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Senior Research Fellow, Center for Arab and Islamic Studies, Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, RIAC expert
Mass protests broke out in Baghdad on October 1, 2019, and continued all month long. The demonstrations spanned a large part of the country and have still not fully subsided. During that time, the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior reported 100 people dead and over 1000 injured». The latest information puts the number of casualties at over 260 people.
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Among the reasons cited for the actions are the general discontent with mass poverty and unemployment (over 20 per cent of the working-age population), the lack of social services, and corruption. However, starting from the second day of unrest, the protesters' slogans began to turn political, with one of the most popular being "The People Want to Overthrow the Regime," which is hard to see in any other light than a direct reference to the sentiments of the Arab Spring.
This association with the events of 2011 is far from accidental. The developments in Iraq are taking place in the same temporal continuum as the unrest in Algeria, which has been going on for almost a year. The same goes for mass protests in Sudan that took place on the eve of a military coup that ended up changing the political regime, and the turmoil in Lebanon that bears a striking resemblance to what is going on in Iraq. The nuances in each of these countries may differ somewhat. Still, one thing is clear: the demand for profound changes in political systems continues to span the entire region, and these four countries, which had remained either relatively unscathed or untouched altogether by the 2011 wave of protests, have now, eight years later, been pulled into the general area of socio-political aftershocks.
At the same time, in the case of Iraq, we are talking about the crisis of an entirely new political system — one that is barely 15 years old. And this system came into being with a number of “birth injuries”, under the influence of external forces and with dubious, or at least controversial, borrowings. The framers of Iraq’s constitutional system intended its model of political representation to support the stability of the post-Saddam order in the country. In reality, however, it failed to support stability during the entire period of its existence. The ethnic and denominational nature of the political system, which could not be reduced to a parliamentary-presidential republic, and the electoral system and process were riddled with pitfalls that gave rise to inevitable cataclysms.
The real ethnic and denominational situation resulted in the Shiites dominating the political spectrum, which entailed severe political consequences. For the first time, the Sunnis found themselves in a position of the ethnic-denominational minority. They felt the growing inferiority of their situation, which prompted many of them to join ISIS terrorist camps. The same situation motivated the Kurds to steer a course for independence. The overall terrorist threat during the expansion of ISIS rallied the Shiites and the Kurds to fight the pseudo-caliphate together. Yet, after ISIS was defeated, the Kurds held a referendum on independence. As a result, the country, which had not yet recovered from the terrible damage done by terrorists, once again found itself on the brink of collapse.
Although Kurdistan did not secede from Iraq, the republic, while formally remaining a federation, began, in reality, to drift toward confederation. And this was happening not only along the line dividing Kurds’ autonomy from the rest of Iraq, but also along the lines of the increased geographic dissociation between predominantly Shia and Sunni districts, and the latter development entailed elements of ethnic cleansing. The continuation of the processes threatened the collapse of the country.
We should also note the military-political trends that overlapped with these developments. The military and the police have been in a state of collapse ever since the start of the American occupation in 2003, and the ubiquitous emergence of armed ethnic-denominational units has become a leading trend. Kurdistan already had the Peshmerga units that remain the backbone of its military until today. Immediately upon the entry of U.S. troops, Shia districts formed armed units, such as the Mahdi Army, etc. And the Sunni strip had al-Qaeda units and Ba’ath guerrilla units acting independently of each other, which later merged to form ISIS.
Initially, the military and the police, which Iraq needed both to develop its statehood and to fight terrorism, were being built under the auspices of the United States. The process had essentially been a failure until Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) entered Iraq and took over. The IRGC succeeded in creating the combat-ready and highly motivated Shiite al-Hashd ash-Sha’bi (Popular Mobilization Forces, PMF). It was the PMF alongside the Kurdish Peshmerga (not the regular army) that played the leading role in liberating Mosul and in other critical episodes of the fight against ISIS.
