entire establishment, while they lack political organization, coherent leadership, and enough resources to do so. 
Although several activists and politicians have stated that these protests deleted the sectarian and ethnic boundaries the post-2003 ruling elite has created among Iraqi people, Arab Sunni neighborhoods in Baghdad and governorates in the whole country have not seen such a violent protest. It is not because they are satisfied with the current Iraqi government but because they are afraid of reactions from government backed Shiite Militias (Popular Mobilization Units – PMUs) that are controlling their areas. According to Shekh Rasd Al-Jboori, displaced tribal leader from Anbar who lives in Erbil, “In cities like Mosul and Tikrit, if we say anything to express our grievances, they [Shiite Militias] immediately accuse us of being Da’esh [Arabic acronym of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.]” Likewise, 28 years old Arab Sunni teacher, from the Arab Sunni majority neighborhood in Baghdad A’dhamya, showed his fear about participating in the protests. He stated, “Even without protesting, they are jailing us with fake charges related to Da’esh.” 
Although Kurds have the same complains and grievances in both Kurdistan and disputed areas, Iraqi government is not what they would be protesting against. They usually protest against ruling elite of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Different constituents protest against different oligarchs, while the problems and grievances are the same.  
Institutionalized corruption, Iranian influence and interferences, lack of job opportunities and service provisions are the main factors behind the protests, but these have been common and familiar issues since the mid 2000s. So, what sparked the recent wave of the protests are some minor events, according to Noora, one of the activists who is in touch with protest-organizers in various areas, inside and outside of Baghdad.
First, repositioning General Abdul Wahab al-Saadi from elite Counter Terror forces to another position in Iraq’s Ministry of Defense, which he rejected and saw as humiliation to his position and contribution in the fight against ISIS, triggered huge public anger. Al-Saadi played great role in fighting ISIS and taking back Mosul and Anbar. He is seen as a national hero who was pushed out from his position by Iranian influence within the government. Thousands of Iraqis campaigned in social media networks to stop the reposition decision, but PM Abdul-Mahdi refused to listen, as Noora stated. 
The second reason was demolishing illegal houses in certain neighborhoods of Baghdad. Local authorities destroyed about 300 illegally and poorly built houses on municipality’s lands in Baghdad. Most of the owners are left on the street and have no place to live as they can’t afford renting prices. 
Third main factor was cracking down on a job-seeking protest organized by graduate-degree holders in Baghdad. Last month, they organized a demonstration to ask for employment, but they faced Iraqi security forces. Photos of security forces’ attacking these people widely circulated in Iraq’s social networks and triggered large public anger.
Finally, Iraqi Minister of Health resigned from his position after harassments from militia leaders and corrupt mafias who are benefiting government contracts in health institutions, no PM Adil Abdul Mahdi neither Iraqi parliament could protect him. This issue was widely reported in local media and added flavor to the ongoing public frustration about this government.
These factors sparked the October 1st protests in Baghdad according to Noora, but real causes are still the familiar factors that can be summarized as institutionalized corruption and dysfunctional state institutions.

Unprecedented Protests Took Everyone by Surprise  
The recent wave of protests is new and unprecedented in many aspects. It is first time Shiite majority cities, towns, and neighborhoods protest against the post-2003 ruling elite, which is supposed to represent them. It is also first time such a wide scale protest happens with no clear and known leadership. Young people set up committees to lead their protest and demands in all the cities and towns where the new wave of the protests reached. The only thing connecting them are their demands and causes. It is totally spontaneous young uprising against the post 2003 establishment. It is also the first time to see a political dynamic among Iraqi Shiite community rejecting solutions and mandates of Grand Ayatollah Sistani, who called for stopping violence and government reforms. Several protesters publicly called the Sistani’s solutions, which were in the form of a letter and read out by his representative in Karbala, Ahmad Safi, as frustrating.
However, the deep driving force of the ongoing protest are laying beneath the Iraq’s diseased economy and dysfunctional state institutions. Iraq, country of 38.9 million people, has population growth rate at 2.28%, which means Iraqi population is facing (youth bulge) demographic term by which the vast majority of the population is young. The number of young people entering their reproductive years and the labor force is expected to increase significantly in the upcoming years. According to the World Bank data, more than 20% of Iraqi youth (ages 15-24) do not have a job, and they are also neither in employment nor in education or training. Unemployment rate is 9.9, and almost 17 percent of the economically active population is underemployed. 

Iraq’s Institutionalized Corruption 
Since mid 1970s, corruption has always been a critical issue in Iraq’s state institutions. The 2003 regime change just exacerbated it. Challenges such as misusing of public institutions, money laundering, oil smuggling, election fraud, and widespread bureaucratic bribery have pulled Iraq to the bottom of international corruption rankings in the past 16 years. Data from Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), published annually by Transparency International, shows how Iraq’s position has kept low and exacerbated since 2003. In the 2019 CPI index, Iraq is ranked at 168th (out of 180) countries. The level of the corruption reached to a point of trading public offices between oligarchs. An ICPAR reports revealed that Iraq lost more than $785 billion USD to corruption in the years between 2003 and 2019.  
The problem is not what the oligarchs divide between themselves after months of inter-elite fighting following each election. Now, Iran and the United States also playing their role in exacerbating the fragile situation and imposing their willingness in each government formation process. 
Those who constitute the largest bloc in Iraqi parliament and form cabinets should consider as two rival regional and global powers. Regional and inter-elite conflicts have kept the Muhasasa Regime (dividing government positions based on sectarian, ethnic, and political lines). In the same time, the Regime has failed to deliver adequate services and security for Iraqis as it also failed in dealing with the past few days’ protests. 

