After 15 years of corruption, Iraqi protesters have finally reached a breaking point. Some even want military rule.
Pesha MagidOctober 7, 2019, 4:45 PM
Iraqi protesters speak with police in Baghdad’s predominantly Shiite district of Sadr City on Oct. 7. AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
BAGHDAD—Baghdad’s demonstrations began on Oct. 1 with an intensity and a brutality that surprised even veteran protesters. Thousands of people came out on the first day only to be met with tear gas, water cannons, and bullets. By the second, third, and fourth days of protests, Iraqi armed forces were shooting point-blank at protesters’ heads. The government cut the internet, and there were reports of snipers targeting protesters. As of the last count, the armed forces had killed more than 100 people and injured thousands since the protests started.
Today, the newly reerected roadblocks in the streets and pall of yellow tear gas hanging over Baghdad represent years of frustration bubbling over into leaderless, often spontaneous demonstrations. Many of the protesters are young people between the ages of 13 and 30 who grew up in the post-2003 era and whose entire lives have been defined by a government plagued by corruption and inefficiency. Oct. 1 marked almost a year since Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi took office, and protesters say they still lack the basic services.
A number of demonstrators told Foreign Policy that they are so fed up with the Green Zone-protected Iraqi parliament—one installed in the heavily fortified former U.S. occupation zone under largely American rules—that they are ready for a military ruler again.
“We want to overthrow the Green Zone. The corrupt, the parliamentarians, the prime minister—they’re all in the Green Zone,” said Abdullah, a 25-year-old protester who stood with a group of friends on the street shortly after fleeing a protest where they were shot at with live bullets. One of his friends had a bullet wound bandaged up on his foot. They were determined to return to the protests and remain on the streets, he said.
“We hope to overthrow the corrupt and create a different type of government, something presidential or a dictatorship,” said Abdullah, who asked that only his first named be used.
Ali Abdul Karim, an 18-year-old protester, also said he would prefer a military leader to the current multiparty parliamentary system. He pointed to a general named Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi as a leader who he believes is fit to take the reins in Iraq. “He freed Mosul,” he said. “He’s a true nationalist and does not have a relationship with Iran or America.”
“We want anything,” Abdullah said. From behind him, another protester added, “Even the Jews.” Abdullah agreed, saying, “Even if the Indians came to rule us, it would be better. Someone from another country, we don’t want someone from Iraq. The Iraqis are tired. The majority of them are shadowy and corrupt. … The most they do is cooperate with Iranians. So we hope for a change. We want to change all of them, the parliament, the prime minister.”
At the same time, however, many protesters fear that the violent crackdown shows that the Iraqi government is taking a path to greater authoritarianism than in the past. In the first days, Baghdad transformed from relative calm to a city filled with legions of armed forces, its central streets echoing with the sounds of bullets. In the days following the initial crackdown, the armed forces attacked media offices and raided the homes of activists.
Around a year into Abdul-Mahdi’s tenure, many people believe the Iraqi government no longer has an excuse for its dysfunction. Iraqis complain that there have been no new roads built since the Saddam Hussein era. Young graduates with degrees in engineering work thankless jobs selling water on the street or fruit at a kiosk. Corruption is endemic within the government. Years of neglect have taken their toll on the generation that grew up after the fall of Saddam in 2003.
One of the few and oft-vaunted achievements of Abdul-Mahdi’s government was the dismantling of the T-Walls, or concrete blast walls, and checkpoints that had characterized Baghdad for years after the U.S. invasion. A few days into the protests, trucks carrying loads of the recently removed T-Walls were back, and streets were again blocked off to civilians. Abdul-Mahdi’s small victory was reversed in days, as various armed factions fired ruthlessly on the protesters asking for jobs, services, and education.
“After 2003 until now. Problem after problem. Case after case,” Ali al-Mikdam, a young protester and activist, told Foreign Policy. “It’s collecting, and after this, inside of every single person in Iraq, there is an explosion, and this explosion came on October the 1st.”
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Youth unemployment is around 25 percent, according to government figures, although the International Monetary Fund believes it to be much higher. Many Iraqis complain of a lack of health care and infrastructure. Mikdam expressed a sentiment echoed by many protesters: While Iraq’s rich oil resources have been funneled into the hands of politicians, “the new generation in Iraq has been left with nothing,” he said. “We cannot wait more. We are very full and very angry about what happened in the last 15 years until now. Billions of dollars spent for nothing. It’s a lot of money. Everything goes to political pockets.”
Khaldun Saab, a paramedic who volunteered to treat the injured at the protests, recalled seeing snipers moving in a half-constructed building next to Tayaran Square. He saw them shoot down two young protesters in front of his eyes. “You know it was snipers because the shot made a small wound when it entered and then the blood”—he made a gesture with his hand indicating an explosion—“on the other side.”
