Iraq saw the largest protests since they started as Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said that he stood with the crowds. At the same time, the political negotiations over the future of Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi continue to go back and forth as Tehran sands by him.
Najaf and Tehran have come out on opposing sides on the protests and Abdul Mahdi’s government. Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s representative used his Friday sermon to say that he stood with the protesters, and that there should be elections for a new parliament and a referendum over the constitution. The Arab News reported that the religious establishment in Najaf decided to intervene because they were upset with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei comments and were afraid that Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi would turn to force again. On October 30 Ayatollah Khamenei and the chief of staff of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani accused the protests of being controlled by the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Israel. Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds Force commander General Qasim Suleimani was said to have arrived in Baghdad on that same day, taken part in the meetings between the ruling parties to tell them that Tehran stood behind the premier. In turn, Abdul Mahdi asked Iran and its Iraqi allies to help put down the protests. At the start of the protests General Suleimani set up a crisis cell in Baghdad that included the premier’s chief of staff and several Hashd leaders that provided advice and intelligence on the demonstrations, and ran the sniper teams that killed so many people as well. Iran’s sentiment was repeated in a statement by the Hashd which said that it supported the protests, but warned that it must not be manipulated by foreigners. Iran usually works behind the scenes in Iraq, but has apparently gone all in behind Abdul Mahdi forcing it to work more out in the open. That support has forced the hand of Najaf, which under Ayatollah Sistani has always felt like it should have the last say in Iraq and resented Iran’s influence.
Iraq’s rival politicians continued to throw out their ideas for a way out of this crisis. Abdul Mahdi seemed to be a bit more emboldened. President Barham Salah said that the PM was ready to step down, but a replacement had to be found first. Abdul Mahdi warned that without a new prime minister designate there could be civil war. He also didn’t show up for a televised session of parliament for questioning claiming there was a lack of quorum. His supporters say that he should appear before the legislators before any other moves are made. Badr and Fatah list head Hadi Amiri who backs the premier stated that the political system failed, and that the way out is to amend the constitution. He mentioned one change which was to have the governors be directly elected instead of being chosen by the ruling coalition in each province. Fatah members have also said that they only want the prime minister out, but to maintain the parliament. On the other hand, the opposition parties led by Moqtada al-Sadr, Ammar Hakim and Haidar Abadi have demanded that parliament be dismissed and early elections held. If confidence was withdrawn from the current government President Salah would take over administration until elections were held. No party seems to want that because he is a Kurd, but more importantly he might actually try to enact some serious reforms which would threaten the elite. The prime minister is demanding that a replacement be named, knowing full well it takes months of negotiations to decide a PM each year. That would basically mean that he would stay in office and try to outlast the protests. His talk of a possible civil war was a warning that he can’t just step down immediately. Fatah’s suggestion is to maintain the status quo. Keeping the parliament is keeping the elite in power. Talking about amending the constitution is also a non-starter. That would take longer than naming a new PM given the fact that the parties are about evenly split leading to likely deadlock on any substantial issue. Finally, the opposition’s call for an early vote without an election law that doesn’t favor the major parties as the current one does will also just lead to a new parliament looking much like the one already in office. None really offers the structural changes that the demonstrators are demanding.
Due to Sistani’s statement the protests were the largest seen so far as thousands joined in. There are sit-in sites going in Baghdad, Basra, Nasiriya, Karbala, Amara, Samawa, Najaf, Hilla, and Kut. In Baghdad, a woman was killed by being hit by a tear gas canister. Five others died from similar injures suffered the day before. The Human Rights Commission accused the government of not being interested in ending the excessive use of force which is leading to casualties in the square. The Sadrists have entered Tahrir Square both supporting the site and intimidating people. A video was posted of some Sadrists bullying a man after he spray painted “No Moqtada, No Hadi” on a wall. On October 30, people tried to cross the Senak Bridge which leads to the Iranian embassy. The security forces fired into the crowd and killed several. Abdul Mahdi’s office of the commander in chief denied there were any casualties in that incident providing another example of how the government has become morally and politically bankrupt. For the third day the entrance to the Um Qasr port in Basra was blocked, and there were additional actions in Qurna and a sit-in started outside the Majnoon oil field. There was another day of clashes between protesters and the riot police in the Shatrah district of Dhi Qar leading to 120 arrests. The Bazerkan oil field in Maysan was blocked off, and there was another support rally in Diyala’s Baquba for Baghdad and the south. Sistani’s support has only made these gatherings even larger. They could take a real economic toll if oil workers go on strike or if the fields are blocked off. Um Qasr port is said to be operating at only 20% capacity since its entrance was blocked off. Now that the protests have grown from mostly young men to large sectors of Iraqi society the question is how will it all end?
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ZaidBenjamin, “When you write “No Moqtada, No Hadi” people with white shirts will come to you for opposing their Sayed Moqtada,” 10/31/19