Mike Phipps concludes his analysis of Iraq today
VII Popular protest
The current wave of protests in Iraq began two years ago. Months-long protest in the south in 2018 saw the local government building burned to the ground in Basra. The region produces about 90% of the country’s oil wealth but most residents see none of the benefit.
Haifa Zangana explains: “The protests in the southern cities, described by many as an uprising, have been extremely difficult for the ruling parties and militias to suppress. Basic demands focused on a lack of clean water, after 15 years of corrupt rule, and only gradually extended to political demands. No minister could deny the facts about lack of water, electricity, jobs, health and school services. The south is also remote from central and northern parts of the country, where terrorist activities were used as pretexts to violently suppress similar protests there a few years back. Yet, the government’s initial response was to fire on demonstrators, killing 12 and wounding dozens.”
Protests resumed in Basra in the summer of 2019. Then in Baghdad, graduate demonstrators organised a protest in front of the prime minister’s office, demanding employment. It was met with fierce repression, provoking country-wide anger at the use of such brutal methods against peaceful intellectuals. Protests spread across Iraq’s cities against government corruption and the absence of basic services in a country rich in oil revenues. A particular source of conflict was the power wielded by unaccountable pro-Iranian militias within the state administration: indeed, there is clear evidence that rooftop snipers and assassination squads from such groups were deployed against those demonstrating, to deadly effect.
In Baghdad, protestors took over Tahrir Square in what became known as the October Revolution. Despite the government’s deployment of the military which used live ammunition against them, more people joined the protests. The anger was intense, particularly among young Iraqis who see no future in their country. Many women also took part. Some of the largest demonstrations in Iraq’s history demanded not just a change in the government, but an overhaul of the entire sectarian constitution with which the Bush Administration had saddled country, which has made the militias so powerful.
The New York Times explained in a recent major analysis: “To those who took part in the rallies, groups like Kataib Hezbollah are not just Iranian proxies; they are the newest faces of a kleptocracy that has enriched itself at the expense of Iraq’s youth, who have been left jobless and destitute in ever-increasing numbers. Some militia leaders, meanwhile, have joined the ranks of Iraq’s richest men, becoming famous for buying upscale restaurants, nightclubs and opulent farms on the Tigris.”
And these same figures are embedded in the government itself, right up to Cabinet level. “The Sadrists have the Health Ministry, the Badr Organization has long had the Interior Ministry and the Oil Ministry belongs to Al-Hikma.” The new prime minister, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, is powerless to confront the militias, despite one of them – Kataib Hezbollah – being thought to be responsible for killing a key prime ministerial advisor. In any case, many members of his government and other senior officials have dual nationality, despite rules against this. However bad things get in Iraq, they can always avoid the worst and get out quickly.
Many of those who preside over the embezzlement of Iraq are staunch US allies. The New York Times concluded that the “the United States is deeply implicated in all this, and not just because its serial invasions wrecked the country and helped ravage the economy.” Much of Iraq’s oil revenues are channelled back to Iraq from a US-administered account, which gives Washington huge leverage over the Iraqi government and economy. Large quantities of this money are laundered into the hands of militias and fraudsters. One recent analysis estimated that between $125 billion and $150 billion is held by Iraqis overseas, most of it illegitimately acquired.
Between 2006 and 2014, an estimated $500 billion of oil sales receipts and foreign aid disappeared through some of the most massive corruption in history. Iraq, we should remind ourselves, has the world’s fourth-largest reserves of oil, but nearly three-fifths of its 40 million people live on less than $6 a day. Millions of people still lack access to adequate healthcare, schooling, water or power supplies and much of the country’s infrastructure remains in ruins. One third of Iraqis live in poverty and unemployment among young people is over 40%. Today the coronavirus crisis and the fall in oil revenues makes corruption a life and death issue, leaving the government very little room for manoeuvre.
The protests show no sign of abating, despite the repression – over 500 have been killed and some reports estimate 700 – and many thousands wounded. Targeted assassinations of protest organisers by militia groups remain an ever-present danger. Even medics trying to deal with the casualties have been targeted. “After the war against Isis, I didn’t think I’d see battles this intense again,” reported one. “But the streets and squares of Baghdad have turned out worse… Even Isis wouldn’t shoot at medical staff during the worst of the fighting.”
