Unrest shakes Iraq as prime minister marks year in office

At least 93 people were reported to have been killed after anti-riot police sought to disperse demonstrations that started October 1.
Saturday 05/10/2019
Iraqi protesters take part in a demonstration against state corruption, failing public services, and unemployment, in the Iraqi capital Baghdad's central Khellani Square on October 4. (AFP)
Iraqi protesters take part in a demonstration against state corruption, failing public services, and unemployment, in the Iraqi capital Baghdad's central Khellani Square on October 4. (AFP)

LONDON - Mass anti-government protests across Iraq’s predominately Shia provinces have shaken the government of Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi on the first anniversary of his taking office.

At least 93 people were reported to have been killed after anti-riot police sought to disperse demonstrations that started October 1 in Baghdad and spread to other cities. More than 4,000 people were injured and 200 protesters remained in police custody, figures released October 5 by the Iraqi parliament’s human rights commission stated.

Authorities imposed a curfew and an internet blackout to stop the demonstrations but government efforts did not succeed. The curfew was lifted October 5.

The demonstrators’ demands include an end to rampant state corruption, the improvement of basic services and access to job opportunities.

Wide public discontent with the inability, or the lack of will, of Iraqi governments to implement anti-corruption reforms and raise the standard of living was thought to be among the main reasons that denied former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi a second term in office in the 2018 parliamentary elections.

Abadi’s electoral alliance finished third in that election, despite the former prime minister’s celebrated role in helping defeat the Islamic State and safeguarding Iraq’s territorial integrity.

As the 2018 mass protests showed no sign of dying down, influential cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose electoral alliance came in first in the elections, withdrew his backing for Abadi to remain in office.

Abadi also lost the support of Iraq’s Shia spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who hinted that Abadi should step aside because he failed to implement reforms.

Unlike Abadi, who completed 4 years in office, Abdul-Mahdi, who became prime minister October 25, 2018, is facing protests that are calling for his downfall less than a year after he was sworn in office. Both al-Sadr and Sistani have given vocal support to the protesters.

In a Friday sermon October 4 read out by his representative Ahmed al-Safi, Sistani said the government needed to take “clear and practical steps” to address people’s grievances.

“The government and the political sides have not fulfilled the demands of the people to fight corruption,” Sistani said.

Sistani lashed out against the mounting death toll. “There are attacks on peaceful protesters and security forces which we reject and condemn,” said Sistani.

Al-Sadr said he asked members of his bloc to boycott parliamentary sessions and, in a statement from his office, said the government should resign and early  elections should take place "under UN supervision.”

Parliamentary leaders said they would dedicate a session “to examining the demands of the protesters.”

Abdul-Mahdi was the consensus candidate of al-Sadr and Ali Amiri, an Iran-backed militia leader whose political alliance was second in the 2018 elections.

The prime minister, who has no political party of his own nor a strong electoral base, is viewed by critics as giving in to pressure from the country’s pro-Iran factions, which are widely held responsible for much of the country’s troubles.

In a speech October 4, Abdul-Mahdi said he had heard protesters’ “legitimate” demands but now they needed to go home. He asked for more time because “there are no magic solutions” to the country’s problems.

The prime minister defended the security forces’ handling of the mass rallies, saying police had abided by “international standards” -- a move that infuriated demonstrators.

Some of Iraq’s neighbours and other countries in the region advised their citizens against travelling to Iraq over fears that they might be caught up in the violence.

The United Nations called on the Iraqi authorities to investigate the force used by anti-riot police.

“All incidents in which the actions of security forces have resulted in death and injury should be promptly, independently and transparently investigated,” said Marta Hurtado, spokeswoman for the UN rights office in Geneva.

“We call on the Iraqi government to allow people to freely exercise their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly,” she said. “People’s grievances need to be heard.”

Amnesty International condemned the use of “lethal and unnecessary force” against Iraqi protesters.

“This must not be yet another case of the government announcing an investigation or committee of inquiry which never yields any results,” said Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s Middle East Research Director.

Observers said corruption has become the main threat to Iraq’s stability.

“As indicated by their slogans and banners, the protesters have made it plain that they do not see corruption primarily as issue of personal greed and lawlessness but as the direct result of the political system and the parties that dominate it,” wrote Toby Dodge, associate fellow of Chatham House's Middle East and North Africa programme.

“Unless these demands for an end to corruption and far-reaching reform of the system are met, Iraq will continue to be destabilised by popular alienation from the governing elite and the mass protests this causes.”

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