Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 19 October 2019

Why are Iraqis protesting?

Civilians are fed up of living in appalling conditions despite the country's oil wealth

Iraqi protesters defied an imposed curfew on Thursday, demanding change to a corrupt political system that has been in a state of dysfunction since 2003.

Security forces fought with protesters, who took to the streets of Baghdad and other provinces this week to protest against a lack of basic services, unemployment and widespread corruption – grievances that have led to repeated unrest in the country over the last few years.

At least 33 people have died since the start of the clashes, in the deadliest protest the country has seen in over a year.

“They (the protests) are more an expression of raw anger at the entire political system than a mobilisation for a specific set of demands,” Fanar Haddad, an Iraq expert at the National University of Singapore, said.

Protesters hold bullets belonging to Iraqi police during a protest in Baghdad. The Iraqi security forces clashed with anti-government protesters in the capital and other provinces Tuesday, killing and injuring civilians, according to officials. AP
Protesters hold bullets belonging to Iraqi police during a protest in Baghdad. AP

Since assuming office last October, Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi vowed to root out corruption, unify and rebuild the country after a brutal three-year war against ISIS.

However, given the “structural and deeply entrenched nature of Iraq's problems", said Mr Haddad, "it is difficult to see what the government can do in the short term beyond taking cosmetic measures".

What triggered the Baghdad protests?

Lack of good governance has been central to Iraq’s problem.Transparency International ranks Iraq 168th out of 180 countries on its Corruption Perception Index.

Iraq suffered for decades under the rule of former dictator Saddam Hussein and UN sanctions, before the 2003 US-led invasion started years of civil war.

Despite the country's rich oil wealth, approximately 40 million people live in appalling conditions.

Security has improved but damaged infrastructure has not been rebuilt and thousands remain unemployed.

A series of political moves by the government sparked a nationwide outcry last week, especially the demotion of a popular general, Lt Gen Abdulwahab Al Saadi. Reasons for his demotion were never fully explained and some at the demonstrations were protesting over the commander’s removal.

Iraqis largely credit Lt Gen Al Saadi with leading the fight against ISIS.

The country is also increasingly caught in the middle of regional tensions between the US and Iran, which ramped up after the White House withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal last year.

What will the protests achieve?

The protests can be seen as a tool to pressure Mr Abdul Mahdi to confront corruption within the state, Sarkwak Al Shamsi, an Iraqi member of parliament, told The National.

“His counter corruption efforts have recently slowed down due to resistance from senior officials within his cabinet," the official said.

Chris Doyle, director of The Council for Arab-British Understanding, said the protests could pose a significant threat to the existing order in Iraq.

"[The protests are] clearly motivated by the outpouring of widespread disquiet about corruption, misgovernment and lack of jobs, with protesters increasingly calling for the downfall of the regime," Mr Doyle said.

In response to the protest, Mr Abdul Mahdi promised jobs for graduates and instructed the oil ministry and other government bodies to include a 50 per cent quota for local workers in subsequent contracts with foreign companies

An Iraqi protestor gestures in front of security forces  in the southern city of Basra. AFP
An Iraqi protestor gestures in front of security forces in the southern city of Basra. AFP

However, the public is fed up with broken promises. Similar pledges were made to improve government sectors by the previous government, yet little change was seen.

The deadly clashes are a reminder that street mobilisations remains a key factor in the country’s political scene, Maria Fantappie, International Crisis Group's senior Iraq adviser, said.

“The protests are not only about water or corruption – they are now an alternative means to impact Iraq's politics, which is dominated by a few and has spun in circles since 2003,” she said.

But, Mr Haddad believes that diffusion of the country's political and military power will make it difficult for them to succeed in creating structural changes.

How long are the Baghdad protests likely to last for?

The response of the government and security forces towards the protesters will determine their persistence. Gunfights broke out in southern cities this week between unidentified gunmen and police.

"What is for certain is that the continued use of lethal force and live ammunition, as we have started to witness, will only inflame the situation," Mr Doyle said.

Conversely, the heavy handed crackdown could also scare protesters into staying home.

If tribal or factional armed groups get involved the situation could deteriorate.

Updated: October 4, 2019 11:25 AM

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