Massive protests sweep Iraq; Communist Party calls for emergency government
Protesters rush to an injured demonstrator during a rally in Baghdad, Iraq on Oct. 5. Protests have plunged the country into a new cycle of instability, one that could potentially overthrow the current government. Over 100 people have been killed in less than a week. Iraqi security forces have been shooting at young Iraqis demanding jobs, electricity, clean water, and an end to corruption. | Hadi Mizban / AP

Massive protests have swept Iraq since Oct. 1 in response to widespread anger over high unemployment, especially among youth, enormous corruption, and the inability of the government to deliver essential services like health care, water, and electricity.

Protesters are directing their anger at the government of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mehdi and the political parties dominating Iraqi politics since the U.S. invasion who have done nothing to address the crisis. The protest movement seems to cross all community, tribal, and religious affiliations, in distinct contrast to the sectarian violence that often sharply divided the Iraqi people in the past.

The protests have been met with violent repression by police and government security services. The death toll now exceeds 100 with over 6,000 wounded.

Armed militias with links to the governing parties and employing professional assassins have been shooting into the crowds and attacking television stations for covering the protests. Meanwhile, the government has imposed curfews across the country and shut down the internet.

Similar mass protests for change rocked the southern oil city of Basra for several months in 2018 over related issues. Finally, in September, the government and the ruling parties’ armed militias violently suppressed demonstrations there.

The government, caught off guard by the size and scope of popular anger, passed some emergency measures to expand the social safety net and provide grants to graduating jobless students. But the action failed to quell the protests.

The Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) called for a new emergency government to take office. Shi’ite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, who leads the Sairoun Alliance composed of his Islamist Sadrist Integrity Party, the ICP, and some smaller groups, also called for new elections.

This development is significant because Al-Sadr had initially backed Abdul-Mahdi, and his support was crucial to his ascendance as prime minister. Now, Al-Sadr has joined the protesters, raising doubts about Abdul-Mahdi’s future.

The ICP called for swift action to protect protesters from state violence, bring people accused of corruption to justice, and tackle the economic grievances at the root of the unrest. The ICP called the fallen “martyrs of the people.”

To many observers, the protests appear to be spontaneous and leaderless. However, political analyst Abdulkader Alnael said the protests were well-organized by “Coordination Committees” composed of academics, university graduates, youth movements, and tribal leaders. The same committees had staged anti-government demonstrations as early as February 2011.

Much of the nation’s attention has been on defeating the Daesh, or Islamic State, terrorists. With Islamic State largely defeated, focus has shifted to the economic and social crisis facing the Iraqi people. Besides, Iraqis are fed up with the government’s inability to prevent internal interference by the U.S., Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Israel.

“People have an endless list of very legitimate demands,” Alnael told Gulf News, “like the slump in health services, educational collapse, unemployment, the spread of illegal arms in cities, kidnapping, assassinations, sectarian distribution of power, and Iranian tutelage in Iraq.”

Poverty is at 50%, and the price of tomatoes jumped 300%, according to another report.

One unemployed graduate told journalists that Iraqi politicians had done nothing but “steal, steal, steal from 2003 (when the United States and Britain invaded the country) until now.”

“It is estimated that between 2006 and 2014, $500 billion of oil sales receipts and foreign aid disappeared through some of the most massive corruption in history,” wrote Juan Cole. Iraq has one of the largest oil reserves in the world, and could easily fund massive job creation, essential infrastructure, and social services.

According to the ICP, addressing the grievances would entail “a major campaign to build decent houses and distribute them to the poor,” a new council to vet public-sector appointments to address nepotism, and monthly payments to the poor and unemployed.

The ICP also called for a reduction in the top politicians’ salaries and the abolition of privileges and special allowances.

To force the establishment of a government with such a program, “the pace and momentum of the protest movement must be increased, along with a commitment to maintaining its peacefulness,” the Communists said.

Iraq faces a transformative moment, Renad Mansour of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, told the BBC. Iraqis are rejecting a system imposed on them in 2003 by U.S imperialism and the Bush administration.

Social tensions and frustration have been mounting since the May 2018 elections. Then, the new government promised long-needed reforms to deal with massive corruption, nepotism, and high unemployment but ended up maintaining the status quo.

The Sairoun Alliance emerged as the single largest party in the elections. The Iraqi constitution allows for a vote of no-confidence that can be initiated by 50 members of parliament. Without the Sadrists, it’s not clear Abdul-Mahdi can survive a vote, according to Cole.

But no amount of repression will address the underlying issues which sparked the protest. That will take a new governing coalition and a fundamental re-orientation of policy.