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Iraq’s protests, explained

Demonstrators are protesting the failures of Iraq’s political system — and Tehran’s influence.

An Iraqi protester in a burqa raises their arms while others wave flags in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square.
Iraqi protesters on November 4, 2019.
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

Dozens of Iraqi protesters rushed the Iranian consulate on Sunday in the city of Karbala, where they tried to scale and set fire to the outer walls.

The protesters brought Iraqi flags to hang on the consulate, according to reports. It was a symbol of defiance against Tehran, as protesters reject Iran’s growing influence in Iraqi politics. That frustration, and disillusionment over the Iraqi political system, is fueling the months-long protests in cities like Baghdad and Nasiriyah and other majority-Shia cities in the south of Iraq.

At least three people were killed in Karbala, reportedly by security forces, as demonstrators stormed the consulate building. And in Baghdad, Iraq’s capital, at least five people died after clashes between anti-government protesters and security forces. Reports say security forces opened fire on the demonstrators, who tried to charge into Baghdad’s Green Zone, where the government buildings are headquartered.

The unrest in Iraq began in early October, with Iraqis protesting the lack of job opportunities and high unemployment, and what they saw as the government’s inability to deliver basic services, like electricity, and repair badly damaged infrastructure. These socioeconomic grievances morphed into larger anti-corruption protests. Anger over the Iraqi government’s incompetence and lack of accountability has also fueled Iraqis’ anger toward Iran, which demonstrators feel has outsized control over Iraq’s politicians and domestic affairs.

The Iraqi protests are now entering their second month, and have intensified in the past two weeks. At least 250 Iraqi protesters have been killed, and many blame the government and the security forces (some of which also have ties to Iran) for the violence. Protesters are now demanding a sweeping overhaul of the country’s political system, which has been in place since the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. Their frustration is trained on political elites, whom they see benefiting from the system at the expense of ordinary Iraqis.

Iraqi President Barham Salih has said he will draft a new electoral law designed to take away some of the power from political factions, and when passed, will allow for new elections. He has also said Iraqi Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi would resign once a replacement is selected, but it’s not clear if he actually will step aside, or whether Iran will let him. And even if he does, it might do little to remedy the frustration that’s spilled over in these weeks of protest.

The unrest in Iraq looks unlikely to stop anytime soon. “It’s really a fork in the road,” Bilal Wahab, an Iraqi politics expert and fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Studies, said of the protests. The pressure of the protests could force the government to make political reforms. “Or they’re going to say — especially if Iran’s influence were to gain the upper hand here — let’s do it the Iran way and let’s crackdown on the protesters,” he added.

The protests, then, are unlikely to fade quietly. But whether protesters will achieve their demands also remains uncertain.

Here’s a quick overview of what sparked the protests in Iraq, what’s happening now, and what could happen next.

How the Iraqi protests began

On October 1, Iraqi anti-government protests erupted in Baghdad. Protesters were drawn to the streets over high unemployment, lack of basic services, and the country’s crumbling and damaged infrastructure, much of which still hasn’t been rebuilt in the 16 years since the US-led invasion and in the two years after the Iraqi government declared the Islamic State defeated.

The demonstrators — which, at first, were largely young and male — blamed the Iraqi government for these failures.

Though the protests erupted quickly, the discontent with the Iraqi government has been percolating for years. Demonstrations against the government had happened over the past few years but didn’t really materialize into a sustained protest movement.

But a few things may have helped ignite the most recent uprising. PhD and Master’s students had spent weeks peacefully protesting unemployment and lack of job opportunities outside some of Baghdad’s government buildings, and video of demonstrators being dispersed by water cannons in late September drew a lot of attention to the government’s heavy-handed tactics.

Then, the Iraqi government announced in late September that it was demoting a popular Iraqi military leader. Staff Lieutenant General Abdulwahab al-Saadi was a leader in Iraq’s Counter-Terrorism Service, which helped retake Mosul from ISIS and defeat the terror group in the country. Saadi is a broadly popular figure in Iraq for his role in defeating the terror group, and his unjustified demotion — to an underwhelming desk job in Iraq’s defense ministry — was seen as a huge insult.

Many speculated that Iran was the reason he was sidelined, since Saadi worked closely with the US (and Saudi Arabia). The diminishing of a national hero infuriated Iraqis. In the early days of the protests, demonstrators held up posters of Saadi and supporters protested on Twitter with the hashtag “we are all Saadi.”

As the protests escalated that first week of October, Iraqi security forces cracked down aggressively; dozens of protesters were killed and scores injured. Security services used water cannons, tear gas, and live ammunition to clear the demonstrators. Authorities also instituted an internet blackout in certain regions to prevent people from organizing on social media and imposed a curfew in Baghdad to keep people off the streets.

“We want the very basic rights: Electricity, water, employment, and medicine, and nothing else,” Mohammed Jassim, a protester, told the Associated Press after the October 1 demonstrations. “But this government is shooting at the crowd.”

