October 25 is supposed to be the start of a new round of protests in Iraq. In the meantime, Moqtada al-Sadr has thrown in his hat with the demonstrations. On the other hand, the government continues to arrest activists and journalists, while promising reforms. It looks like the country is heading for another confrontation as no one is happy with the status quo.
Moqtada al-Sadr told his followers to join the protests. On October 15, he announced that he would turn the annual Arbaeen pilgrimage to Karbala into an anti-corruption event. On October 19, people shouted anti-graft slogans in Karbala city. The next day, he said he would join the new round of demonstrations that are supposed to start on October 25. One member of a coordinating committee however, rejected his involvement saying he was a member of the establishment and was partly responsible for the current government of Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi. In previous years, Sadr was able to successfully co-opt the protest movement and even forged an alliance with the Communist Party that was one of the main organizers. They ran together in the last elections. This year’s demonstrations however have been put together by the protesters themselves without any political affiliation. Some at least, are hoping to maintain this autonomy, and hence are refusing to cooperate with Sadr. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.
Facing another round of possible disturbances the government is desperately trying to carry out reforms. Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi issued a statement offering more civil service jobs and training to graduates. There are two investigations underway as well into the violence used against the protests that are supposed to report soon. The problem is that the killing of demonstrators enraged people so much that they went from the traditional demands for ending corruption and better governance to having the premier step down, and then revolution. The promises of jobs and commissions are simply not enough to appease anyone anymore. The government for example, is incapable of providing enough employment, which was one of the causes of the unrest to begin with.
More importantly there is an ongoing crackdown against demonstrators and the media, which shows what the government’s real priorities are. Amnesty International reported that activists, journalists and lawyers were receiving threats, arrests, forced disappearances, and questioning by the intelligence agencies. Al Monitor, Nas News and Al Mada found journalists fleeing Baghdad and the south for Kurdistan and other countries out of fear that they would be detained. A popular Baghdad blogger for example, was taken in by the authorities on October 17. Luckily for him, the event got in the press, and he was released as a result. It got to the point that a number of leading politicians such as Nuri al-Maliki, Haidar Abadi, and Ammar Hakim all came out condemning the government. This shows that the prime minister is talking out of both sides of his mouth. On the one hand, he says he will find those responsible for the deaths during the first round of protests, while all along maintaining a level of repression to try to punish those who went out into the streets and covered them. The latter speaks much louder than the empty words about reform and justice. There is no law and order when it comes to the elite, which again, was why people are so angry in Iraq.
Details about the methods used to quell the demonstrations continued to come out. Reuters found that pro-Iran Hashd units took it upon themselves to suppress the streets. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) also got involved providing information on the activists to Baghdad. IRGC Quds Force commander General Qasim Suleimani also reportedly flew to Najaf and warned Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani to stand behind the prime minister. The governor of Dhi Qar said that the Iraqi forces killed protests in Nasiriya, which saw some of the most sustained and violent protests. It was apparent from the start that some of the Hashd were joining with the army and police to put down the protests. The snipers, the raids upon TV stations, the disappearances of journalists all pointed to their involvement. They used similar tactics last year in the south, so it was predicable that they would do the same this year. The appearance of the IRGC showed how serious the unrest became. Tehran is committed to maintaining the current political system, because they have so much influence within it. People calling for overthrowing the government and possible revolution were a direct threat to their interests.
October 25 could be a real turning point in recent Iraqi history. If people come out in numbers again and are faced with bullets the country could face an existential crisis. Because of its oil wealth, the Iraqi elite have never felt accountable to the public. Now that they are finally being asked to do so they face a real dilemma because they are incapable of carrying out real change since the status quo enriches them. Some are bolstered by Iran who wants to keep things as they are as well. The anger amongst the youth is real, and passed the tipping point of being appeased by Baghdad’s empty promises of better governance. The state violence unleashed as a result was unprecedented. Nothing similar had been seen since the days of Saddam Hussein. It poses a real question for how Iraq can call itself a democracy if it’s only real response to its people is an iron fist.
Agence France Presse, “Firebrand Cleric Green-Lights Fresh Protests in Iraq,” 10/20/19
Amnesty International, “Iraq: Stop security forces from threatening, forcibly disappearing and abusing activists,” 10/18/19
Baghdad Post, “The Sadrists turn the “Arbaeen al-Hussein” into a demonstration against corruption,” 10/19/19
Al Forat, “Al-Dukhili: Indicators of the investigation indicate the involvement of security elements in killing protesters,” 10/20/19
Al Hurra, “”In front of the eyes of the security forces’ .. Unidentified kidnapping director of Clean Brotherhood in Iraq,” 10/17/19
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Al Mada, “50 lawsuits prosecute the head of the government, the army and the crowd factions for the suppression of demonstrations,” 10/14/19
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Al Mirbad, “Fayad: Accusing the crowd of arresting activists in the demonstrations aimed at tarnishing the image of the crowd,” 10/17/19
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NINA, “Abadi tweeted: We Do Not Want A Republic of Fear That Terrorizes Peaceful Citizen,” 10/19/19
- “Al-Hakim calls for the preservation of media freedom and the protection of activists,” 10/17/19
- “Al-Maliki: We support the legitimate demands of the demonstrators,” 10/17/19
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Sotaliraq, “Coordinators of demonstrations refuse the entrance of Muqtada al-Sadr on 25 October,” 10/20/19