The bravery of the protestors is awe-inspiring. A sixteen year old who sustained a fractured spine, a paralysed leg and a hole in the back told reporters: “This is my sacrifice for Iraq. If I could walk, I would be back in the protests now.” Another said: “We want those in power to be put on trial, and we want to choose from a new pool of people who have nothing to do with the traditional parties that have blood on their hands.”
The overwhelming participation of young people and women in the protests, independent of any political party, signified in the eyes of some commentators an important cultural change in Iraq. The protests have transcended ageism, sexism and regional divides. Workers have struck, as have school students. Millions have taken part. On Tahrir Square, Baghdad, bakers, restaurateurs, doctors and nurses and hairdressers have all offered their services free of charge. In the process, a genuinely popular, secular movement is battling against the corrupt sectarian system of governance that the US occupation has bequeathed to Iraq.
Last December, Iraq’s parliament passed a new electoral law that transitions elections to a first-past-the-post system, which allowed voters to select individuals rather than use party lists, which have become the creatures of ethnic and religious patronage. The then prime minister resigned and the president submitted his resignation, rather than appoint a new premier nominated by an Iranian-backed bloc in Iran’s parliament, who would be unacceptable to the protestors. This policy of apparent concessions is ‘balanced’ by the targeting of activists, via forced disappearances, arbitrary detention and assassination by elements of the security forces.
VIII The current situation
On 29th December 2019, the US launched airstrikes against Kataib Hezbollah’s positions in Iraq and Syria, reportedly killing at least 25 and wounding 55 more. Kataib Hezbollah is one of the Popular Mobilization Units that were recruited to fight ISIL after the Iraqi armed forces collapsed in 2014. It is linked to Iran but is also an integrated part of the Iraqi security services. President Trump’s admission that US troops remain in Iraq partly to “watch over Iran” have strengthened Iraqi fears that their country could be the theatre for a military conflict between the two powers. This has fuelled popular demands for an end to both US and Iranian influence in Iraq. Anger intensified when a further US strike hit a convoy of medics, killing at least six.
Iraq’s parliament voted to expel all US forces from the country, yet two weeks later joint military operations resumed. The Trump Administration had warned that Iraq could lose access to the key US-administered bank account that channels oil revenues back to Iraq’s elite. In the face of this threat, the Iraqi government unsurprisingly complied with US demands. Discussion of troop withdrawal is off the table, over 17 years after the US first walked in. Other western countries have taken the same line.
Despite continued crackdowns, protest continued into 2020. Even as a new government was being formed, Iraq’s judiciary was investigating the alleged sale of ministries. Nor were protestors deterred by the onset of COVID-19, whose impact has itself been exacerbated by years of western sanctions and war – 70% of Iraq’s health infrastructure has been destroyed since 2003. “The real virus is Iraqi politicians,” said Fatima, an 18-year-old protester and medical student from Baghdad.
One outlet reported: “Demonstrators in Baghdad have implemented a rotational system to keep protest camps alive amid the coronavirus pandemic and accompanying curfew.” There was no let-up in the state’s repression, however, the same newspaper later reporting: “Anti-government protesters have once again faced a hail of bullets and death as they resumed their activities following the easing of lockdowns and curfews linked to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.”
Demands have been extended to include the prosecution of those accused of the unlawful killings and forced disappearances of hundreds of protestors. There is also mounting opposition to new government’s austerity measures, driven by the economic crisis caused by the fall in oil prices and the COVID pandemic. Nor has the long-awaited appointment of a new prime minister altered the security services’ use of deadly force against demonstrators.
One prominent supporter of the protests is Iraqi journalist Muntadhar Al-Zaidi, who became famous after throwing two shoes at President Bush during a news conference in Baghdad in 2008. “This is a goodbye kiss from the Iraqi people, you dog!” he shouted as he threw the first shoe. “This is from the widows, the orphans, and those who were killed in Iraq,” he yelled with the second.
What was seen as a spontaneous burst of anger at the Bush Administration’s invasion and Occupation of Iraq, had in reality been years in the planning, a fact which undermines the bravery of Al-Zaidi’s act. “I had to prepare everything because I was expecting to be martyred,” he said. “I wrote a will in preparation of this moment.” While he didn’t die, he was arrested, beaten, tortured and left him in enduring pain. “They broke my teeth and my nose at that moment and then they took me away only to beat me with a pipe. Then they broke my leg.” Electric shocks and waterboarding followed.
