Posted by Ryan Suto on October 29, 2019 in Blog

Iraq reels from news reports that a masked gunmen fired upon protesters in Karbala earlier today, killing 18 people. The event caps off a dark month of October in country, over 16 years since the U.S. invasion. In total, at least 240 people have been killed and at least a staggering 8,000 people have been injured in widespread protests which have been met by an authoritarian response of violence and repression. This comes as President Trump continues to remove U.S. assistance from counter-terrorism and humanitarian efforts throughout the Middle East, while re-focusing U.S. attention where he sees American financial interests at stake, such as the defense of oil fields and support for Saudi Arabia. This is true in Iraq as well where, despite the protests, the Trump Administration’s response has been muted. While Iraq's post-2003 history has been punctuated by civil unrest, this month has been different, both in the clarity of the calls by the protesters for a complete rejection of Iraq’s political system and the government’s astonishingly authoritarian response. How the Iraqi government responds to October and the grievances which led to the unrest could determine the prospect for stability in the country.

Since the 2003 invasion, successive Iraqi governments have struggled to ensure stability in basic services such as electricity and clean water. And while Iraq is rich in both natural resources and culture, that richness has not delivered economic or political stability to the Iraqi people. Corruption and bureaucracy are rampant, employment and opportunity are scarce, and the distance between political elites and average Iraqis could not be greater. As a consequence, protests in Iraq have become common  since at least 2011, especially during the scathing summer in the southern provinces where a lack of utilities can be deadly.

This month’s protests come in autumn, however; a year into the premiership of Adil Abdul-Mahdi, an independent politician resulting from a compromise between the Binaa bloc and the Islah bloc in a bid to form a governing coalition. The protests were at least partly sparked by Abdul-Mahdi’s transfer of Lt. Gen. Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi from the Iraqi Army to an administrative desk job. Saadi’s popularity stems from his battles against ISIS, whereas his danger to many Iranian-alligned actors in Baghdad stems from his strong relations with the U.S. 

Protests began on October 1st in Baghdad and throughout the south of the country, while west and central Iraq, which is predominantly Sunni, remained relatively quiet as many were wary of participating in calls to overthrow a Shia-led government for fear of charges of disloyalty. Within the first day of protests, the government responded with disproportionate use of force of both teargas and live ammunition; at least 10 were killed with nearly 300 wounded

By the weekend, more than 100 were killed with thousands injured, with much of the violence occurring in and around Baghdad. An 8pm curfew was declared throughout the southern provinces. The government blacked-out 75% of the internet, including social media, across much of the country for days at a time. Unidentified groups of armed men, suspected of being linked to the government, raided the Al-Arabiya news station, destroyed the equipment of a half a dozen other news agencies, and attacked bloggers. In response to their own overreaction, and after criticism of early defensive statements, the Iraqi government announced an investigation into the deaths of protesters, The Prime Minister promised a project to offer a basic wage for the poor. He also announced a 17-point recovery plan to address the protests directly, which included more housing, greater unemployment benefits, and compensation for the families of those killed during the protests. A week later and the protests had subsided, with continued unrest in isolated areas in the capital and the southern provinces. The deadly response to the protests left at least 150 dead and 5,000 injured. In the succeeding weeks, criticism of the government's crackdown continued. Baghdad announced intentions to step-up efforts to investigate the violence, and what role Popular Mobilization Forces (PMFs) may have played in targeting protesters and journalists. 

The underlying concerns, of course, remained unaddressed. As such, last Friday protests again flooded Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, and saw similar protests again in the county’s southern cities. Violence again followed, especially as protesters tried to reach the Green Zone. At least 60 protesters were killed by government forces and PMFs since Friday. The renewed protests have continued, and have been met with a curfew in Baghdad

Like contemporary protests in the Arab world and beyond, Iraq’s October protests have been largely leaderless and consist of demands which question the very structure of their government. This may ultimately prove an obstacle for enacting the changes sought, as the protesters have no unified voice to help translate grievances into policy and engage in negotiations. For example, the protesters themselves have criticized Iran’s role in Iraq as destabilizing, as Iranian-backed PMF snipers have frequently fired on protesters throughout the month. However, nearly all elites, including religious ones like Ayatollah Sistani and Moqtada al-Sadr, have been subject to scrutiny and skepticism during the protests. As such, no individual in Baghdad or Najaf can claim the voice of the people in countering Iran’s influence. All the while, PMF leaders are already hoping to use the government’s violent crackdown as pressure to fire security chiefs, and thus weaken Iraqi security forces in comparison to the PMFs. Without a leadership, it will be difficult for the protesters to counter this potential strengthening of Iran’s power in Iraq, which appears to be in tension with their demands on the street.

Unfortunately, the challenge of enacting good governance will likely persist in Iraq for years to come, regardless of the success of the October protests. Ultimately, the government must hold itself accountable for both the deep corruption which spurred the protests and the excessive use of force during them. The bloodshed of October will not be forgotten by the Iraqi people, and they will continue to demand and expect justice. For their part, while the protesters are calling for a complete overhaul of the post-2003 political order, a more concrete political and economic roadmap could be helpful for negotiations moving forward. On both sides, this is easier said than done. While Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi is seen as running a technocratic government, the civil service continues to be bloated with cronist positions and appointments, leading critics to label Iraq an oligarchy instead of a democracy. Further complicating matters, camps of refugees from Syria and Internally Displaced Iraqis represent continued instability; implementation of Iraq’s National Policy on Displacement would go a long way to addressing this issue. 

If the U.S. wishes to help Iraq, Washington needs to increase both diplomatic and financial investment in the country. The State Department oversees a skeleton crew in Iraq after it pulled out much of its staff in May and June. And while the U.S. exports to Iraq are $1.3 billion, Iraq’s trade with Iran is $12 billion. At a time when Iraqi protesters are actively opposing Iranian influence in Iraq, the U.S. should be seizing the opportunity to court Baghdad by offering increased assistance to promote transparency and stamp out corruption. And, just as importantly, pressing Baghdad for adherence to international standards for treating protesters and accountability for actors who have violated them. Instead, Iraqi leaders are openly questioning whether the U.S. is a dependable partner, and are open to increasingly turning to Russia and Iran instead. Concretely, the U.S. should help Baghdad curb the power and influence of the PMFs. Their continued existence will only undermine Iraqi sovereignty, as they continue to weaken Iraqi security forces pursuant to Iranian interests. 

Regardless of the responses—or the lack thereof—of international actors, Iraqi protesters have made it clear that Iraq’s future will be determined by Iraqis themselves. They understand better than anyone that as long as Iraq’s government remains corrupt, the country’s wealth generated as one of the largest oil producers in the world will not benefit the Iraqi people.