Published: December 11, 2019

#saveouriraq – What everyone should know about the ongoing protests in Iraq

Our analysis is derived from first-hand observations concerning the ongoing political and security situation in Iraq. After spending two months in-country, Strategy Nord has produced this analysis based on our own observations and interactions with protesters. This analysis is further intended to inform government and corporate organisations with interests in Iraq and to further impart our insight with a view to helping them make effective long-term decisions.

  • On 1 October, protests broke out in Baghdad and across Southern Iraq that marked the largest popular anti-government demonstrations in recent history. The protesters have demanded to put an end to the sectarian power-sharing agreement which has governed Iraqi politics since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Protesters have targeted the establishment, often chanting anti-Iranian slogans.
  • One of the major turning points of the protests occurred in Dhi Qar province on 28 November when security forces killed at least 40 protesters. The incident prompted a unified response – with protests taking place in Sunni-majority provinces such as Nineveh and Anbar.
  • From the outset, the protest movement has sought to demonstrate against Iran’s influence over the Iraqi government and the security establishment. The anti-Iranian rhetoric has so far culminated with protesters setting alight and destroying the Iranian consulates in Karbala and Najaf.
  • For Iran, the protests represent a threat to their influence, to an extent where the head of the IRGC Qods Force, Major General Qasem Soleimani is widely reported to have exercised control over the government’s narrative and physical response to the protests.
  • The protests in Iraq offer significant hope for change in a country that has been subjected to momentous financial and administrative mismanagement that has contributed to a lack of basic services and employment opportunities for a younger generation of Iraqis. Disruptive protest activity has been observed, though the more significant disruption to business operations appears to have taken place by Sadrists and tribal members in rural areas of Basra province.
  • Protests in Iraq are likely to remain a long-term occurrence until all of the protesters’ demands be met. Political uncertainty exists following the resignation of Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi; such uncertainty has the potential to result in some degree of disruption until such a time when a new Prime Minister and government is selected.
The youthful revolution

On 1 October, protests broke out in Baghdad and across Southern Iraq that marked the largest popular anti-government demonstrations in recent history. The demonstrations have captured worldwide attention as well as condemnations for the Iraqi government as the casualty toll soared. After a brief period of calm over the Arba’een period, the protest activity once again resumed; this time to unprecedented levels. Unlike the all too familiar ‘Million-Man Marches’ that Iraq has previously witnessed – with influential cleric Muqtada al-Sadr at the helm – these protests are unique in that they appear to be the largest demonstrations that have kicked off independently of calls from top religious figures or parties. Demands have focused on reforms and rampant corruption, reaching to the top echelons of power, as well as on high unemployment and poor services, such as electricity and water. That aside, the key observation to note is that those taking part in the protests are those from the younger generations of society. Specifically, the protesters comprise of Iraqis that did not live through the Saddam Hussein years nor the early years following the US-led invasion in 2003.

An Iraqi woman protesting at Tahrir Square, central Baghdad.

Iraqis protesting at Tahrir Square, central Baghdad.

The protesters have demanded to put an end to the sectarian power-sharing agreement which has governed Iraqi politics since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Protesters have targeted the establishment, often chanting anti-Iranian slogans. Whilst some analysts liken the protests to be ‘The Arab Spring, Version 2’, unlike other Arab countries where ruling establishments often revolve around one ruler, the Iraqis appear to wish to bring down a system that has long governed the distribution of budgets, political positions and more. Of more importance, the protests have consistently rebuffed attempts by Muqtada al-Sadr to exert influence over the protest movement.  Indeed, in the evening prior to the resumption of protest activity on 24 October, protesters at Tahrir Square prevented Sadrists from establishing a speaking platform from where Muqtada al-Sadr intended to address protesters later in the evening.  Another key feature to note is that the protest movement is without any form of leadership – this factor may eventually become a hindrance to their attempts to force the government to implement reforms.  Whilst some may argue that without central leadership, the protest movement could be likened to an anarchist movement; the protesters themselves believe that if they were to establish a leadership element, it would most likely be quickly eliminated by the Iranian-aligned militias.

The turning point of the protests

On 27 November, Lt Gen Jamil al-Shammari was appointed by Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi to lead a ‘Crisis Cell’ in Dhi Qar to deal with an increase in civil disorder and violence between protest groups and security forces. A day after Shammari’s appointment, security forces under his command killed an estimated 46 protesters and injured approximately 250. Later the same day, Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi removed Shammari from his post following growing calls by opposition political groups and Iraqis for the government to place Shammari on trial in a court-martial. On the Iraqi street, videos continue to be circulated on social media showing security personnel jumping from their vehicles and firing at unarmed protesters – the events in Nasiriya has since had a resounding effect and has resulted in the protesters’ cause being fully recognised by the international community. Prior to the fateful events on 28 November, the international community had adopted a more neutral stance – recognising the demands of the protesters whilst supporting the Iraqi government. It is the international community’s response – in addition to remarks made by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani – that forced the Prime Minister to submit his own resignation.

