Social explosion on the agenda in Iraq

Since 1 October, massive and radical protests have rocked Iraq. Starting (uniquely) this time in Baghdad, they have quickly spread nationwide. The Iraqi armed forces and police responded with extreme violence, resulting in the deaths of at least 150 people (some sources claim over 300), and the wounding of more than 6,000. However, the brutal response has not halted the protests. Since 8 October, they have subsided, but there is a new nationwide demonstration planned for 25 October.

Iraqi government in fear

Last year, Basra, the southern Iraqi city, was rocked by weeks of protests over unsafe drinking water, unemployment, power shortages and corruption. In recent years, it has not been unusual for protests to erupt during the summer, when scorching heat and the government’s inability to provide basic services - such as water and electricity - reach boiling point. But this time, protests started spontaneously in Baghdad, with 3,000 people marching into Tahrir Square on 1 October.

But what started out as a peaceful demonstration quickly descended into chaos, when the police began to fire live ammunition, rubber bullets and tear gas when the demonstrators, chanting anti-government slogans and waving Iraqi flags, reached the fortified Green Zone. Many protesters responded by throwing stones at security forces. People were seen being carried away, wounded and bleeding, and several people died on the first day of these protests. They rapidly spread to other cities, such as Amara, Diwaniya, Dhi Qar, Hilla, Basra, and Nassiriya. The unrest developed quickly to a mass movement of hundreds of thousands, with most participants under 20 years old, which is posing a severe challenge to the one-year-old administration of prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi.

Extreme force has been deployed by the police and army in the aforementioned cities. In only five days, 100 deaths were reported. Examples of horrific attacks by the security forces are all over social media. For instance, the following video shows a child, no more than 10-years-old, being shot, while simply waving a flag. After his shooting, around 10 people are seen running through live sniper fire to rescue him, showing extreme courage. Fear has turned into anger and outrage:

What is behind the unrest?

After the May 2018 elections in Iraq, the Sairoon coalition of Muqtada Al-Sadr came out as the largest bloc in parliament, of which the main components are the Shia Islamist Sadrist Integrity Party and the Iraqi Communist Party. Al-Sadr’s success was based on his anti-establishment demagogy, which tapped into a widespread anti-establishment sentiment throughout the country. Abdul Mahdi, as an independent Shia candidate, was nominated for the position of Prime Minister in October 2018 by two blocs; one led by al-Sadr and Al-Abadi, who has been PM before him; and the other by pro-Iranian Hadi al-Amiri and former PM Nouri al-Maliki. However, after serving a year in power, the economic situation in Iraq has not fundamentally changed.

The economic situation is the underlying source of the anger that is now explosively expressing itself. Iraq has the world’s fourth-largest reserves of oil, but 22.5 percent of its population of 40 million live on less than $1.90 a day: the World Bank’s already pitifully low measure of poverty. Meanwhile, 16 percent of households have experienced some form of food insecurity.

Unemployment, though never honestly reported, is many times higher than the official rate of 7.9 percent and 16 percent for the youth. The country is also still trying to recover after a war against the Islamic State, which seized control of large swathes of the north and west in 2014. Furthermore, according to the UN, just over one million people are still internally displaced, while 6.7 million are in need of humanitarian assistance.

Radicalisation of the demonstrations

The protestors have clearly very little to lose under such circumstances, and they are determined to keep going. They have been outraged by the horrific attacks on their peaceful demonstrations, which have only radicalised the mood of the protests. Abbas Najim, a 43-year-old unemployed engineer, said that Iraq has seen 16 years of corruption and injustice:

“We are not afraid of bullets or the death of martyrs. We will keep going and we won’t back down.”

The protests have quickly developed towards more radical measures. The crowds torched the headquarters of several political parties in Nasiriya - including the Dawa party, the Communist party and others - and burned the provincial building in Maysan.

Political and religious rifts run deep in Iraq, and protests are typically called for by a party or a sect – making these protests very unique.

“The demonstrators I have spoken to so far have said that these protests are a grassroots movement, comprised of a variety of people - men, women, graduates, the unemployed, the elderly. They have all denied the involvement of any political party,” explained the BBC’s Simona Foltyn:

“They are, in fact, extremely disenfranchised and disappointed with the political establishment here. All of the people who are protesting seem to be united in one thing: they want a better life. They want services, they want jobs, and they want living standards to go up.”

Fanar Haddad, an expert at Singapore University’s Middle East Institute concluded likewise, adding: “This is the first time we hear people saying they want the downfall of the regime.”

Iraqis are not simply calling for the downfall of a leader or political party anymore. Instead, they are for the end of the political system that has existed since the US-led invasion in 2003 - a system that has clearly failed them. Their slogan, for “the downfall of the regime,” is the same slogan as that used in the Egyptian Revolution in 2011.

Iraq October protests Image fair use“We are not afraid of bullets or the death of martyrs. We will keep going and we won’t back down” / Image: fair use

This development is very significant and shows a real revolutionary mood. What is especially significant is the way the protesters have stood up against sectarianism. The illusions and old beliefs, that certain politicians represent particular sectarian groups, are evaporating. And even though the protests have only taken place in Shia regions, Sunnis have shown solidarity, especially the youth.

Omar, who is a young Sunni from Mosul, tried to explain the Sunni absence from open street protests; “It is because in the eyes of some people, we are seen as the Islamic State. If we protest, they will take us off the streets and throw us in secret prisons. Yet we are still oppressed and our situation is as bad as everyone else’s, and even worse."

But in mixed areas like Adhamiyah in Baghdad, Sunnis did participate in the protests. Some of them have even given their lives, and they are motivated by the same class anger that pushed the Shiite youth to rebel.

