Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Government Pension Protests Occur Across Iraq

Iraq’s politicians live in a different world from the average citizen. Parliament has given itself lavish salaries, pensions, and benefit plans, while hardly passing any substantive legislation. In 2013, it was reported that lawmakers earned around $72,000 a year, compared to $6,000 across the nation. No matter how long they serve they get 80% of their salary when they retire. During the summer this became a major issue amongst the political class, and led to activists organizing protests. Since many of these were to occur in Baghdad and the south, the base for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, he ordered the security forces to harass the demonstrations in a few provinces. This was just the latest sign of the growing discontent amongst the populace with their government.

On August 29 and 31, 2013 there were protests across Iraq against government pensions. Activists used Facebook to organize the events, and went to the authorities asking for permits. In Baghdad, and several other provinces they were turned down with the Interior Ministry citing possible terrorist attacks as the reason. That didn’t stop several organizations like the Lawyers Syndicate coming out early on August 29 in cities such as Hillah and Baghdad to demand that parliament cut its benefits. That was a prelude to much larger gatherings on August 31. In the capital around 1,500 people showed up, and attempted to march to Tahrir Square only to be met by the security forces who had blocked all the entrances to the square the night before. When they tried to go to an alternative location the police ended up chasing them, beating some, and arresting others. Several reporters had their equipment taken, and were arrested as well. Hundreds ended up in front of the Communist Party headquarters where they complained about the abuses they had just suffered at the hands of the government. In Babil’s Hillah, the security forces blocked off the central part of the city claiming they wanted to prevent violence, while in Nasiriyah in Dhi Qar SWAT fired live bullets into the air to break up the demonstration wounding up to ten people. This was despite the fact that organizers received permission for their assembly from the provincial government. Things went down much more peacefully in Najaf where activists cooperated with the security forces, Wasit where protesters came out without a permit, but were met by the deputy head of the provincial council, in Amarah in Maysan where Governor Ali Dway Lazem joined in, Hillah where lawyers again led the march, Diwaniya in Qadisiyah, and the city of Basra. The mixed reception the protests received appeared to reflect the differences between the central and provincial governments. In Baghdad and Dhi Qar, Maliki ordered the police to prevent the activists from reaching the city centers, which led to violence. The prime minister has always stood against protests, because it harms his image, and undermines his authority. In places like Maysan however, the Sadrist governor came out in support of the demonstrations. That’s unsurprising since Moqtada al-Sadr has tried to attach himself to every protest in Iraq since 2011 in an attempt to maintain his populist image, and distance himself from Premier Maliki.

In the aftermath of the day of protests everyone tried to come out in favor of them. Speaker Osama Nujafi, the head of the Mutahidun Party, the Human Rights Commission, and the Sadr Trend all condemned the violence against the demonstrators. Baghdad Governor Ali al-Tamimi also of the Sadr movement said that the security forces had released 40 activists the next day, and demanded that all the others be let go as well. In Dhi Qar, State of Law Governor Yahya Mohammed Baqir al-Nasiri apologized to the public for the actions of the security forces, claimed that he came under outside pressure to crack down upon the demonstrations, and promised an investigation into the shootings. Even Maliki claimed that he supported changes to the pension system, and the cabinet promised to put the issue on its agenda. Some of these politicians might actually care about this issue, but others like the prime minister were just playing politics with it. He obviously did not appreciate the protests, and simply wanted to feign concern. Before the protests various political parties and lawmakers claimed that they were willing to voluntarily give up part or all of their pensions. Not surprisingly this came amidst the 2013 provincial elections, and before the 2014 parliamentary ones. Given this sentiment, no one was willing to come out against the idea no matter what their position was towards the demonstrations.

