Eight years after the U.S. invaded Iraq, the Iraqi people are waging a grassroots fight for democracy and an economy that works for them.
Some democratic trappings are in place. Violence is markedly down, even though bombings and similar attacks continue. The United States is scheduled to withdraw its remaining 46,000 troops by the end of this year.
And the U.S. media has lost interest, unless it is to report the latest bombing, the deaths of four U.S. troops this week, or the ravings of Donald Trump, who thinks the U.S. should stay in Iraq and “keep the oil … take what’s necessary for us and we pay our self back $1.5 trillion or more.”
But for the sixth week in a row, Iraqis demonstrated last Friday in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square and around the country, demanding jobs, public services, worker rights, civil rights and liberties, and an end to corruption. It is an unprecedented development for Iraq.
Since February 25, thousands have marched and rallied in nearly every one of Iraq’s 18 provinces.
According to the General Federation of Iraqi Workers, they have come out “to protest the failure of the Iraqi state to listen to the Iraqis’ demands.”
The protests have led to the resignations of two provincial governors, the mayor of Baghdad and other officials.
A newly emerging nationwide Democratic Current is at the heart of this movement. Leaders say it is an expression of wide sectors of grassroots Iraqi society, including people who are not members of any organized group.
Local committees are being formed around the country, and preparations are under way for a national conference to be held in the next month or two, to lay the basis for “a sustainable organization.”
The Iraqi Communist Party is one of the key organizers of this movement. In a phone interview from Baghdad last week, Raid Fahmi, a member of the ICP’s leadership, said this “very diverse” mass movement opens a “very promising prospect” for his country.
At the local level, Fahmi noted, neighborhood “popular control” committees are being set up to monitor public services, investigate problems, meet with the authorities to get action, and supervise their actions. “We believe these committees will have a very direct impact on the provision of services,” he said.
This movement is also key to ending the U.S. occupation, Fahmi said.
Why the ferment?
Unemployment is around 25 percent, and another 33 percent are underemployed. About a fourth of the population lives below the poverty line. Thousands of internal refugees, displaced by past sectarian violence, still face what is being termed a humanitarian crisis. Electricity remains sporadic in many areas, and other basic services continue to lag.
Iraq’s oil production and exports are slowly increasing. That would indicate that government revenues are benefiting. But the Iraqi public is still waiting to benefit.
The current Iraqi government, headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of the Islamist Dawa party, is an uneasy marriage of rival sectarian power-blocs, consumed primarily with ensuring their hold on power – a legacy of the policies of the U.S. occupation. The Parliament elected last year excludes minority, left and progressive voices because of an undemocratic election law forced through with pressure from the U.S.
The government’s failure to fulfill its campaign promises to improve the lives of ordinary Iraqis – and the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia – triggered the protests.
But after weeks of rallies and marches, Alsumaria television reported March 26, “demonstrators complain that their demands have not been addressed.” There are now mounting calls for dissolving provincial councils, accused of corruption and incompetence, and holding new local elections.
The parties in power have been “more or less speechless” in the face of the protests, Fahmi said. “They have been unable to mobilize their own supporters, because their base shares the views of the protesters.”
Instead, the government turned to repression.
Maliki tried to shut down the first mass demonstration, Feb. 25, imposing a curfew in Baghdad and sending security forces to block access to Tahrir Square. Several leading Shii clerics warned against participation.
Protesters have been arrested and some badly beaten. Journalists have been targeted. Following the Feb. 25 demonstration in Baghdad, several reporters were dragged from a restaurant and tortured in a Defense Ministry detention center. When their ordeal was exposed on TV, the government had to issue a public apology. Yet, the next Friday, in Basra, four reporters covering the demonstrations there were badly beaten. During the March 7 demonstrations, three reporters were “disappeared,” and later found to have been arrested.
A few weeks ago the government tried to evict the Communist Party and another party active in the protests from their Baghdad offices. The blatantly political effort backfired, generating considerable media coverage and popular support for the ICP. The government backed off, and the parties are expected to keep their offices.
The mass protest movement has, in effect, been an open challenge to the ruling Islamist parties and senior Islamic clerics, seriously undermining their credibility.
The protests “have power far beyond their numbers” because they are “in tune with the public sentiment,” Fahmi said.
Meanwhile, the government is not doing what is necessary to get Iraq’s security setup ready for the end-of-the-year U.S. withdrawal date, Fahmi said. Because of the narrow political wrangling, the country is still without ministers of defense, interior and national security. Hints are being floated of keeping U.S. military forces in Iraq, at a string of U.S. bases around the country. Yet “very strong public opinion in Iraq will not accept foreign bases,” Fahmi said. Mass political pressure will be needed to ensure an end to the U.S. occupation, he said.
Photo: Workers rally at the Industry Ministry in Baghdad, March 29, demanding abolition of Saddam-Hussein-era union restrictions still in effect, enactment of a labor law that adheres to international standards, and reinstatement of worker activists fired by Saddam’s regime. General Federation of Iraqi Workers