“We just want them all to go” – Iraq’s popular movement takes on the sectarian state

A mass march by students in Baghdad on 5 January 2020 – picture Ali Dabdab via Twitter

Since October 1st 2019, protesters demanding an end to corruption in Iraq have camped in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, while tens of thousands have joined mass demonstrations calling for radical political and social change. A major theme of the protests has been opposition to the influence of the Iranian regime over Iraq’s political system, but demonstrators have also raised slogans rejecting US interference in Iraq and rejecting other regional powers such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

The uprising has faced brutal repression: according to a statement shared on social media by protesters, more than 600 demonstrators had been killed and 21,000 injured by January 2020, yet it also created spaces for creativity, solidarity and joy as people scarred by years of war, occupation and sectarian violence came together to demand a better future. In December 2019 Middle East Solidarity spoke to Iraqi activists Sara, Muhannad and Rawnaq al-Sumaydi about what sparked the protests. 

The political system put in place by the US occupying forces in 2003 after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime has been a key target of protesters’ anger, Sara told us. 

“When the US-led invasion overthrew Saddam Hussein’s regime, they brought in several outcast individuals and political parties. Some of these political parties were affiliated with militias trained mainly in Iran for more than two decades. These were then elected in the hope that they would pull Iraq out of the misery it was in.The electoral system however was sectarian in nature, following what is called the muhasasa system.” 

Muhasasa refers to the parcelling up of the state institutions and public services between different political parties. Political leaders, usually representing particular religious or ethnic groups, took control of ministries and government departments, then doled out jobs, resources and even arms to their followers as a ‘reward’ for their votes. 

Hopes that the fall of Saddam Hussein’s brutal dictatorship would bring an end to war and the crushing poverty that was the legacy of years of economic sanctions were quickly dashed, Sara said. “So we elected these militias that had deep government ties as well as ties to the Iranian regime but soon after that the country got hit by suicide bombers, and then later by ISIS.” 

Over the decades, each round of warfare has left behind new victims, often from different religious and ethnic groups. 

“For example, during Saddam’s time, the Shi’a suffered quite badly. The Kurds suffered at some point. When ISIS came, the Yazidis of the North suffered,” Sara explained. The current wave of protests has overwhelmingly adopted the Iraqi flag, and raised slogans invoking national unity, as protesters hope to erase some of the divisions and scars of the past. 

“We all suffered at the end of the day and we all deserve to benefit from all the revenue that is generated in the country. We all deserve to have a strong infrastructure.” 

Demonstrators are angry that although nearly two decades have passed since the US-led invasion, millions of Iraqis are trapped in poverty, dependent on barely-functioning public services and crumbling infrastructure. 

“What is puzzling is that poverty in Iraq persists despite the revenue the country is generating mainly from oil, which is way beyond what we were producing during the days of Saddam Hussein’s regime. So it just doesn’t make sense,” Sara said. 

This contrast between the wealth accruing to leading politicians and ordinary people’s daily lives has been a major factor behind the protests, Rawnaq al-Sumaydi told us. 

“You see images of a child who has got cancer on the floor of a hospital in Basra because there is no bedding, while at the same time billions of dollars are spent by the people in government. So can you see the imbalance? When you look at the services that are provided for people, it’s really heartbreaking. I think this revolution will be a chance for drastic change for Iraq.”  

The failure of successive governments to solve Iraq’s electricity crisis, leaving millions to suffer the effects of soaring temperatures in summer is another factor driving protesters into the streets, Muhannad said. 

“I’m from Baghdad. There is only electricity for two hours a day, and two hours at night during the summer time when the temperature is 40, 50 degrees and sometimes even higher. You have to pay from your pocket to get it.” 

It isn’t a state service or even a private company which is taking the profits, however. Political parties make a killing running generators to supplement the intermittent service from the national grid. And this fuels more violence as money from the generators is channeled into buying arms: “they are killing us with our own money,” Muhannad argued. 

In Iraq’s oil-rich southern provinces, the situation is no better. “I’m from Basra, where the temperature actually reached 64, 65 degrees in the summer,” Sara said. “In that sort of temperature with no electricity you’re waiting for generators. It’s not only expensive, but it creates pollution, not only with toxic gases, but with the noise as well. And the other problem with the generators is that they create more heat so temperatures rise even more. It’s a completely deadly combination.” 

Meanwhile, public health services are desperately underfunded and often sites of corruption, violence and extortion. Sara recounted a traumatic experience when her son needed hospital treatment during a visit to Iraq. 

“My son was only little. They put the cannula in his arm and it was on the wrong side. It didn’t stay in place. They didn’t have plasters to hold it in place, so I was asked to hold it for six hours and make sure it didn’t move. Of course it moved and the cannula came out. And obviously, he had a swollen arm and I thought I was going to lose him.”

Adding to her distress, one of the hospital managers, who was linked to a political leader, began to mistreat the family. 

“She told her staff not to deliver any medical treatment to this patient. I had to find somebody on the phone who was in charge in order to get my son out and get a private doctor to see him. And this was in a public hospital.”

Services across the public sector have been turned into means for corrupt politicians to buy influence and enrich themselves at the expense of ordinary people, Rawnaq said. 

“You have to pay a lot of money to get a job. This is ridiculous. Who you know is important, not how much you know. Your manager might be somebody who had no education whatsoever but then they will be on multiples of your salary. This is where the issue is. There is so much money in the country, where it’s basically a lake of oil. But all the revenues are actually going towards all these politicians’ interests, not the country’s interests, which is where the problem is.” 

