Iraq's uprising an open crisis with no known path forward

Analysts say the violence has pushed Iraq toward a dangerous trajectory from which it might be difficult to pull back.
Wednesday 09/10/2019
In this Sunday, Oct. 6, 2019 file photo, anti-government protesters set fires and close a street during a demonstration in Baghdad, Iraq. (AP)
In this Sunday, Oct. 6, 2019 file photo, anti-government protesters set fires and close a street during a demonstration in Baghdad, Iraq. (AP)

Iraq has been plunged into a new cycle of instability that could be the most dangerous this conflict-scarred nation has faced, barely two years after declaring victory over the Islamic State in a war that left much of the country in ruins and displaced tens of thousands.

The bloody confrontations have killed more than 100 people in fewer than seven days but, this time, the clashes do not pit security forces against Islamic extremists, the country's Sunnis against Shias or insurgents against occupation forces.

Instead, Iraqi security forces have been shooting at young Iraqis demanding jobs, electricity, clean water and an end to corruption.

It's unclear why the government has chosen to exercise such a heavy-handed response to a few hundred unarmed demonstrators who first congregated on social media to protest. Analysts say the violence has pushed Iraq towards a dangerous trajectory from which it might be difficult to pull back.

As the spontaneous protests -- with no apparent political leadership emerging -- clashed with security forces, the government appeared unapologetic and failed to offer solutions to entrenched problems, raising fears that yet another Arab country would be mired in a long-term crisis without a path forward.

"The use of force coupled with cosmetic concessions will work to temporarily ease pressure but will not end the crisis," wrote Ayham Kamel, Middle East and North Africa head at Eurasia Group. "This cycle of protests could be contained, but the political system will continue to lose legitimacy."

In their demands for better services and an end to corruption, the protesters are no different from those who rioted in the southern city of Basra over chronic power cuts and water pollution last summer or the angry demonstrators who scaled the walls in Baghdad's highly secured Green Zone and stormed Iraq's parliament in 2016, shouting "thieves!"

However, unlike in 2016, when the protests were led by populist Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, today's protests have not been co-opted by any political party. Most are young men in their 20s. They do not have a clear list of demands or a programme nor do they have a spokesman. Some are teenagers or fresh university graduates unable to find jobs in a corruption-plagued country that sits on some of the world's biggest oil reserves.

Their movement has no clear contours nor quick solutions. The protesters say they are fed up with the post-2003 political class that profits on kickbacks, nepotism and corruption while ordinary Iraqis drink polluted water and endure massive unemployment.

Most strikingly, the protests are predominantly Shia demonstrations against a Shia-led government.

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi has promised to address protesters' demands but began his tenure last year facing a raft of accumulated challenges, including high unemployment, widespread corruption, dilapidated public services and poor security. He has told protesters there is no "magic solution for all that."

The crisis erupted on October 1 after protesters staged a demonstration calling for their rights. They were met with water cannons, tear gas and bullets. The demonstrations were partially triggered by anger over the abrupt removal of a top Shia military leader who led battles against Islamic State militants and was largely seen as a non-corrupt, respected general. However, the protesters carried a long list of grievances.

The protests come at a critical moment for Iraq, which had been caught in the middle of escalating tensions between the United States and Iran -- both allies of the Baghdad government. Iraq's weak prime minister has struggled to remain neutral amid those tensions.

Adding to the nervousness, mysterious air strikes blamed on Israel had for weeks targeted military bases and ammunition depots in Iraq belonging to Iran-backed militias, which vowed revenge against US troops stationed here.

The protests, when they started, quickly spread from Baghdad to the Shia heartland in the south, including the flashpoint city of Basra. The government imposed a round-the-clock curfew and shut down the internet for days in a desperate attempt to quell the protests.

Interior Ministry spokesman Major-General Saad Maan, on October 6, said that at least 104 people had been killed and more than 6,000 wounded in the unrest. He said eight members of the security forces were among those killed and 51 public buildings and eight political party headquarters had been torched by protesters.

The massive crackdown appears to have succeeded in whittling down the number of protesters, although sporadic clashes between demonstrators and security forces continued on a smaller scale, including an hours-long gun battle the night of October 7, near the volatile Baghdad neighbourhood of Sadr City.

Among Iraqis and country observers, there is a consensus that a dam has broken and that, with so many killed, the protest movement is likely to return and become better organised next time.

In a country awash with weapons, there are concerns the violence could lead protesters to arm themselves, similar to what happened in Syria. There is also worry that some hard-line militias loyal to Iran could exploit the chaos.

Al-Sadr, Iraq's influential cleric who has a popular Shia support base and the largest number of seats in parliament, called on the government to resign because of the large number of people killed. He suspended his bloc's participation in the government until Iraqi leaders come up with a reform programme.

If al-Sadr joins the protest movement, it would give it much more momentum and potentially lead to even more violence.

Ali al-Ghoraifi, an Iraqi blogger, said the government may have succeeded in putting a lid on the situation for the time being.

"But it will be like a coal ready to ignite at any time and place," he wrote in a post, "and, when it does, it will burn everyone."