Protesters in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad and other southern areas have taken to the streets since October 1, 2019 to express their anger over endemic corruption, poor infrastructure, and severe unemployment. Iraqis have expressed this outrage for years, however, the government has not taken tangible actions in response; causing protesters to organize massive demonstrations across Iraq to demand tangible change in the country’s political system.
The leaderless protests developed gradually as Iraqi security forces and Tehran-backed militias used excessive force against peaceful protesters, in an attempt to curb the unrest.
The leaderless protests developed gradually as Iraqi security forces and Tehran-backed militias used excessive force against peaceful protesters, in an attempt to curb the unrest. Firing live ammunition and teargas canisters, the security forces caused the death toll to surge to some estimated 450 with more than 25,000 wounded.
It is important to point out the likely presence of agent provocateurs within the protest ranks; individuals likely either from the intelligence agencies or pro-Iranian elements that wish to delegitimize the movement by instigating violence.
During the protests, many videos have spread virally via social media showing Tehran-backed masked snipers viciously attacking protesters. Some witnesses claimed that one of the documented snipers was speaking Farsi, not Iraqi Arabic.
The presence of pro-government militia groups has further escalated the violence. Many have come from Shia militias; yet, in the escalating violence, some individuals within the protest movement also have acted as aggressors, attacking police forces. Such actions have then been used as an excuse by the central government to deploy harsher methods to quash the protests.
After Saddam Hussein was toppled during the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, Iran saw the political vacuum as a good opportunity to expand its influence in Iraq. Iran first supported Iraqi politicians running for office within the government, then trained thousands of fighters to participate in defeating the Islamic State in the Levant (ISIS/ISIL) in June 2014, when a third of Iraq was falling under ISIL control.
Iraq has been the scene of a vast amount of chaos throughout its modern history, creating a viable terrain for emerging armed militia groups. Iran-affiliated and backed groups have sent many young Iraqis to Iran for military-style training, often with the intent of sending them to fight the Islamic State in the upper Levant, or to further entrench the Iranian-aligned Shi’a power bloc in Iraq.
What motivates many young Iraqis to join the militia, which ultimately fights for a foreign power, is the promise of what Iraq cannot offer them – training, good salaries, the ability to travel freely throughout Iraq, and access to arms, something that has come to equal a degree of safety in post-Saddam Iraq.
Adding to Iran’s influence, the Iraqi parliament passed a law in November 2016, that legalized the Iran-supported Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) militia group and transformed the group into separate military corps.
Iraq’s top Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani recently issued a religious edict (Fatwa), calling all Iraqis to defend the country; causing many militias members to embed themselves to battle along with Iraqi forces and the international coalition. Adding to Iran’s influence, the Iraqi parliament passed a law in November 2016, that legalized the Iran-supported Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) militia group and transformed the group into separate military corps.
It is clear that Iran in particular is using various means to exploit Iraq’s young and uneducated, by offering them positions of power within the wide assortment of well-armed Iranian-affiliated and directly backed militia groups. What this path does not offer these young men, or their country, is a safer Iraq.
Sharp unemployment in post-Saddam Iraq has disrupted the future prospects for a whole generation. The situation has unraveled the frail fabric of the conflict-ridden Iraqi society, with Iraqi youth and the central Baghdad government being on a collision course. This crisis further helped Iran attract people to join its various armed militia factions.
Nearly 50 percent of Iraqis are under the age of 19, with 60 percent under 25. According to a June 2018 World Bank report, the nation’s youth population is projected to increase from seven to ten million between 2015 and 2030.
The inability by the central Iraqi government to provide job opportunities in a country such as Iraq, one of the regions, if not the world’s richest countries in terms of natural resources, is a clear failure of policy and strong indication that tensions will only increase.
Since Prime Minister Mahdi’s resignation, the Iraqi parliament has failed to appoint a replacement, and Mahdi has retained his position in a caretaker role.
Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s resignation on November 29, 2019 was intended to appease the protesters. Instead the token sacrifice only served to further muddle the situation and show the government’s inability to deal with the issues. Furthermore, since Mahdi’s resignation, the Iraqi parliament has failed to appoint a replacement, and Mahdi has retained his position in a caretaker role. The government’s inability to follow through only further frustrates the population.
The abuse and torture of protesters and activists by both local authorities and militia groups have forced many civilians to flee and seek safety outside of Iraq. Many have fled to Turkey or towards Europe using illicit and highly dangerous methods such as “death boats”. A minority, however, found legal means to escape.
Among them is 25-year-old Muneer Ahmed Baqer, from the Thi Qar province in southern Iraq. Using a tourist visa, Muneer fled to Minnesota, U.S., in June 2019, after he began receiving death threats from one of the Iran-backed militias. The threats appeared to have been made because of his involvement in the 2018 protests and the strong political stance he had become known for.
Muneer’s story is one that is repeated by many Iraqi-activists throughout the current social movement. As the government violates protesters’ rights to demonstrate, it is also targeting online activists – who often originate from the very areas of Iraq that have recently been liberated from ISIS. Many find themselves being singled out, threatened, or even attacked by militia groups and government agents.
On December 6, 2019, The U.S. government announced sanctions on Iran-affiliated militia leaders and Iraqi politicians restricting their travel to the U.S. and freezing American-held assets. The sanctions primarily focused on PMF leaders such as Qais al-Khazali, Laith al-Khazali, and Hussein Falil Aziz al-Lami. Joining them were Iraqi politicians such as Khamis Farhan al-Khanjar al-Issawi, who is accused of bribery allegations and human rights violations.
The new U.S. sanctions were in part a reaction by the international community following a series of massacres of protesters in Baghdad and southern areas by militias.
The demonstrations in Shi’a majority provinces, including Najaf, Karbala, and Basra, indicate that even the Shi’a of Iraq do not wish to have Tehran’s involvement in their nation’s affairs.
The U.S. has on multiple occasions warned Iran not to meddle in the internal issues of Iraq. Ostensibly, those warnings have not been heeded by the Iranian leadership in Tehran. The demonstrations in Shi’a majority provinces, including Najaf, Karbala, and Basra, indicate that even the Shi’a of Iraq do not wish to have Tehran’s involvement in their nation’s affairs. In all three provinces, Iranian consulates suffered fire damage during the 2018 and 2019 protests.
Under the Saddam Hussein regime, access to the Internet had been largely unavailable for all but the elite. This changed in the aftermath of the 2003 war when Iraqis of all ages could easily use the Internet. Soon, many would turn to social media outlets as a source of news and opinions, but also to express their own realities. Throughout the past nearly two decades, the Internet also came to serve extremist groups seeking to spread their violent propaganda.
In spite of this, it was rare for the Iraqi government to curtail access to the Internet. It was seen as a necessary service to be made available in the new, free Iraq. Anything short of a free Internet was widely seen as a violation of basic human rights, especially in an emerging, yet frail, democracy.
Recently the government imposed multiple Internet blackouts, isolating Iraq from the outside world, and disrupting the free flow of information.
However, what the likes of the Islamic State could not make the central government do, the recent surge of protests has. Recently the government imposed multiple Internet blackouts, isolating Iraq from the outside world, and disrupting the free flow of information.
The central government hoped this tactic would curb, even disperse, the demonstrations and prevent the international community from gaining a viewpoint other than the state-approved version of what is going on in the country, which is noticeably lacking any coverage of the government’s mistreatment of protesters.
After the US assassination in Iraq of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, Baghdad’s central government is likely to intensify its control and repression of the media even as the protesters turn their attention to the ongoing US presence and the threat of a US-Iran war on their soil.