The crackdown intensified and broadened the protests beyond Baghdad. In the first week of protests, about 150 were killed and thousands wounded. The aggressive response of the security forces — and the government’s deflection of blame for any role in it — personified the frustration that the Iraqi government was both corrupt and wholly indifferent to its citizens’ demands. And the outrage turned from simple anti-government protests to calls for reforming the entire Iraqi political system.

“The protesters’ demands became more maximalist, they asked for changing the political system, changing the election laws, having fresh elections, asking the government to resign,” Wahab said. “So all of this is brewing, but in parallel to this, the question of brutality, the question of killing protesters, also started to drive a desire, or call for justice.”

There was a two-week lull in the protests, but they started again in earnest around October 25 and have sustained themselves ever since. They’ve also put even more pressure on the Iraqi government — and have increasingly challenged Iran’s influence.

People are rejecting Iraq’s political system and Iran’s fingerprints

These protests in Iraq in recent weeks have been some of the largest in years. Demonstrators have flocked to Baghdad’s Tahrir Square and protesters have shut down roads and schools in the city. Over the weekend, demonstrators blocked a highway leading to a critical port near Basra. Dozens and dozens of protesters have been killed since the protests started up again at the end of October.

Most of the protests are raging in Shia-majority towns in the southern part of Iraq. But they are not sectarian demonstrations; instead, this is a show of Iraqi nationalism. “We want a country,” is among the slogans protesters chant.

The protesters are demanding the total remaking of the Iraqi government. After the US-led invasion in 2003 and the fall of Saddam Hussein, the US helped create an Iraqi government that worked along sectarian lines to represent the Shia, Sunnis, and Kurds. The government is Shia-led but, at least in the protesters’ eyes now, the current system empowers political factions and makes individual politicians less accountable,

And the political class has benefitted as the rest of Iraq has suffered. Corruption permeates every level of government, and officials largely act with impunity. Political leaders benefit from lucrative patronage networks. According to Haaretz, $450 billion in oil revenues that should have gone back to the state has gone missing, most likely into the pockets of political elites and their cronies.

As Iraqis deal with electricity shortages and cities still in ruins, they’re directly linking that political corruption with their own worsening situations.

“This is reaction to 16 years of system failure,” Fanar Haddad, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, told me. “The sense that this is a political system that has cohered that robs the many for the services of the few and those with connections to the few.”

And then there’s Iran, which has increased its influence and control over many of the Shia-led political networks in Iraq. Especially as US influenced has waned, Tehran’s clout has grown and demonstrators see politicians and many Shia militia groups as beholden to the Iranian government. In some respects, the grievances against Iranian meddling are a byproduct of the larger frustration with the Iraqi government’s incompetence — and the sense that Iraqi politicians are beholden to just about everyone else but the Iraqi people.

The Iraqi government is trying to respond. It may be too little, too late.

The Iraqi government’s response to the protesters has been disjointed. While Iraqi leaders have met with protesters and even promised to increase funding for certain services, the harsh responses of the security forces and internet blackouts have diminished some of the Iraqi government’s commitments.

When the protests began in early October, Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi said that the protesters had legitimate concerns but that there was no “magical formula” to solving Iraq’s problems. He did issue a reform plan that included more subsidies to the poor and educational and job training, according to Al Jazeera.

But after the protests resumed in late October, the Iraqi government is under even more pressure. On October 31, Iraqi President Barham Salih, in a televised address, promised electoral reforms that would make the government more representative and break up some of those political factions tied to Iran. Salih also promised other judicial and governmental reforms, saying that once they were passed, he’d call for new elections.

Salih also said that Mahdi, the prime minister, would resign — at least until a replacement is agreed upon. The prime minister has the most power in Iraq, and the office is traditionally held by a Shia. Mahdi was chosen as a compromise candidate from competing Shia factions last year after a deadlocked election but wasn’t directly elected. Some of those powerful Shia factions that first backed him for the job have also turned against him and have been calling for his ouster in the wake of the unrest.

But then, according to reports, Iran intervened, asking those factions to stop trying to push him out. Reuters said the intervention came directly from Qassem Suleimani, head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, which backs militias in Iraq and other places across the region.

Mahdi, speaking on Sunday, told the protesters to cease the unrest, which is hurting the economy. But he didn’t mention anything about his possible resignation.

Mahdi’s resignation might be a win for the protesters, and if Iran really did intervene, it’s only like to enrage the demonstrators more, who are directly challenging this type of influence.

At the same time, the electoral reforms and new elections the Iraqi government are promising are long-term solutions. The Iraqi protesters, fed up and furious, want immediate and sweeping change, including the removal of the current political class and changes to the constitution.

“They don’t realize that this time it’s a revolution,” a protester told the Washington Post. “And we will stay here until we get rid of all of them — Abdul Mahdi, Salih, and the whole parliament.”

And that’s the dilemma in Iraq, that “fork in the road” it’s now facing. Whether the Iraqi government can actually put forward — and implement — solutions that will appease protesters and address their demands, or if it will instead become even more aggressive in trying to break up these protests.

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