Iraq protesters insist on system overhaul after US call for vote

Demonstrators say ‘corrupt’ politicians must step down before elections take place as bloody rallies continue.

Anti-government protesters stand on concrete barriers placed by security forces, during clashes with security forces, in downtown Baghdad, Iraq, Sunday, Nov. 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
Anti-government protesters stand on concrete barriers placed by security forces, during clashes with security forces, in downtown Baghdad [Khalid Mohammed/The Associated Press]

For weeks, protesters in Baghdad and a host of southern Iraqi cities have been relentlessly taking to the streets to demand the departure of the country’s ruling elite and an overhaul of the political system that was established in the wake of the 2003 US-led invasion.

Driven by anger over official corruption, high unemployment and poor public services, the protesters have dismissed government pledges to enact limited economic reforms, pressing instead for the removal of the entire political class.

The leaderless protests have been met with extreme violence, with more than 300 people killed by security forces since the demonstrations began on October 1.

Amid the mounting calls for political change, the United States, a main ally of the Iraqi government, urged on Sunday the country’s authorities to halt the violence against protesters “and fulfil President [Barham] Salih’s promise to pass electoral reform and hold early elections”.

But on Monday, protesters in Baghdad insisted that a snap poll was not the solution to the country’s problems.

“If they agree to hold early elections, the same faces will return … They’ll just be reshuffled,” Thawrah al-Ezzawi told Al Jazeera from Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, the hub of the protest movement in the Iraqi capital.

Al-Ezzawi said early elections “would not work” for the Iraqi people who are still waiting on “real change”.

“It’s like a game of chess,” the 49-year old public employee, said, adding that the people would end up paying the price.

“The system needs to change completely, and the people in power need to be held accountable … They can’t think that they can simply leave, that’s not enough,” she said. “Iraqi families are living under the poverty line in a country that has so much to offer.”

‘Meaningful change’

For decades, Iraq was a one-party state ruled with an iron fist by Saddam Hussein‘s Baath party. 

This changed after the US-led invasion of Iraq that toppled Hussein and the subsequent establishment of a political system that divided government branches and top official positions using a quota system based on ethnic and religious affiliations.

But for many, this quota-based system over the years allowed certain individuals and groups to enrich themselves and expand their influence – all the while much of the oil-rich country’s population continued to endure severe economic hardship and poor public services.

Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, an independent analyst who focuses on Iraq, said an early vote will not lead to “meaningful change” so long as Iraqis are faced with the same choices of parties.

“What is needed is a new generation of politicians who think beyond exploiting for personal benefit the post-2003 order put in place by the US, and the Iraqi parties and politicians it worked with at the time,” he said.

Anti-government protesters set fire and close streets during ongoing protests in Baghdad, Iraq, in central Baghdad, Iraq, Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)
Anti-government protesters set fire and close streets during ongoing protests in Baghdad [Hadi Mizban/The Associated Press]

‘Ruled without corruption’

Meanwhile, at least four demonstrators were shot dead in the southern city of Nasiriya on Sunday, according to the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights (IHCHR), bringing the death toll of people killed over the past two days to 15.

The deaths came a day after Amnesty International described the crackdown against protesters in Iraq  as “nothing short of a bloodbath”, and called on the government to rein in security forces.

This week, political leaders agreed to defend the government, headed by embattled Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, who came to power last year through a fragile alliance between populist Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr and Hadi al-Amiri, a leader of the Hashed al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilisation Forces, paramilitary network.

The prime minister promised that the government and judiciary would continue to investigate the deaths and that all detainees who have been arrested in the past several weeks would be released.

Abdul Mahdi has refused to step down, but according to President Salih, he said he is willing to resign if parties agree on a replacement.

Earlier this week, the 77-year old also said new electoral reforms would be announced in the “coming few days”.

Abdul Mahdi had also promised to hold corrupt officials accountable and create more job opportunities for the Iraqi youth, but his remarks have done little to quell public anger.

“To us, these [statements] are just words,” Noor Mohammed, who says he cannot obtain a steady job, told Al Jazeera from Baghdad.

“We believe that words need to be followed by concrete actions … And we need this to happen as soon as possible, before more fellow Iraqis fall from the government’s bullets,” the 30-year-old added, insisting that an early vote and electoral reform need to be accompanied by a change in governance.

Mohammed said he has been at the sit-in in Tahrir Square for weeks, chanting against corruption and calling for accountability.

With a hoarse voice from shouting, he said: “Is this how we’re repaid? We stood up for our country and fought ISIL and others … We deserve to be ruled without corruption.”

‘Refuse foreign interference’

Also on Monday, the United Nations mission in Iraq, UNAMI, proposed a series of steps to end the upheaval as it warned that a “climate of anger and fear has set in”.

It called for “maximum restraint in the handling of the protests, including no use of live ammunition, ban the improper use of non-lethal devices (such as tear gas canisters).”

UNAMI also urged the release of demonstrators and called for an investigation into the abductions of activists and medics, and reveal the identity of those responsible.

Its proposals included a series of immediate, short-term, and long-term measures, including holding those involved in corruption accountable, and implementing electoral and constitutional reforms.

Commenting on the international calls for an early election and electoral reforms, Bassil al-Qazmi, a Baghdad-based writer and political analyst, noted that protesters “refuse foreign interference” in Iraq’s internal affairs.

“This [foreign meddling] has been one of the core demands of the mass protests,” al-Qazmi told Al Jazeera via telephone.

“Today, Iraqis raised their voices to the world, after enduring a system that took orders from abroad for the past 16 years,” he said, referring to Iran, which has widespread influence in the country.

For weeks, protesters have also been directed their rage at neighbouring Iran and the powerful Iraqi Shia militias tied to it, which many allege are behind some of the bloodshed.

Both the US and Iran have significant political and military influence in Iraq, and protesters have accused the political class of being compliant to one or the other – without concern for the needs of the people.

“It’s really a power play between the US and Iran,” al-Qazmi said, adding that Washington must also be held accountable for bringing people who are “not sufficient to rule” to the table.

“When the US came with this constitution and political system [in 2003], they thought Iraqi politicians would only follow and be loyal to Washington,” he said.

“The statement may also be an attempt by the US to admit that the political elite are not up to standard, since many of them answer to Iran.”

Source: Al Jazeera