What is Happening in Iraq?
By Nikola Zukalová
Over the past months, Iraq has become — again — the epicentre of regional crises. The south of the country is in the midst of widespread protests focused on Iran’s destructive role while an escalation of violence between Washington and Tehran keeps political embers burning. Against this backdrop, the Euro-Gulf Information Centre hosted journalist Sofia Barbarani — whose tenure in Iraq began in 2013 — to preside over an information session and brief the public as to what is really going on in Iraq.
The wave of recent protests in Iraq has entered its fifth month. With demands unmet, people remain on the streets and continue to demand that government provide basic services, end endemic corruption, nepotism, mismanagement and foreign interference to create space and incentives for Iraqis — no matter the sect — to rebuild their country on their own terms. Protest movements thread through all the major cities in Iraq’s south—weaving in from Baghdad to the Shia holy cities of Karbala and Najaf through Nasiriya to Basra. People from various strata of society are rallying around a common national cause. Indeed, according to freelance journalist, Sophia Barbarani, ‘what we are seeing today, transcends the sectarian divide, it transcends the class divide and gender divide, they are genuine, organic protests.’ Barbarani, who was stationed in Iraq and covered the protests in November 2019, explained the unfolding dynamics in the country during her public lecture The Iraq Impasse at EGIC HQ in Rome.
Barbarani continued by noting that ‘the bulk of the protestors are young men, who were born in the late 1990’s, are working class and unemployed.’ Many of them come from the so-called “Sadr City”—a suburb in northern Bagdad — and engage in the front-line fighting against security forces and their anonymous, black-clad allies (largely understood as Iranian paramilitary teams). They are supported by what Barbarani referred to the as ‘youth from the middle class,’ such as medical students, volunteering to provide medical services on Tahrir Square, many women (a new phenomenon in more conservative areas) and a Motley Crew of people from older generations and across the social spectrum. Tahrir Square, which Sofia described as a place where the Iraqis managed to build ‘a state within a failed state,’ where locals provide various services for everyone, became a symbol of a resisting Iraq.
Protestors face routine attacks from unidentified attackers and government security forces who shoot ‘rubber bullets, tear gas and live ammunition,’ indiscriminately into crowds, which has left hundreds dead and tens of thousands wounded. And, according to Barbarani they often deploy ‘intimidation, kidnapping, and torture’ against the protestors. Violence continues to escalate, particularly following the government’s failure to present an independent candidate for Prime Minister by 20 January, a deadline supported by the protest cities. Fearing the increasing violence, many Iraqis fled the hotspots to calmer areas. Barbarani further observed that the spiking violence has even prompted many people to move from Baghdad to Fallujah which was, until recently, considered among the most dangerous places in Iraq. Local authorities in Anbar Province ‘are keeping people from protesting’ to avoid problems, even if it means using violent means.
As protests continue, government delays of naming a Prime Minister seem to be a deliberate ploy to retain the status quo by waiting out people’s resolve. But those encamped on the streets are showing no intention to capitulate. Since resigning on 30 November 2019 after two months of sustained demonstrations, Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi and his government — named in 2018 following a compromise between the two largest, rival, parliamentary factions: Sairoon, led by cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, and Fatah, linked to pro-Iranian militias — have acted as a caretaker government until a new one is chosen. This was largely done as appeasement. Protesters are demanding new-blood, an independent who is outside the circles of the existing political elite, which have dominated national politics since 2003. Parliamentary blocs are now confronted with an impasse: to put national interests ahead of narrow, individually articulated political-economic interests. This is not in the political culture of Iraq at the moment. An independent candidate will likely threaten their positions. Given the stalemate, Iraq’s President, Barham Salih, gave the political blocs a deadline to present the candidate by 1 February, otherwise he will choose one himself.
Enter Muqtada Al-Sadr. On 14 January 2020, a day after meeting with senior officials of the Iraqi Iranian-backed militias, including Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq and Harakat Hezbollah Al-Nujaba (in Qom, Iran), Al-Sadr called for a million-man march against the US presence in Iraq, which was endorsed by some leaders of the pro-Iranian militias. This caused friction among Al-Sadr’s followers, some of whom saw it as an attempt by Al-Sadr and the Iranian elements to hijack the domestic protests and turn them into an anti-US campaign. Ten days later, Al-Sadr announced on Twitter that he will refrain from interfering in the protests, expressing disappointment with the anti-government protestors for questioning him and rejecting to participate in his million-man rally. Some of his followers then withdrew from the protests, which was expected to be a blowback for the protests, but many more demonstrators went into the streets the next day to show that Al-Sadr’s withdrawal will not restrain them. Despite that ‘Sadr has a lot of support,’ according to Barbarani, ‘but his support is waning a little bit, especially among the young generation.’
Continued Foreign Interference
The tit-for-tat escalation between the US and Iran (and its Iraqi Shia militias under the Popular Mobilisation Forces umbrella), is playing out on Iraqi territory. The targeted assassination of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Al-Quds Force’s Commander, Qassem Soleimani together with the leader of Kata’ib Hezbollah and high official of the PMF, Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, along with other Iranian agents has partly overshadowed the protests. The Iranian penetration of security and political elites runs very deep but ‘Iraqis are intelligent and incredibly strong-willed.’ These protests are reflecting ‘a generation that is no longer interested in either Iran or the US having any kind of say in their country,’ said Barbarani. However, despite calls for tailoring foreign interference, neither Iran nor the US have any intention to quit their deployment; rather the opposite. Given the continuous rocket and missile attacks from pro-Iranian militias, the US are now devising plans and seek to obtain an approval from the Iraqi government to place Patriot missile defence batteries in Iraq to protect its bases and personnel in the country.
A Calm before the Storm?
Iraq’s protracted impasse, coupled with the spike in US-Iran tensions and a looming threat of a resurgent Daesh harms, first and foremost Iraqis, many of which seek to break away from the shackles of sectarianism, nepotism and foreign intervention. Anti-government protestors seem united regardless of their background, sect, age or gender and are continuing to push their agenda despite the violence from the government and pro-Iranian militias. However, not all of Iraq is yet protesting and many people have adopted a wait-and-see approach in relation to the looming political change—elections or, it seems, repression. Until an outcome is settled, Iraq will likely juggle even more crises threatening to tip the fragile balance and turn it into a quagmire producing repercussions for the region and indeed the world.
31 January 2020