However, after the victory over terrorists, the division of armed forces on ethnic-denominational grounds could no longer be tolerated, since it was fraught with the real danger of an armed confrontation between the principal ethnic and denominational communities in the state. It is noteworthy that discontent with this situation was expressed not only by Kurds and Sunnis but also by some Shiites inclined to view the PMF as an instrument of Iran's military and political dominance in Iraq.
The 2018 parliamentary elections were a watershed moment in Iraq’s political developments. One of the most remarkable results of the electoral campaign was the victory of the Saairun bloc led by Muqtada al-Sadr, a popular public figure. The son of an influential Shia theologian killed by the Ba’ath regime in 1999, al-Sadr led an uprising against the American occupation in 2004. From the outset, he positioned himself not only as a Shia leader but primarily as an Iraqi patriot striving to unite all of the country’s national forces regardless of their denomination or ethnic origin. Further down the road, this trend in Muqtada al-Sadr’s political conduct played a crucial role in his public activities.
Following his theological studies in Iran, Muqtada al-Sadr was accorded the rank of Grand Ayatollah and, upon his return to Iraq, he transitioned from extreme radicalism to legal, political struggle. As a result, his Sadrist Movement formed Saairun alliance, a broad electoral bloc of diverse political forces, including the Iraqi Communist Party.
The Saairun’s victory marked a new trend in the development of Iraq’s political processes, one that was aimed at uniting patriotic forces regardless of their denomination and ethnic origins. It is noteworthy that this was the only bloc to receive votes in all the country’s 19 governorates, including Sunni and Kurdish regions.
Another equally significant result of the 2018 elections was the fact that less than half of eligible voters (44 per cent) turned out. This was a red flag that was disregarded at the time, signifying the population’s disappointment in the political elite.
Another remarkable fact is that the election was held on May 12, while Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, whose resignation protesters are demanding today, was only appointed by the President on October 2, 2018. What does this mean? First, several political forces, primarily the above-mentioned Saairun bloc, claimed that the voting had been fixed and demanded a recount. A recount was held in July 2018, but only in a few governorates. The Federal Supreme Court of Iraq only approved the results of the election in August. This meant that the Parliament, which is responsible for electing a new president, was not able to assemble for a session until September. Consequently, the government continued to be led by the previous Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi until October, although his political bloc al-Nasr only came third in the election.
In accordance with the constitution, Barham Salih, who was elected President by Parliament on October 2, is responsible for appointing the new prime minister. Submitting Adil Abdul-Mahdi as a non-aligned “technical” Prime Minister meant that MPs had failed to form a government coalition. What is more, this move was preceded by unrest in Basra in September that was aimed against Iran and involved protesters breaking into the premises of a nearby oil field. Even though this was a local development, it was nevertheless a harbinger of what was to come a year later. This entire chain of events bears the hallmarks of a brewing political crisis.
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This notwithstanding, the events of October 2019 were a surprise for all the political forces represented in the establishment. The explosive nature of the unrest, its initial and subsequent composition, the lack of clear political leaders, etc., bear an uncanny resemblance to the events of the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt. The similarities also extend to the fact that the ringleaders were Baghdad students, who organized the protests via social networks, which (just like in Tunis and Cairo) made it all the more surprising for the powers-that-be, which experienced problems responding to the protest movement.
Initially, it was a social protest. Unemployment in Iraq is over 20 per cent, and youth unemployment is higher still. Accordingly, the population lives in abject poverty. This is nothing new for Iraq. The situation was the same in the years of Saddam Hussein’s military adventurism, during the country’s collapse at the start of the occupation, and during the advance of ISIS.
Today, however, Iraq has become OPEC's second-largest producer and exporter of oil. It is starting to close the gap on the oil top three (the United States, Saudi Arabia and Russia). Hence the slogan of the protesters: “If our country is so rich, why are the people so poor?” They also name the cause: “Corruption.” Indeed, Iraq is 12th in the corruption rating among developing countries.