“So the youth are seeing this. There is no hope for the future as they can’t have good education, cannot get jobs, and therefore cannot settle down or get married. Then what is the hope for the future? Graduates demonstrated for weeks because there are no jobs.”

This is why so many unemployed graduates and students have played a key role in the protests. Regular marches on Sundays to Baghdad’s Tahrir Square have mobilised tens of thousands of students. 

‘No to America, No to Iraq, Yes to Iraq’ – student protesters in Baghdad, 5 January 2020 picture: Ali Dabdab via Twitter

A major theme of the protest movement has been opposition to the influence of the Iranian regime over Iraq. This has been expressed in criticisms of political parties which are supportive of Iran, and in attacks on Iranian consulates in Najaf and Kerbala’, which were torched by protesters. 

“Najaf and Kerbala’ are being stereotyped or perceived to be linked to Iran because these are the holiest Shi’a places in Iraq,” Sara said. “Burning the consulate was a symbolic act to express how angry they were with the situation and also to break the perceived image that they’re linked to Iran.  

“They want to free the country, where we can live with respect and dignity. They want a country where the Iraqi revenues are actually used to develop the infrastructure from the bottom up and used to improve public services, education, health care, clean water and power supplies. They want to have the right to have free speech and also to express yourself and also to take on whatever religious beliefs you choose.” 

Young protesters have been promoting boycotts of Iranian and Turkish products and encouraging people to buy Iraqi goods instead. For Rawnaq, this “deepening economic and social awareness really shows that this revolution is not one type, but it’s actually covering so many aspects. It’s like an awakening in all levels and you can see it is leaderless even though it is a spontaneous revolution.”

Restricting the military and political power of the powerful militias, such as the Popular Mobilisation Forces which were formed in order to fight ISIS after the group seized control of Mosul and large swathes of northern Iraq, has also been high on protesters’ lists of demands, said Rawnaq. 

“This is one of the demands of the people in Tahrir Square. They are asking that arms should be restricted for use only by the police and the army, not for those militias. Because now that the government is not powerful, all these militias are taking advantage.” 

Not all existing political leaders have been hostile to the protests. Some demonstrators support Muqtada al-Sadr, a major political figure from Najaf who said he backed the popular movement. Rawnaq was not convinced that Al-Sadr would bring about real change, however. 

“The people who sacrificed their blood and everything have demanded a change in this political system, this mentality. Supporting someone who is from current system would defeat the whole point. Now there will be a transitional government, but it shouldn’t be in place for a long time.”

Sara agreed: “We just want them to all go and we don’t want a change of faces. It’s because their hands are contaminated with the blood of so many youth they have killed unfairly and in cold blood. So now I don’t see that government staying. How can you stay when people hate you and they won’t forget about it? It’s all recorded with so much footage and video images and everybody saw what’s happened.” 

Despite the high levels of repression, the activists said that the sense of solidarity generated by the mass movement has been incredible. 

“After 1 October, everything changed,” said Rawnaq. “I’ve got a new hope. This time, I feel like it’s a sign telling me that I shouldn’t give up.” 

Muhannad told us he was inspired by the strong bonds of community created in Tahrir Square during the protests. “The occupation looks like a small family. Honestly, it is like another country. In Tahrir Square, they cook for the people, but some don’t even ask for money, by the way. They never ask for money. People say they need food and blankets, and others just ask for what they need and people start donating.”

The square itself has been revived after years of neglect, said Rawnaq. 

“They have put flower pots everywhere, and they cleaned the pavements. When I was there before, unfortunately nothing had been built since 2003. The old pavements were not maintained and everything was broken. But the protesters cleaned and painted all the walls, and have decorated it with candles.” 

A man weeps in front of a memorial in Tahrir Square commemorating hundreds of protesters killed by the security forces and militias – picture: Ali Dabdab via Twitter

The shrines to the movement’s martyrs reflect its diversity. “All the people who died have candles in Tahrir Square with holy books. So people come even if they are not one of their families, but they do say a prayer and read Quran for them. You can see Christians, Muslims from all sects, Yazidis and Sabians. In London even Iraqi Jews have actually joined the demonstrations in solidarity.”

“One of the beautiful things about this revolution is how they organize. They put up tents. One tent is like a hospital with very simple supplies. And they use for example Pepsi bottles to counteract the effects of the tear gas like an antidote. And you see some people carrying this in a belt which has a place for all the bottles. At some point they used milk or yogurt too.

“One of the tents is for the first-aid supplies. Another tent is for the lost property. Documents, money, phones or anything that gets lost. One group has been cooking with massive amounts of food for everyone, even for the poor people who’ve got nothing, like the homeless.

“There are girls or ladies just making bread, for example. So really it’s like a beehive, working in an extremely organized way and it is beautiful how the community all came together. This is what gives us hope that society is really alive.” 

Protesters greet the New Year in Tahrir Square, 31 December 2019 – picture, Ali Dabdab via Twitter

Sara told us that the movement has opened many people’s eyes to the idea that they could work side-by-side for common goals. “This is the beauty of it because you rise from this heavy-handed influence of the government and different politicians and groups, who try to segregate you depending on your religion and background, to suddenly realize that actually we had never been divided before. People are all together.” 

Interview by Irang Bak, additional reporting and editing by Anne Alexander

Sara and Muhannad asked us not to reveal their real names, for fear of reprisals against their families in Iraq.

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