x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Iraq's one million widows ready to take to the streets

Inspired by the vision of defiant Egyptians and Tunisians, Iraqis may be more determined to keep their current government in check.

BAGHDAD // Some Iraqis view the upheaval in Tunisia and Egypt as a chance to warn their leaders that unless their own living conditions improve, popular revolt may yet spread eastwards to Baghdad.

Madia al Rawai, a member of the Iraqi Women's Association, a group that campaigns for women's rights, said: "There can still be a revolution here, as there has been in Tunisia and Egypt.

"The Iraqi government should pay attention. There is an army of women, with no jobs and no money, and they are ready to take to the streets unless something is done to improve their situation."

Ms al Rawai said that while Iraq has democracy, unlike Egypt and Tunisia, its government was still failing its people.

"The Americans came and wanted to change Iraq, but there have been no changes for the better in the lives of many women. Yes, we have democracy and elections, but that has not brought benefits for many of us."

Iraq's authorities are criticised for failing to create jobs and spread the country's wealth to its poor majority, including more than a million widows who struggle to earn a living in a male-dominated society.

Continuing security breaches and failures to provide clean water and produce sufficient electricity are also lightning rods for discontent.

The US reconstruction agency for Iraq on Sunday issued a report that cautioned that a lack of basic public services was critical and could spark "popular unrest".

"The lack of perceived improvements in Iraq's water, sewage, and electricity systems could lead to popular unrest more so than political or sectarian disagreements," the report said.

In Baghdad, the government insists it is taking steps to deliver. It has signed multibillion dollar oil deals to try to kick-start the economy and hopes to meet the country's burgeoning domestic electricity demands by 2014.

But there are signs the country's citizens, many who now feel their government to be under Iranian control, will not wait that long.

Last year, a series of street protests broke out in the searing heat of summer against power shortages, only to be snuffed out by a violent police response in which at least one protester was shot dead in Basra.

It is also significant that the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia are taking place when Iraq's democratically elected prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, is coming under fire for an unprecedented centralisation of powers.

Since winning a second term in December, he has personally retained control of the three security ministries. Then, last month, he brought constitutionally independent organisations that oversee elections and the government's human-rights record under the control of his cabinet.

Those moves led to fierce accusations from his opponents that he had fatally undermined democracy and was now pursuing the authoritarian path trodden by Saddam Hussein.

Inspired by the vision of defiant Egyptians and Tunisians, Iraqis may be more determined to keep their current government in check.

Aamer al Shibli, a human rights activist from Mosul, which remains beset by a violent insurgency, said: "It is a golden age for the Arabs, a new era is on the horizon. Yesterday Tunisia, today Egypt, tomorrow Yemen, Jordan and Iraq."

Mr al Shibli said two themes would unite the Arab people: opposition to domestic dictatorships and opposition to a western foreign policy that had supported those regimes. He said the era to come would be one that was anti-US and anti-Israel.

"The American-Israeli time of controlling the Middle East is over," he said. "Iraq's people are part of that revolution. If the Iraqi government keeps doing what it's doing, with the corruption and failures, it's not impossible that we'll see an Iraqi uprising as well."

As members of the new elite, enjoying power, wealth and influence, Iraqi MPs were more circumspect in their assessment of the possible domestic repercussions of the region's latest revolutions.

"We are 100 per cent with the Egyptian people, and they will not stop until they have achieved change," said Saad Mutlubi, an MP with the National Alliance, the coalition headed by Mr al Maliki. "It is a message to all the dictators in the Arab countries to leave your positions if you are not serving the people."

Amir al Kinani, an MP with the anti-US Sadrist movement, also warned against letting Egypt spiral out of control, as Iraq had done after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

"It is important to steer the country away from looting, criminality and the extremists, away from al Qa'eda," he said. "I hope Egypt learns from Iraq's experience and does not allow extremists to take advantage of the situation and build up their organisations.

"Egypt must also be careful of Israel and the US. They are looking to get their hands on the situation, rather than letting the people decide their future."