A unified response, a sign of the times to come?

The response to Shammari’s involvement in the deaths of protesters in Dhi Qar has resulted in an overwhelming response across the southern provinces, with solidarity marches and candle-light vigils taking place in several provincial capitals. Indeed, solidarity protests were also observed to have taken place in Sunni majority areas in Anbar, Salah al-Din, Nineveh and Diyala. In Mosul, thousands of demonstrators gathered at Mosul University to stand in solidarity with those who died in Dhi Qar and Najaf.

Screenshot of tweet by @AliBaroodi concerning protest at Mosul University

A Twitter update showing solidarity protests held at Mosul University

The growing trend of nationwide protests in response to the events in Dhi Qar and Najaf likely indicate that the protests are no longer split down sectarian lines. Unquestionably, Abdul-Mahdi’s decision to appoint Shammari is assessed to have been the primary factor that has led to his eventual resignation and the loss of support across the entire country. Despite the high numbers of deaths, the events in Dhi Qar and Najaf appear to have unified Iraqis across Iraq – a seldom occurrence which indicates that the protesters are no longer split down sectarian lines.

Iran’s influence under threat

From the outset, the protest movement has sought to demonstrate against Iran’s influence over the Iraqi government and the security establishment. Beginning with the shouting of anti-Iranian slogans, the protest movement has consistently rebuffed efforts by Muqtada al-Sadr to exploit the protests to further his own political gains by pointing out the latter’s strong links to Iran.

Muqtada al-Sadr, Qasem Soleimani and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during Ashura

Muqtada al-Sadr attending Arba’een commemorations with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Qasem Soleimani

The anti-Iranian rhetoric has so far culminated with protesters setting alight and destroying the Iranian consulates in Karbala and Najaf – each incident likely prompting Iranian-aligned militias to respond with targeted attacks against prominent civil activists. At the same time, protesters at Tahrir Square in central Baghdad have consistently made clear their intention to enter the International Zone with the sole intention of storming the Iranian Embassy.

Iraqi protesters burning pictures of IRGC Qods Force commander, Qasem Soleimani

Iraqi protesters burning pictures Qasem Soleimani

For Iran, the protests represent a threat to their influence, to an extent where the head of the IRGC Qods Force, Major General Qasem Soleimani is widely reported to have exercised control over the government’s narrative and physical response to the protests. Soleimani’s activities remain widely reported, such activities include a meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and Muqtada al-Sadr on 9 November which resulted in all three agreeing to guarantee the continuation of the government of Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi and the end of protests.  Indeed, the later resignation of the Prime Minister is assessed to have been at the order of Soleimani himself.

The protests are somewhat disruptive, but Iraq remains investible

The protests in Iraq offer significant hope for change in a country that has been subjected to momentous financial and administrative mismanagement that has contributed to a lack of basic services and employment opportunities for a younger generation of Iraqis that will – in years to come – become decision-makers. The protests offer a glimpse inside what a future Iraq will probably look like; a country that is no longer divided by sectarian lines nor governed by external parties and armed militias. However, they have some way to go before their demands are met. With the international community now firmly on the side of the protesters, there is a sense of hope amongst the protest movement that much-needed reform will materialise. The protesters unlikely seek to deter foreign investment in Iraq; instead, they most likely seek to ensure that government corruption is eliminated and employment opportunities are afforded for all.

It must be stressed that disruption to business operations has been seen in Iraq since the protests began, the more significant disruptive activity has not been associated with the younger elements of the protest movement. Indeed, the wider protest movement consists of several key groups.  On the one side of the protest movement are the ‘popular protesters’ – youths conducting peaceful protests in Baghdad and the provincial capital.  On the other side, are hard-line Sadrists and tribes seeking to further their own gains by burning tyres along key routes in Basra province. Despite the disruption caused by the latter groups, business operations continue as normal.

In final conclusion, protests in Iraq are likely to remain a long-term occurrence until all of the protesters’ demands be met. Whilst there are isolated occurrences of disruptions to international business operations, the potential benefits that the protests may bring – government reform and better services – are likely to present better conditions for international businesses seeking to invest in Iraq. However, with the resignation of Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, political uncertainty currently exists; such uncertainty has the potential to result in some degree of disruption until such a time when a new Prime Minister and government is selected.  At this time, it remains possible that a time-limited government may be established until fair elections are held under UN supervision – a key demand of the protest movement.

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