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GLOBALIST | 11 OCTOBER, 2019

Troubled Iraq - Youth Protests Leave 110 Dead, 6000 Wounded

TC Foreign policy brief


Iraq’s beleaguered Prime Minister, Abdul Majid, appears unable to quell the massive youth-led protests that have rocked Iraq for over a week. Nearly 110 people have been killed in confrontations with the security forces and reports say over 6000 have been wounded.

The Prime Minister’s efforts to involve Parliament in finding a solution have proved futile with a special session called by him boycotted by three influential political blocs who said the government didn't have an agenda it could implement and it was not worth going to the meeting.

Significantly Muqtada al Sadr the powerful Shia leader whose coalition had won the maximum number of seats in the 2018 elections, had called for the government to resign and snap elections to be held.

Earlier he had urged legislators to suspend their parliamentary membership and boycott sessions until the government responded to the protesters' demands. Sadr along with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, the pro-Iranian political bloc leader Hadi al-Amiri and former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had backed Majid as a compromise candidate for the Prime Ministership in 2018.

 

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The pressure on Majid had escalated with the supreme religious authority in Iraq, Ayatollah Sistani, demanding a de-escalation of violence "before it is too late" and telling the government to enact necessary reforms. Amnesty International had called on Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s government to rein in the security forces and investigate the killings.

The demonstrations had suddenly started in Baghdad taking even the security forces by surprise. Thousands of young men were out on the streets demonstrating against corruption, unemployment and poor public services. Nearly seven provinces witnessed large protests with nearly 3000 people trning out on the streets in Basra.

As the protests grew the media began receiving threats not to cover the demonstrations and unidentified gunmen were reported to have raided the Baghdad bureaus of NRT TV, based in the Kurdistan region; Saudi-owned al-Arabiya; and local al-Dijla channel, confiscating equipment and ripping screens from the walls. With international calls for restraint the army finally admitted that security forces had used “excessive force” to quash anti-government demonstrations.

Observers and analysts watching the situation said that though there had been protests in earlier years also, the present scenario was different. The demonstrators did not appear to be affiliated to any party or civic body but seemed to have spontaneously taken to the streets against a system that had denied them representation, economic opportunity and functioning services, while only serving the interests of those in the ruling party oligarchy.

 

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From the slogans it was becoming clear that the demand was for an overhaul of the system rather than just a change of government and significantly the slogan of the Arab uprising of 2011 had begun to echo—al-sha'ab yurid isqat al-nidham" --the people demand the downfall of the regime.

The government seemed all but paralysed. Tensions increased with the internet being banned and preventing the demonstrators from communicating with each other or posting footage of the demonstrations online. The government imposed and withdrew curfews and reimposed them. Tahrir square in Baghdad had been barricaded by the security forces who used live ammunition and tear gas against the protestors seeking to march the square.

Attempts by the Speaker of Iraq's parliament Mohamad al-Halbousi to place the protestors by promising their representatives that the government would intiate a series of measures to curb corruption and kickstart Iraq's economy, including lending money to small businesses and creating new jobs, had almost no effect. Many Iraqis were convinced that new faces but the same attitudes would not solve the problem. The politicians needed to build the country and not just enrich themselves.

Economic problems facing the youth are very real. Nearly 60 percent of Iraq's 40 million people live on less than $6 a day, according to World Bank figures. The economic woes of the rapidly growing and mostly young population have persisted despite the country enjoying a period of relative stability following the recapturing of a number of urban centres from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

 

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The situation in Iraq had led Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain had called on their citizens to avoid trips to Iraq and advised those who were there to leave the country immediately. There were those who suspected some American or Israeli hand behind the problems. Iraq had refused to join the American led coalition against Iran.

Also Iraq had suspended the licence of a U.S.-government funded broadcaster after it ran an investigation alleging corruption within the country’s religious institutions. The country’s media regulator shut down the local offices of Al Hurra television - a regional network funded by the U.S. Agency for Global Media - for three months, accusing the network of bias and defamation in their report.

