By Caroline Alexander, Bloomberg: Iraqis fed up with corruption and the slow pace of recovery from the wreckage left by the war with Islamic State have been in the streets protesting since early October. As in Lebanon, demonstrators have channeled their anger into demands for the abolition of the country’s sectarian political system, which was fathered by the U.S. after it overthrew the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003. They also want to roll back the control wielded by Iraq’s neighbor Iran. Unable to agree on a way forward, top officials responded with a heavy-handed crackdown, leaving Iraq facing yet another crisis.
1. What prompted the protests?
Demonstrations against graft, scarce jobs, power blackouts and crippling water shortages started out small on Oct. 1 in Sadr City, a sprawling and relatively poor neighborhood in eastern Baghdad. But after security forces responded with live bullets and tear gas, protests spread across southern Iraq and grew violent. During early rallies, demonstrators held images of Abdul-Wahab Al-Saadi, a counter-terrorism chief who became a national hero for his key role in defeating Islamic State in 2017 but who had since been demoted. As he led campaigns to reclaim major towns and cities from the jihadists, Al-Saadi sidelined Iranian militias, angering pro-Tehran factions in Baghdad. Nationalist Iraqis saw his sacking as Iran’s revenge. Protesters have burned images of Iranian clerics, shouted anti-Iranian slogans and torched the Iranian consulates in Karbala and Najaf.
2. What are demonstrators demanding?
In short, a complete overhaul of the country’s governance. Protesters want the resignation of the entire political leadership, an overhaul of the judicial system to ensure accountability, and the dismantling of the sectarian system established by the Americans. Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, who has close links to Tehran, has offered to quit but only once fractious political parties agree on a successor. Although the protests have mainly been in areas dominated by Shiite Muslims, who form the majority in Iraq, political analysts say this isn’t a sectarian uprising. Rather, it is a grassroots movement, with protesters wanting to move beyond ethnic and religious identities. Iraqi flags are ubiquitous. Protesters have also been using imagery that glorifies Iraq’s history and crowds often sing the national anthem.
3. Why is the sectarian system a target?
Iraq’s population increases by about a million every year and some half a million people who enter the job market annually aren’t able to find work. Protesters blame the “muhasasa system” set up after the 2003 U.S. invasion, which divides power between parties claiming to represent Shiite Muslims, Sunni Muslims and Kurds, for cementing sectarianism, wasting scarce resources and allowing patronage and corruption to thrive. Iraq ranked 168 out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index in 2018. The U.S. established the muhasasa system in an effort to provide stability after overthrowing a regime that had been dominated by the Sunni minority.
4. What’s the state of the economy?
The defeat of Islamic State and a partial rebound in oil prices and production led to a recovery in economic growth in Iraq, which is the fifth-biggest oil producer in the world. At the same time, 25% of younger Iraqis are unemployed. There’s been little progress in rebuilding infrastructure battered by conflict, and about 1.8 million internally displaced people are in need of housing. The World Bank estimates the cost of reconstruction in the seven provinces affected by the war with Islamic State at $90 billion over five years. Corruption is one of the main reasons for the failure to deliver public services.
5. How did authorities respond to the protests?
The timing of the demonstrations took authorities by surprise. They tried imposing a curfew and a near-total internet shutdown to restore order. But that only inflamed tensions. Reports that snipers from Iranian-backed militias were responsible for some deaths fueled anger further, as did the firing of teargas cartridges directly at protesters, the disappearance of activists and the targeting of medics. Iraq has seen many waves of protests since Saddam’s ouster and execution but nothing on this scale.
6. What has the government promised?
After attempts to restore order failed, President Barham Salih, a Kurd, called for dialogue. He promised to draft a new electoral law that would reduce the powers of political factions and said he’d call new elections when the bill has passed. Before offering to resign, Abdul-Mahdi, who took office only last year, announced a 17-point plan to create jobs, stipends for the unemployed, interest-free loans for low-income citizens and the dismissal of corrupt officials. But there was little confidence in his ability to deliver.
7. What are the stakes for Iran?
Iran sees its allies in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria as key to expanding its influence and countering that of arch foes including the U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia. Iraqi officials say Tehran is so concerned by rising anti-Iran sentiment that it sent Qassem Suleimani, commander of its premier military force, the Revolutionary Guards Corp, to Baghdad to make clear it backs efforts to shut down the protests, and has pressured Abdul-Mahdi not to step down.
Cartoon by Shadi Ghanim