Renad Mansour, a researcher for Chatham House, said it’s clear that the “the Iraqi government has no control over the many armed forces, some of which view themselves as protectors of the system.” Abdul-Mahdi, a compromise choice to be prime minister, came to power primarily through the backing of the Iranian-supported Fatah coalition within parliament, and many protesters claimed to Foreign Policy that the snipers targeting the protesters came from Iranian-backed militia groups. Three of them pointed fingers specifically to a militia called the Saraya al-Khorasani, which is known to have deep connections to Iran.
This is not the first time that Iraqis have protested corruption in the government. “Protests have been common in Iraq for several years. Mahdi’s government came in promising reform, but a year on it’s become clear to many Iraqis that he has not been able to bring change,” Mansour said.
Many people have attended regular protests since 2010, each with varying degrees of intensity. It is also not the first time there has been a violent crackdown against protesters. Last summer, in response to protests in Basra, the security forces killed dozens of people and quelled the protests—a playbook that Mansour says armed forces are again following in the current protests. “These groups learned from Basra last year that a certain level of violence can shut down protests. And attacks on media outlets, cutting the internet, all point to an Iraq that becomes more authoritarian,” he said.
Bushra Abu al-Eis, a longtime protest organizer, said these protests are different from the ones she has seen in the past due to the influx of youth and the lack of formal leadership. “For the first time, the quiet majority is out in the streets,” she said.
Mikdam, who has also attended protests for years, said he has never seen a government response this severe. “I was in the demonstrations in 2015 and in 2011 and 2018,” he said. “I didn’t see anything like what the army and the police are doing to the people who are in the demonstrations.” He recounted being shot at, seeing someone die in front of him, and several of his friends getting injured.
“They just start killing. They come behind you and [start] killing. We are not ISIS, come on. We just need change. For the future, for everything. I don’t know why they do this. It’s crazy,” Mikdam said, using an acronym for the Islamic State.
Abdul-Mahdi and President Barham Salih have made vague public statements saying they would attempt to fulfill the demands of the protesters, but the government’s response to the demonstrations has been met with derision by many protesters. “Abdul-Mahdi is stupid. The streets are more angry, more and more,” Mikdam said.
The demonstrations are often spontaneous and involve no clear direction. The speaker of the parliament, Mohamed al-Halbousi, met with a group of representatives of the protesters in an event broadcast live on TV, but at the same time other protest organizers held a news conference to say the group that was meeting Halbousi did not represent them and that the protesters have no leaders.
Hussein al-Najjar, a representative from the Sadrist-allied Communist Party, said he hopes that the prime minister, under pressure from the Sadrist coalition, will resign in response to the protests. Moqtada al-Sadr, one of Iraq’s most powerful Shiite clerics, has previously called on the government to resign.
“If Mahdi resigns, things may quiet down,” said al-Najjar.
“The joke with Mahdi was that he would have his resignation letter in his pocket due to his resignations in the past,” Mansour said, adding that even if the ministers in power change, it may not address the demands of the protesters, who want more than surface-level changes of office. “If it [Iraq] muddles through now, it’s not sustainable, and cosmetic reforms are not sustainable,” he said.
The situation remains volatile. But as of this writing, waves of harsh reprisals seemed to have taken their toll. Protests have shrunk in size, and activists have been targeted by raids on their homes, as have several media channels. Mikdam’s home was targeted by armed men who kicked in his door and went through his possessions. He is currently in hiding and is too afraid to even venture near his home.
The remaining protests have been pushed back day by day and isolated from the rest of the city. Foreign Policy received calls from protesters late Sunday night saying security forces had surrounded their neighborhood, Sadr City, a sprawling Baghdad slum located behind both the original epicenters of the protests: Tahrir and Tayaran squares. Protesters claimed snipers and police were targeting them with live bullets and at least eight were killed. The entrances to Sadr City were completely blocked by the army, according to Saab, who attempted to enter the area to treat the wounded.
“There are snipers on the roof,” said Wissam, a protester calling from the midst of the chaos who also only gave his first name. “They’re shooting us from all directions.”
Saab, the young medic who has tended the wounded each day of the protests, doubts that they will die away permanently. The root issues remain deeply embedded as do people’s frustrations. The government cut the internet on the second day of the protests, disorienting many and making it difficult for protesters to organize. But Saab says they cannot keep the internet down forever.
“When things are published and people see it,” he said, “the demonstrations will come back strongly.”
Pesha Magid is a freelance journalist based in Baghdad. Twitter: @PMagid