A cruel and crucial October in Iraq

Our corrupt political system is beyond reform or repair, but young Iraqis will continue to fight for a new Iraq.

Iraq protests
A demonstrator holds an Iraqi flag at a protest following four days of nationwide anti-government protests, in Baghdad, Iraq October 5, 2019. [Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters]

This October has been one of the bloodiest months in Iraq in recent memory. More than 150 Iraqi civilians were murdered in cold blood and 5,000 were wounded. The culprit is neither the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) or its affiliates, nor the car bombs that claimed scores of innocent lives for so many years. The perpetrator this time is the Iraqi regime, which used unprecedented and unnecessary lethal force against citizens who were exercising their legitimate right to protest against a dysfunctional political system and a corrupt political class.

The outbreak of these protests is neither surprising nor unprecedented. Back in 2011, the tide of Arab revolts that swept Tunisia, Egypt and Syria reached Iraq and it had its “Day of Rage.” But the massive protests that broke out that year in Iraq were quashed by the authorities. In recent years, protests against massive corruption, unemployment and failing services have become almost seasonal. Particularly in the scorching summer months when electricity shortages and lack of sufficient potable water exacerbate an already angry citizenry. Seething with anger, Iraqis in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities take to the streets to voice various demands. The protests are suppressed and eventually dissipate and/or are hijacked by this or that political force. Promises of reform from the government follow every time, but change never materialises.

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While not surprising, this month’s protests are markedly different from those of previous years in several respects. Unlike previous ones, this wave was totally spontaneous. It did not come in response to a call from, nor was it organised by, any party or groups of activists. The protests were triggered by anger following news of the demotion of Lieutenant General Abdul Wahab al-Saadi, the commander of Iraq’s elite counter-terrorism force. Al-Saadi gained wide popularity after spearheading the liberation of Mosul from ISIL two years ago and came to be seen as a national hero who transcended sectarian divisions and projected a sense of Iraqi patriotism. But the general’s demotion is merely one of many symptoms of a corrupt system and a political class deemed by most Iraqis as beholden to external influences and interests and lacking any legitimacy or sense of loyalty to Iraq.

The sense of despair and disappointment the protesters feel and their desire to reclaim Iraq was crystallised in one of their main chants: “We want a country.” These protesters are young Iraqis who came of age in the wake of the Anglo-American invasion of 2003. The invasion toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime, but it also dismantled the Iraqi state and its institutions, dictated a flawed constitution, installed a sectarian-based dysfunctional system, and populated it with parties and politicians, many of whom were allies if not pawns of the US, Iran and Saudi Arabia. The so-called political process, mischaracterised as a “democracy” by Western pundits and journalists, has cobbled together a failed state that is incapable of providing the minimum prerequisites for a dignified life for average Iraqis.

The country’s vast oil revenues are cannibalised by massive corruption and feed a voracious oligarchy with transnational partners, while leaving millions hungry and humiliated. According to Transparency International’s Corruption Index, Iraq is the world’s 12th most corrupt country. It was once the most corrupt country in the world. Perhaps this is why some Western journalists have started to write stories about the improvement in Iraq in recent years. A total of $450bn of public funds has evaporated since 2003. These young protesters have lived under this system their entire lives and incurred the heaviest of losses.

What further distinguishes this wave of protests is that its throngs are not middle-class citizens. The protests erupted in impoverished working-class neighbourhoods and slums where the failure of the state and the misery of daily life is most visceral. The lives and stories of these young men and their families rarely make it to journalistic reports about Iraq, which have lately tended to naively suggest that life is improving in Iraq after the defeat of ISIL two years ago.

While Iraqi security forces have been brutal in quelling protests in the past, the level of violence and number of victims were shocking this time around. Security forces used real bullets and snipers stationed on rooftops killed protesters. On the second day of the protests, Iraqi authorities shut down the internet in Iraq to block the flow of images and evidence of its crimes and cut off Iraqis from the rest of the world. Several TV stations were attacked and vandalised. Iraqi officials initially feigned ignorance as to the identity and affiliation of the snipers. Recent reports suggest that they belong to some of the Iranian-backed militias which are part of the Popular Mobilization Units formed to fight ISIL and which have since gained more political power.

State propaganda tried to delegitimise the protests by claiming that they were instigated by outside forces, or were part of a conspiracy by Baathists to return to power. Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi‘s call for dialogue was ineffective, if not naive, since these protests are leaderless. His promised plan for economic reform (by now a broken record for Iraqis) and the subsidies meant to quieten the protests fell way short.

The corrupt political system in Iraq is beyond reform or repair. It has lost any legitimacy in the eyes of Iraqis. Reclaiming Iraq and saving its future from further ruin will not be easy. There should be a new caretaker government. Free elections under international supervision must be held, and a non-sectarian constitution, written by legitimate representatives, must be drafted and ratified. The political class and its regional and global allies will fight against this or any other scenario for genuine change. But Iraqi youth, like their peers elsewhere, are courageous and resilient and will keep fighting for a new Iraq. They have called for another massive protest on Friday, October 25.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.