Why are young Iraqis braving bullets to protest?

Qasim Muhammad analyses the grievances behind demonstrations in the Iraqi capital and southern cities which have faced violent repression by the security forces.

From Middle East Solidarity magazine, issue 12. Order a print copy or download as a pdf here 

The popular movement which exploded in early October was driven by young people using social media to mobilise. The scale of the protests took everyone by surprise. People on the left were saying “these are Islamists”, but the Islamists themselves, such as the Sadrist current, were also afraid of the movement, asking “what are these spontaneous protests?” “Who is behind them?”

Yet the accumulating reasons behind the protest movement are the same as those which drove protests in 2011: corruption and poverty. There are also more immediate triggers. One of these is the government campaign removing informal housing. People have been building small houses in informal settlements, and the government has been rapidly clearing them away in recent weeks.

Despite the Prime Minister’s announcement of a major national campaign to build housing, in reality the government has been knocking down people’s homes and shops and destroying their cars. Graduates have taken to the streets during the past month: young men and women have been holding sit-ins to demand that the state provides them with jobs. They have been attacked violently by the police and security forces, facing beatings and water cannons.

These frustrations exploded with the sacking of Abdulwahab al-Saadi, deputy head of the Counter-Terrorism Service. Al-Saadi is well-known for his role in leading the liberation of Takrit, of Fallujah and of Mosul from ISIS fighters. The CTS is one of the organisations built up by the Americans, but the officers serving there are known for their professionalism. In addition, many Iraqis see the CTS as uniquely free from sectarian infighting and splits.

Al-Saadi was considered a hero by the people of Mosul, where several months ago, a statue of him was erected, but not unveiled. Government officials came and removed the statue in the middle of the night, prompting protests by local people. Al-Saadi was also seen as one of the few figures who could act as a counterweight to the influence of Iran inside the Iraqi armed forces.

The wave of protests in early October was concentrated in the capital Baghdad, in al-Wasit province and in the southern provinces.

This government must fall, we want to change this corrupt regime and get rid of its cronies.”

The provinces which have a Sunni majority, such as al-Gharbiyya and the city of Mosul remained silent, reflecting the population’s fears of being accused of terrorism or wanting the return of ISIS.

There was little sign of protest in Kurdistan, although at least one organisation was calling for solidarity demonstrations. The Movement of the New Generation warned that the same grievances which pushed people to demonstrate in the south were also present in Kurdistan, where 200,000 graduates are unemployed.

The violent response by the state to the protests has radicalised the movement. Initially the demonstrators had a set of seven demands, but by the second day of the crackdown, the young people protesting were calling on the regime to go. “We have no water, no electricity, nothing” was a common chant. “This government must fall, we want to change this corrupt regime and get rid of its cronies.”

Qasim Muhammad is the pseudonym of an Iraqi activist living in France


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