The government has promised to reform the pension system, while activists have said they would come out again in September if action wasn’t taken. Given the upcoming elections lawmakers might actually cut, but probably not end their benefits. However given the greed amongst politicians, and the political deadlock within parliament there’s just as much chance that this is all just talk before the 2014 balloting. Until something substantive happens, protesters will remain upset, and will try to return to the streets. When they do, they will be met with force in places like Baghdad, because Maliki doesn’t want any public outbursts in the capital that could challenge him, while in the outlaying provinces depending upon the local politicians the demonstrations might be welcomed. Every year since 2010, Iraqis have protested against the lack of real governance by the country’s leadership. People are getting more and more frustrated with the lack of services, the deteriorating security situation, and corruption by their elected officials. They have responded with carrots and sticks with promises of changes, while using the security forces at the same time. In the end, very little has been done, because the government is not accountable to the public. Citizens are only needed for their votes, otherwise it is the political parties and government that creates most of the revenue in the country and provides the most jobs. That’s a result of the oil industry, which undermines democracy by separating the government from the people with the tremendous money it brings in releasing Baghdad from depending upon taxes, and having to listen to its constituency. It’s the privileges that petroleum provides Iraq’s politicians that lead to these yearly protests, and it’s also the reason why they’re not listened to.

Lawyers protested in Hillah on Aug. 29 (AIN)
A protester wounded by the security forces Aug. 31 (Shafaq News)
March in Baghdad Aug. 31 (AIN)
Demonstrators in Samawa, Muthanna Aug. 31 (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty)
Najaf (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty)
Maysan (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty)


Agence France Presse, “Iraqi MP expenses scandal triggers religious outrage,” 11/6/09

AIN, “Babel Police impose strict security measures coinciding with demonstrations,” 8/31/13
- “Demonstration in Babel demanding to cancel Parliament MPs’ pensions,” 8/29/13
- “Urgent….Ministerial Committee: New General Pensions law to be based on years of service,” 9/1/13

Aswat al-Iraq, “Basra demonstrates for cancelling MPs’ pensions,” 8/31/13
- “Casualties in Nassiriya demonstrations,” 8/31/13
- “Demonstrations before Iraqi Communist Party,” 8/31/13
- “Diwaniya demonstrations with official absence,” 8/31/13
- “Journalists arrested in Baghdad demonstration,” 8/31/13
- “Najaf demand cancelling pension salaries,” 8/31/13
- “Wassit demonstration goes on without official permission,” 8/31/13

Buratha News, “Governor of Maysan province leads the abolition of pensions demonstration and the protesters are threatening to sit,” 8/31/13

Habib, Mustafa, “money for nothing: iraqi MPs get US$23 million – for retiring,” Niqash, 8/7/13

Najm, Hayder, “the huge, hidden salaries of iraq’s parliamentarians,” Niqash, 4/22/10

National Iraqi News Agency, “Ahrar bloc condemns attacks against demonstrators, demands immediate release of detainees,” 8/31/13
- “BREAKING NEWS Hundreds take to the streets in central Baghdad demanding the abolition of lawmakers’ pensions, as well as high-ranking government officials,” 8/31/13
- “Hundreds of lawyers demonstrate in Baghdad to cancel the retirement of parliamentarians and the three presidencies,” 8/29/13
- “Nijaifi condemns security measures against demonstrators,” 8/31/13

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, “Iraqi Officials Warn Deputies’ Wages, Benefits Too High,” 4/24/10

Radio Nawa, “Governor of Baghdad, announces the release of 40 protesters demanding the release of the rest,” 9/1/13
- “Maliki: We will discuss the demands of the demonstrators Cabinet and warn of rerouting demonstrations,” 9/1/13

Al Rayy, “The governor of Dhi Qar apologize to its citizens and form an investigative committee to uncover the circumstances of the events of yesterday,” 9/1/13

Schreck, Adam, “Iraq protesters rail against lawmaker pensions,” Associated Press, 8/31/13

Shafaq News, “Human Rights Commission indicates violations in yesterday’s demonstration,” 9/1/13
- “Ministry of Interior demands not to demonstrate,” 8/27/13

Wicken, Stephen, “Maliki Eyes Third Term: 2013 Iraq Update #34,” Institute for the Study of War, 8/28/13

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