Al-Zaidi was hailed as a hero on his release, nine months later, amid offers of a new house, a flash car and much more. “I am not a hero,” he responded. “Rather I am an oppressed man who is witness to his people being killed, his country’s invasion and the US soldiers repressing our great people on a daily basis.”
“I do not regret throwing the shoe,” he said. “My regret is that all I did was throw one shoe and not have more legs so I can throw three, or four or five.”
Al-Zaidi was lucky to survive. A day after he was released, a man who threw his slippers at a military convoy in Falluja was shot dead by US troops. “When I saw Americans patrolling the streets of Falluja I lost my temper,” he told reporters before he died. “Troops have withdrawn from cities, so why are they still patrolling here in Falluja?”
Al-Zaidi set up a humanitarian organisation to help victims of the war and in 2018, he ran for Parliament to “get rid of the corrupt, and to expel them from our country,” he explained. Today he is a keen supporter of the anti-government protests.
“It is our ambition and dream that foreign intervention in Iraqi affairs is eliminated,” said Al-Zaidi. “This will be hard, but it is not impossible. We will remain on the streets until we get what we want. Of course, our biggest demand is a free and independent Iraq without foreign intervention, and a fair government that takes care of its people, without massive corruption.”
Over seventeen years after the US-led invasion, Iraq’s sovereignty continues to be routinely violated. Regular air strikes in northern Iraq by Turkish jets, little reported in the west, escalated into “a major joint air and ground operation” this June. Civilian casualties have been significant, with villagers in the firing line fleeing their homes, a refugee camp attacked and farmers saying their orchards have been destroyed.
Iran’s influence still remains deeply entrenched, notwithstanding any efforts Iraq’s new prime minister, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, may make to curtail it. The militias that were mobilised to fight the ISIL insurgency following the collapse of the Iraqi army remain a powerful force.
The US regularly violates Iraq’s sovereignty with impunity, as last December’s attack on Kataib Hezbollah underlines, and is unlikely to withdraw its troops in the near future, whatever President Trump may claim, although it may reduce them. The most the Iraqi prime minister can do in these circumstances is to plead with the US and Iran, amid escalating tensions between the two, not to turn his country into a battlefield.
To prevent this, Al-Kadhimi himself ordered a raid on Kataib Hezbollah’s headquarters in June, arresting 14 members. When the militia stormed the heavily fortified government complex in Baghdad known as the Green Zone, the prime minister backed down and released those arrested. Unimpressed, the US decided to test its new Counter rocket, artillery, and mortar system above the Green Zone in July in a further undermining of Iraq’s authority.
When Al-Kadhimi visited Washington this month, noted one commentator, “Trump pressed Kadhimi to expeditiously end Iraq’s dependency on Iranian electricity by replacing it with Saudi sources and signing agreements with five US energy firms – worth $ 8 billion – aiming to turn Iraq’s energy sector into an integral part of US national security, and hence justifying an enduring military presence.” In short, a total surrender to US demands which threatens to increase US- Iran tensions, with Iraq caught in the middle.
Iraq’s sovereignty is squeezed from other directions. Although it is scarcely reported here, the UK has actually increased the number of air strikes in Iraq, with the figures for April to June 2020 being greater than at any time since the battle for Mosul in 2017. And continued US control of Iraq’s oil revenues and the growing economic crisis are likely to drive Iraq into fulfilling the diktats of the IMF and international lenders, leading to further impoverishment and hardship for the Iraqi people. Clearly the preconditions for a restoration of Iraq’s sovereignty are not only the withdrawal of all foreign troops, but also a cancellation of the country’s debt, incurred at a time when outsiders were in charge and awarded bloated contracts to their own kind, as well as compensation for the destruction wrought.
Behind its fractured sovereignty, Iraq, as we noticed at the outset, remains deeply traumatised. The social, cultural and psychological damage done to an entire nation is unlikely to be overcome without a deep-rooted truth and reconciliation process, focusing on physical and psychiatric healing, health and wellbeing, neighbourhood re-generation, schooling, a cultural renaissance and much more.
None of these much needed steps look likely in the near future. “True peace is not merely the absence of conflict: it is the presence of justice,” said Martin Luther King. If a lasting peace is to be achieved, the fight for justice for Iraq must continue.
Mike Phipps, August 2020
Image source: U.S. Special Operations Forces in Iraq [Image 5 of 10], author: DVIDSHUB, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.