A Widening Gap
The Muhasasa Regime is currently in its deadlock, and its continuity is actually brining down Iraq to an absolute chaos. It has accumulated too many problems that created a huge gap between what the protesters are demanding and what the current government is able to deliver. The Iraqi leadership is trying to persuade the protesters to go back home, asking more more time and chance to address their demands. But the protesters’ main slogan is “The People Want Downfall of the Regime.”
“They want to change the regime not just the post-2003 political leaders and the government,” said Sabah al-Rafai, one of the protest organizers in Baghdad’s Amil Neighborhood. Although the protesters’ demands and expectations do not look realistic, given their disorganized movement and unclear leadership they have showed, but so far they have been able to corner the current Iraqi leadership and challenge its authorities in Baghdad.
PM Adil Abdul Mahdi, known for being the most moderate and adequate figure among the current ruling elite, is facing accumulated problems of the last 16 years. He has not been able to complete his cabinet due to the inter-elite power struggles. As he has no political party, personal militia, and parliamentarian bloc to support him, he always needs to persuade several political blocs in parliament for most of his decisions. The required consensus to his decisions has increased the government dysfunctionality farther. 
Besides, there is not much PM Abdul Mahdi and his cabinet can do outside of state offices. When it comes about contradicting PMU and main political parties’ interests, the government is disabled because the main political parties have controlled the states and some PMU groups do not abide by any rules or regulations. For instance, the PMU’s 30th brigade (In Nineveh) managed to reject a decree from PM Abdul-Mahdi to reallocate them Last August. 

Implications of the Protests 
After the ISIS war, this wave of protests is the most effective political and security event in Iraq. Its implication will either change the political landscape in Baghdad or it is going to push it farther towards a total chaos. The protesters’ radical demands have not left any room to keep with mid-point solutions. They have been demanding regime change and dramatically replacing the entire ruling elite. 
Meanwhile, Iraqi government have failed in handling the protests. The government and KRG have had very bad record on dealing with protesters. They usually use untrained military and security forces to deal with peaceful protesters. Previously Nuri Al-Maliki’s government fired on protesters in Arab Sunni majority cities and towns, and created the social environment that welcomed Da’esh militants in June 2014. Latter, Haider Al-Abadi’s government used live ammunition and excessive forces to crack down on protesters in Basra. Likewise, the KRG’s security forces have always used live ammunition to disperse protesters. 
This method of suppressing protesters is counterproductive, and it has never helped solving any problem. It terminates protests for sometimes to come back later in a larger scale. Again, using the classical way to deal with protests from the first day just exacerbated the situation and invited more people to join it. They failed in all their attempts to prevent the spread of the protests. Their simplest promises to distribute public money and lands over poor families perceived as humiliation by many Iraqis who expressed their views in social media. Plus, on October 1st, when about 500 peaceful protesters were using social media to amplify their activities, the Baghdad authorities did not shut down Internet services-companies but clashed with the protesters. In the following night, when violence broke out in almost five areas of Baghdad, they shut down the Internet. 
This wave of protests has not achieved much, but it dramatically shocked the ruling elite. It also expected to change some of their behaviors. How the behavioral change will affect the state institutions’ performances and strengthen counter corruption efforts will depend on a course of political and administrative decisions the ruling elite will follow in the coming days. If they will push for a rapid and required reform, they will probably keep their regime working and let PM Abdul-Mahdi’s government survive this crisis. Otherwise, they will face similar protests and embroil Iraq to more political chaos and security mayhem.

Protesters’ Dreams and Political Vultures
 Reacting to the protests, Moqtada al-Sadr, head of one of the largest blocs in Iraqi Parliament- Sairoon, ordered his lawmakers to suspend their participation in parliament sessions until the government introduces a reform program. Muqtada al-Sadr, on October 4th, called for new elections to be held soon, and stated, “Respect the blood of Iraqis by the resignation of the government and preparing for early elections overseen by international monitors.” However, many politicians, including Ahmad Jboori, lawmaker from Nineveh, stated that election fraud that happened in May 2018 was actually the main reason for the ongoing conflicts.
Also, other political parties tried to take advantage of the situation by distancing themselves from the government and blaming violence from both sides; however, the protesters do not want to hear it, in Nasryah, they burned down all the main political parties’ offices to show their outrages against all the political parties. Calls for snap elections or forming a new government will not change the bottom line of the current problems. Also, the protesters might perceive any attempt by the political parties to snap elections and new cabinet as a vulture-ous effort to use their blood and anger for political gains.   
For young Iraqis, the problem is not with a person or a party but rather it is so systematic that it needs radical changes which will be done only when the political elite is removed. For them, it does not make any sense when Haidar al-Abbadi or Nuri Al Maliki (former Prime Ministers) ask for the resignation of the PM Abdul-Mahdi when they were in office for 12 years, the worst years for most of the Iraqis. Thus, it is clear that protesters want something different, and all the vulture acts by political parties to atone or distance themselves from the current reality is the biggest challenge for the dream of the young Iraqis. 
Obviously, the ongoing protests would move Iraq to another stage, but not clear to a total chaos or better governance. Several scenarios are expected take into account the ongoing dynamics in Baghdad and Najaf. First, the government and its allied militias (Iranian backed PMU groups) will use all they have to crack down on the protesters. This might lead to a stronger come back from the protesters and ultimately end up with major conflicts and civil war. This is how Syrian civil war started; from Arab Spring protests to armed conflicts in streets of Daraa and Aleppo. 
The second scenario is reaching a mid-point solution to get both protesters and government leaders on a serious reform plan (within a reasonable timetable) to gradually fix the current dysfunctional system. This scenario will be a win-win deal for both sides, and for the first time it is going to let Iraqis’ new generation benefit their Iraq.

This article is produced by Iraqi Center for Policy Analysis and Research


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