The illusion that Sunnis and Shiites have different interests is vanishing among the youth. In Baghdad, thousands of people were seen shouting: “We are brothers, whether Sunnis or Shiites, we won’t sell our country!

If the government does not provide better services, the protests are bound to spread to Sunni areas too. At the end of the day, people are realising who their true enemies are… and who their allies are.

Government tries to regain control

The government's public response has only been to try and cool protests. On 3 October, 75 percent of Iraq’s internet was shut down by the government, in the hope of curtailing the demonstrators’ ability to organise. It actually had the opposite effect. Many people started to go on the streets simply to see what was happening. The violence and repression that they saw shocked them, further radicalising the protests.

There have also been recent reports about how the Iraqi security forces are systematically targeting anyone who speaks out against the conduct of security forces during the protests.

For example, there was the abduction of Ali Jaseb al-Hattab: a 28-year-old lawyer, and Maytham Mohammed Rahim al-Helo, a 51-year-old doctor. The security forces are attempting to terrify dissenters, with a warning to stop being vocal about the killing of protesters on Facebook, otherwise they would kill them.

The parliamentary speaker, Mohammed al-Halbusi, has tried extending a hand to protesters, trying to calm down the situation, saying “your voice is being heard”. But the demonstrators don’t want to hear any of this; “These men don’t represent us,'' said one protestor, “We don’t want parties anymore. We don’t want anyone to speak in our name.”

"We'll keep going until the government falls," Ali, a 22-year-old unemployed university graduate, told AFP, "I've got nothing but 250 lira ($0.20; £0.16) in my pocket while government officials have millions."

Politicians are trying to figure out what to do about these protests. While Mahdi has been considering resignation, Iran is trying to keep his pro-Iranian government in power, because Tehran sees it as a key bulwark in withstanding the US influence in Iraq.

It is clear that the Sadr and Amiri alliances are agreeing on keeping Mahdi in power for pragmatic reasons, since the PM’s resignation at this stage might only embolden protesters and destabilise things for them even further. However, Sadr did ask Mahdi’s government to resign in an official public statement, telling the protestors to keep going. But this is contradicted by the fact that Sadr helped place Mahdi in power to begin with, and his private negotiators have simultaneously been calling for Abdul Mahdi to stay put. In fact, Sadr is a part of Mahdi's government.

Iraq October protests 2 Image fair use"We'll keep going until the government falls" / Image: fair use

Sadr's movement was behind the organisation of mass protests over the past 4-5 years. But after joining the government and receiving several concessions from Iran, Sadr stopped calling them. However, the masses came out again this year, with one of the strongest centres of the movement being in Sadr's stronghold, the poor Sadr City in Baghdad. That is why Sadr is playing a double game: to cover for his betrayal in front of his supporters, who are joining the demonstrations and are increasingly disillusioned with the cleric.

Next round of protests

The next big round of protests is planned for 25 October. The demonstrators are preparing to take to the street again. It is likely that some political parties, such as Sadr’s party, may opportunistically try to co-opt them. But the majority of the protesters are not watering their demands down but are expanding them in advance of the new protests. These demands are for the most part being spread through social media, having no official, organised expression. Some of those being circulated include:

  • Reducing the salaries and privileges of the members of the House of Representatives;
  • More financial control of political parties, and transparency regarding their sources of income;
  • Distribution of wealth of the country to the people and the adjusting of the salary scale of workers, so that there is no difference between ministers and other jobs;
  • The construction of more alternative plants for solar and wind energy, and landfill waste;
  • Allocation of a monthly salary to each Iraqi individual from the share of oil;
  • A basic income for graduates, unemployed and those in need;
  • Construction of houses, especially for the poor.

These demands have a clear class content and show the level of hatred and distrust there is towards the whole system. The protesters want to get rid of the corrupt government, they don’t believe the promises of politicians anymore, they want to get rid of the whole regime, and with that, also the political interference by foreign powers, especially Iran and the US. The revolutionary masses want to regain control over their own lives.

According to many sources, a factor that propelled the protests initially was the firing of Staff Lieutenant General Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi on the 28 September. Many Iraqis are sympathetic to al-Saadi, who was a key figure in the fight against Islamic State. They believed a national hero lost his job because of his efforts to fight corruption and the political class within his counter-terrorism service (CTS).

However, it is important not to have illusions in the likes of al-Saadi. He has close links to the US - the most likely reason for his sidelining is to cement control of the army by the pro-Iranian forces in the state. Al-Saadi has nothing to do with the protests, and is far from favouring a revolution. The removal of Saadi is merely a reflection of a clash between two wings of the ruling class, one which is closer to Iran and the other closer to the US. The masses cannot trust any part of the ruling class, whose interests are directly opposed to those of the masses.

Fight on a socialist programme!

One of the main weaknesses of the movement is its lack of organisation, leadership and a clear programme. This is vital to its success and to satisfy the demands of the masses.

The Communist Party of Iraq has betrayed the working class, and proved itself unable to lead the masses on a bold socialist programme. The task of the most determined class fighters, therefore, is to begin the rebuild of the Communist movement on a sound basis of Marxist theory. It does not matter how many times the politicians at the top are changed. What is needed is to overthrow the whole capitalist system in Iraq. That means expropriating the parasitic Iraqi capitalist class and replacing its rule with a democratic workers’ state based on the power of the working masses.

At the same time, an effort must be made to spread the movement throughout the Middle East and link up with the oppressed masses of the region, which are all facing the same conditions and similar rotten and oppressive regimes. With today’s mass protests in Lebanon, the working class can see clearly how solidarity can spread beyond national boundaries, against the workers’ common enemy: ruling classes of all nations and the imperialist powers who have created the mess and misery in the Middle East.