The report, which aired alleged corruption within the Sunni and Shi’ite Muslim endowments - state bodies that administer religious sites and real estate - including foundations linked to Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. It also said the bodies had ties to armed groups.

The Americans and Israel had also been hinting that Iran was behind the recent attacks on the oil infrastructure in Saudi Arabia and the Wall Street Journal cited American officials that they were convinced that Iraqi territory had been used to stage the attacks. The past weeks had witnessed a series of blasts that had hit the weapon depots and bases belonging to paramilitary groups in Iraq, many of them backed by Iran.

The groups blamed the United States and Israel for the blasts. In an interview with Russian-language Israeli television Channel 9, , Netanyahu was asked whether Israel would operate against Iranian targets in Iraq if needed. His response was “..“We are operating - not just if needed, we are operating in many areas against a state that wants to annihilate us. Of course I gave the security forces a free hand and instructed them to do anything necessary to thwart Iran’s plans.” He did not explicitly name Iraq.

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi had been under pressure to curb the powers of influential Iranian-backed Shi’ite Muslim militias, a politically risky move apparently aimed at placating the United States which wanted to curb their influence as part of the American strategy to hamstring Iran. The Prime Minister had issued a decree that gave Iran-backed paramilitary groups, which had wielded increasing power in Iraq, a month to fully integrate with the armed forces, leave checkpoints and sever ties with political groups. His predecessor Haider al-Abadi had issued a similar decree that was largely unenforced

The Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) - Iraq’s umbrella grouping of mostly Shi’ite Muslim paramilitaries backed by Iran – had played a key role defeating Islamic State and formally became part of the armed forces last year, reporting to the prime minister. The PMF’s influence had through new senior military appointments with one commander made # of the Defence Ministry.

Iraqi legislators and the powerful Shia militiamen were determined not to let Iraq become the stage for the US- Iran rivalry. Even protesters from the movement of Moqtada al-Sadr, who once led Shi’ite militiamen against U.S. forces and was also vocally critical of Iranian influence in Iraq, chanted “no to war” and “yes to Iraq” in central Baghdad and the southern city of Basra. Thousands of Sadr’s supporters urged political and factional leaders to stay out of any conflict between Baghdad’s two biggest allies, Iran and the United States.

The situation in Iraq was providing an opportunity for Islamic State to try and consolidate again. Analysts said that Islamic State militants who had escaped the defeat of their self-declared caliphate in Syria earlier this year had been slipping across the border into Iraq. Nearly a 1000 were estimated to have slunk into Iraq.

The Islamic State cells were confined largely to rural hinterlands, according to Iraq’s Defense Ministry and analysts tracking the group. There were few indications that the group could once again control large amounts of territory or win significant support but experts had mentioned their capacity to undertake low-level insurgency to terrorize communities as , following their leaders Abu Bakr Baghdadi’s latest message, they could attempt to prepare for a long-term struggle in an Iraq witnessing internal turmoil.

There does not seem to be any promise of the government being able to assuage the anger of the people. With a non-existent opposition in Parliament there is hardly any one to question what the government does. At best a carrot and stick approach and fatigue could create a lull in the protests. But that is unlikely to last long and eventually the government may be forced to resign—only for the same people to re-emerge in a new guise--something the demonstrators are determined should not happen.

What Iraq needs today is an effective opposition and a polity that can throw up alternative leaders rather than resurrecting well known and non-credible faces. There is a need for a reform of the electoral law and the creation of an independent electoral commission that would allow the electoral process to become more representative. That alone might permit the installation of a genuine parliamentary opposition beyond the ruling oligarchy. So far the political classes lack the credibility that could help convince the Iraqi public to support reform initiatives suggested by them.

As some analysts have written a solution to Iraq’s political problems can only come through meaningful structural change. Who or what would be the catalyst remains to be seen—the people on the streets or the powerful armed militias, both Shia and Sunni. It would also depend on just what the US-Iran feud leads to since Iranian interests would influence the political choices made in Iraq.

 

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