Iraq, a year of protests

A year ago, Iraq erupted into an unprecedented wave of protests that snowballed into a full-fledged movement seeking profound reform for a political system that had become notorious for its corruption, cronyism and subservience to foreign powers.

The protests began in early October 2019 across a number of southern provinces, followed by a brief hiatus in the middle of the month. But on 25 October, they saw a resurgence, expanding well beyond their initial geographical confines and their early demands, which had been mainly focused on corruption and the poor services. The protests continued almost uninterrupted, through the resignation of then Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s cabinet and onwards until March, when lockdowns were imposed as the country grappled with the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet, in the past months, following the lifting of lockdown measures and despite the naming of a new government in June, demonstrations have continued on a somewhat sporadic basis in various cities, including the capital Baghdad and the southern city of Nasseriya.

The renewed protests have focused on many of the same demands, pointing fingers at a political elite that has been reluctant to change and indicating a rift between so-called resistance leaders and their supporters and the largely young populace that formed the base of the protest movement.

Where is the protest movement now?

Ahead of the 25 October date that marks the second and larger wave of protests last year, calls were renewed for mass demonstrations. Many of the recent protests however had focused on specific issues, such as power cuts and unpaid salaries, as Iraq grapples with the sharp impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the collapse in oil prices – the key source of revenue for Iraq’s economy. As such, it is difficult to speak of a coherent protest movement in the same way that the initial protests in 2019 appeared in large part unified in purpose and cause. The protest movement moreover must grapple with great risks after it was repeatedly infiltrated by armed groups and scores of activists were targeted over the past year.

Yet, violence against protesters has also proven in many cases to be a rallying call for demonstrations. This was evinced by protests earlier this month when demonstrations broke out in Karbala and Nasseriya. At the time, reports said unknown individuals had “infiltrated” the demonstrations in Karbala and started pelting police with stones, causing clashes to erupt. Further demonstrations began in Nasseriya, in a show of support with those in Karbala, prompting firebrand Moqtada al-Sadr to interject and call on tribes to “discipline” the rioters. Sadr had already made enemies within the protest movement when his Blue Hats – an armed group initially formed to protect demonstrators – were accused of attacking protesters in 2019.

What has changed?

Though the protest movement successfully unseated the government of Adel Abdul Mahdi, it took months for a new government to be formed. The process involved much wrangling between many of the political forces that the protest movement had demonstrated against – and indeed candidates for the post of prime minister were often met by rejection from the protesters themselves. Eventually, former intelligence chief Mustafa al-Kadhimi was settled upon as the “consensus candidate” to form a new government in May. Since then, he has set himself against the difficult task of taking on the powerful armed militias of the country – many of which form the backbone of the Shia-led paramilitary Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF).

Kadhimi has vowed early elections and accountability for those responsible for the killing of protesters – whether security forces or the armed militias. But on both those fronts, he faces major challenges, chiefly from a political elite that has been reluctant to give up the gains it has cemented over the past years. This has all unfolded against the backdrop of skirmishes between US forces and Iran-allied militias that came to a head in January when the US killed Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani and leading Iraqi militiaman Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in a drone strike in Baghdad.

What has remained the same?

Despite the formation of a new government and the promise of early elections next year, little has changed on the ground in terms of the overarching political reality. The US and Iran continue to vie for influence in the country – often at the expense of the Iraqis themselves – and the former slogan of the protest movement, “We Want a Nation”, seems a more inaccessible dream than it was when the protests began.

For much of 2020, the debate over the withdrawal of US forces occupied political discussions, fundamentally overshadowing the protest movement and its demands. Kadhimi has sought to challenge the pro-Iran militias that have thus far operated with a large degree of impunity. In June, he ordered a raid on the headquarters of Kataib Hezbollah – one of the most powerful militias in the country – and arrested members accused of plotting terrorist acts. However, the effort was met with major backlash and threats and those arrested were ultimately released. Since then, the group and others like it have been blamed for frequent attacks on foreign missions and sites in the country. Furthermore, as seen in the demonstrations that kicked off in June to decry the lack of services and salaries, many of the economic realities at the root of the 2019 protests continue to exist – now exacerbated by the post-Covid-19 economic crisis.

Though the protest movement continues to grapple with targeted attacks and the spectre of the Covid-19 crisis, and despite the fast pace of events and key political changes in Iraq over the past year, many of the realities that led to the 2019 protests persist, or have indeed grown more pronounced.

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