By Mohammed Hussein
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
article is produced by Iraqi Center for
Policy Analysis and Research