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Most of the unrest is in Shia-majority towns in southern Iraq, although the protests are not sectarian. On the contrary, they promote Iraqi nationalism with slogans calling for ‘a country’ as a way of decrying sectarianism and the lack of sovereignty.
The protests took the Shia clergy by surprise. Muqtada al-Sadr and Amar al-Hakim, senior Shia clerics, expressed their support for the protesters’ demands while criticizing Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi’s inability to respond to them. Ironically, both men had a hand in the formation of Abdul Mahdi’s alliance government, five months after the May 2018 elections that led to the victory of the Sadrists, a national Islamic movement led by al-Sadr.
Al-Sadr advocated a nationalist strategy against foreign influences. However, his attitude towards the protests has appeared confusing lately. During the commemoration of the holy day of Ashura in early September, he visited the Iranian capital Tehran in what was perceived as an indication of the Islamic Republic’s influence on his political views. This conflicted with his open criticism of Iran’s paramilitary role a few days before. In late October, he called on his main political rival, Hadi al-Amiri, to work together to oust the prime minister.
Most Iraqis live in dire conditions. A fifth of the population lives below the poverty line and 25 per cent of young people are unemployed. The lack of basic services, in particular electricity shortages, is a daily reality. At the same time, the government is profiting.
In the wake of the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the fall of President Saddam Hussein, the United States (US) worked on the constitution of an Iraqi government along sectarian lines. The Shia majority, which endured discrimination and marginalization under Saddam Hussein, actively contributed to the reconstruction of the country. Today, although the government is Shia-led, the current system is perceived by vast segments of the population to strengthen political factions. Corruption in endemic and officials are not held accountable by any institution, benefiting instead from patronage networks. An estimated $450 billion in oil revenues have never made it into the state’s finances, instead finding their way into the pockets of a political elite that depends on clientelism.
The current Iraqi uprising was ignited by an angry reaction to the removal by Abdul Mahdi of the former ‘counterterrorism’ elite unit chief General Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi for no official reason. To many demonstrators, the man is a hero for leading the operation to retake the city of Mosul from the Islamic State in 2017.
The decision to replace him with Major General Sami al-Aridi, a man close to the Popular Mobilization Forces, which is made up of Shia militias headed by the Guardians of the Iranian Revolution, sparked outrage among Iraqis who perceived the decision as a favour to Iran.
As demonstrators voice their frustration with the Iraqi political system, they are also targeting Tehran, which has increasingly tightened its grip on the country and exerts an almost unfettered influence.
A case in point are the recent revelations by The New York Times and The Intercept about the extent to which Iranian intelligence officers have infiltrated the Iraqi cabinet and its military top command and utilized a number of sources formerly run by the CIA.
Iran was also directly involved in preventing Abdul Mahdi’s ouster. Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force, met secretly in late October with al-Amiri and his militia leaders to ask them to keep supporting Abdul Mahdi.
Since the beginning of the protests, more than 300 people have been killed and hundreds of other wounded.
Not only are pro-Iranian militias directly participating in repressing the demonstrations, but they are also intimidating the demonstrators and their families, threatening to kidnap them. This was the case for Saba Mahdaoui, a 37-year-old woman who was kidnapped on 2 November by militiamen.
Former Prime Minister Iyad Allaoui noted sarcastically that the authorities managed to locate and kill former leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who had been in hiding for years, but were unable to find a woman who was kidnapped in the streets of Baghdad.
Several similar cases involving the disappearance of protesters have been reported. The United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) has published two reports condemning the high level of violence characterizing the repression in Iraq. The second report lists at least six cases of protesters or volunteers being kidnapped by unidentified people in Baghdad. The impunity of pro-Iranian militias operating in the city makes many fear the militias might kidnap protesters from their homes once they have identified them.
Since the end of October, the security forces have not only fired teargas into the air to try and disperse the demonstrators but also sometimes directly at them. UNAMI documented at least 16 protesters killed by teargas cartridges fired at their heads or chests. Amnesty International has identified some of the cartridges used as being made in Iran.
In order to prevent the protesters from communicating, the authorities regularly shut down the internet, allowing violence to take place out of sight.
On 15 November, top Shia cleric Ali al-Sistani issued his fiercest condemnation of the Iraqi authorities, saying the country would never be the same after the protests.
The previous day, symbolically, the Iraqi national football team beat Iran 2-1 in a FIFA World Cup qualifying match. Following the victory, a crowd gathered in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square to celebrate the win.