It is here that the protest moves from the social to the political: as a rule, political status is the starting point for accumulating private wealth through corruption. Evidence relating to the corrupt activities of political figures, including MPs, has been widely publicized.
This is essentially the answer to the question of whether an outside force has provoked the Iraqi protests. The United States, Iran and several neighbouring Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, definitely have leverage over Iraq. Still, this leverage is limited to various sectors of the political elite and does not extend to average citizens mounting the protests.
From this point on, there are significant differences between the events in Iraq and the events of the Arab Spring. First, while many of the youth activists in Tunisia and Egypt had undergone preliminary training (in Serbia, for example), there is no evidence that any training took place before the events in Iraq. Second, as early as day two, people of various ages began joining the young protesters, and that included the elderly. The Communist Party reports that over 30 per cent of the protesters were women. Third, unlike the unrest of the Arab Spring of 2011, the protests in Iraq do not have an Islamic component. Moreover, the demonstrations spanned mostly the Shia part of the country, where factions of political Islam represent the largest parties, and the unrest is directed against these parties, too.
The political demands of the protesters include changing the political system, and the country’s constitution in particular. It is not yet entirely clear what specific steps for changing the constitution they propose, although the thrust against division by denomination and ethnicity is evident. Additionally, apparent demands include changing electoral legislation; these demands are supported by several political forces represented in parliament. In particular, Muqtada al-Sadr has called for holding new elections under international supervision. The President of Iraq’s statement that new elections are possible, but only after the electoral legislation has been changed, can be viewed as indirect support.
The military has acknowledged its excessive use of force, and criminal proceedings have been launched against the officers responsible. As for the resignation of the government (al-Sadr supported this demand), the Prime Minister said he would resign only if there is an alternative candidate.
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Clearly, the Saairun bloc and its leaders strive to position themselves as the force closest to the protesters. There are also nuances. For instance, the Communist Party withdrew its deputies from parliament and is apparently striving for closer solidarity with the protesters as an individual political force. Ali al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shiites, also expressed his support for some of the demands of the protesters and called for an investigation into the actions that had resulted in people’s deaths. This can be taken to mean that the emerging rapprochement between al-Sistani and al-Sadr will play a role in the future.
It should be noted that there is an anti-Iran element to the protests. The Iranian leadership, in particular, the country’s spiritual leader Ali Khamenei, was restrained in its response. Noting that “enemies cannot sow discord” between Iran and Iraq, he did not express any attitude towards the protesters. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iran issued a statement indicating that foreign forces may abuse the situation. This suggests that the Iranian leadership is taking a cautious stance towards a situation that is particularly inconvenient for Iran, given the increasing pressure it is under from the United States and regional powers. Iran is clearly exploring various options for changing its policies towards Iraq by making them more flexible and seeking support and compromise with those Iraqi forces that the local population does not consider to be direct protégés of Iran. We are talking specifically about the Kurds and the Saairun bloc here, especially since Muqtada al-Sadr cannot be regarded as an anti-Iranian figure, even though he has criticized that country’s actions in the past.
It is also apparent that the events in Iraq objectively weaken the positions of Iran and its claim to the role of dominant regional power. It does not, however, mean that the United States can, following these events, regain the political dominance it had in the country since 2003. Some American analysts acknowledge that the United States no longer has any serious centres for influencing the domestic situation in Iraq. Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other regional forces also have minimal means of exerting any kind of internal influence on the country.
Some analysts express concern over the fact that the military and the police mostly focus on counteracting the protests, which could help revive or even restore the positions of ISIS. This danger does exist, since the activities of both sleeper cells and some individual terrorist squads have not been suppressed, and acts of terror are committed almost daily. However, since ISIS has been crushed as a systemic entity, these activities have been mainly localized geographically and have their limits.
The only way the terrorist threat may expand is if the general protest situation cripples the authorities for good. A continuing stalemate among the Iraqi authorities is indeed fraught with such danger. We can only hope that it will not materialize.
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