Analysis

Iraq's Protesters Want More Than Their Prime Minister's Head, but Victory Still Elusive

Anti-government protesters who took to the streets in Baghdad and across the country want to do away with sectarianism, but are struggling to back any united leadership

Protesters gather during clashes between Iraqi security forces and anti-government protesters in Baghdad, November 21, 2019.
Khalid Mohammed/AP

“Death is certain, so don’t live your life like a coward,” an Iraqi wrote on Twitter, after more than a month of anti-government demonstrations. For over 300 Iraqis, death has already come. More than 15,000 wounded are still hospitalized following weeks of violent clashes, shootings and beatings by national security forces and Shi'ite militias acting at Iran's behest with the sole purpose of preserving Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi's rule.

Every day, social media spread the news of more clashes and brawls, more wounded civilians dragged away to safety by their friends or loaded on tuk-tuks, rushing to avoid becoming a target, too. Graffiti art is flourishing in the streets, as is protesters' creativity on Facebook and Twitter.

One video, shot with a cellphone, shows a young man giving water to a tiny bird that was exposed to tear gas. In the background can be seen an impressive graffiti that covers an entire wall. It depicts a colorful tuk-tuk and above it a buff young man, holding the head of a snake and raising his hands in a sign of victory. "We don't write history. History writes us," that mural reads in large white letters against a red background.

Iraqi medic treating bird for tear gas inhalation during protests, November 8, 2019

Another video that has garnered thousands of views within days shows a large group of young Iraqis dancing for joy in a flooded street, waving Iraqi flags. An image of Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' elite Quds Force, along with the caption "Throw Khamenei and Soleimani out of Iraq," also gained popularity on social media.

Amid the throngs of demonstrators, it's impossible to tell Sunnis and Shi'ites or Arabs and Kurds apart, and that's their aim. “We are all Iraqis, we all want to live,” says one of the most popular slogans.

While most protests are organized in Iraq's predominantly Shi'ite cities and districts of Baghdad, and while the Sunnis are hardly visible and the Kurds, looking to distance themselves from the Arab population, are largely indifferent to what they call "the Iraqis' protests," these are clearly not Shi'ite protests.

This wave of protest is by all those whose rights have been trampled by the regime for many years, by those who were cheated by an administration that stole tens of billions of dollars in public funds and aid money Iraq received from donor countries, primarily the United States; these are protests against the ethnic divide in jobs and funding, which has long ensured that the ruling elites get by far the most, with only crumbs left for the rest of the country.

Photos of Shi'ite leaders, party heads or major figures in various sects or movements are nowhere to be seen in these demonstrations. It also seems that supporters of religious parties and movements are wary of taking to the streets to rally in support of their leaders.

A Facebook post by one of the demonstrators about the followers of Shi'ite separatist Muqtada al-Sadr provides a good example of the prevailing attitudes in the protest movement. University of Baghdad student Sadiq al-Basrawi, infuriated by the fact that Sadr’s supporters were holding up pictures of him as if he were the leader of the popular protests, wrote: “Members of the Sadrist movement are undermining the demonstrators’ rights and trying to steal the large popular movement in Tahrir Square. We’ve asked countless times not to hold up pictures and flags of movements or leaders in Tahrir Square. But today, members of your movement have violated these requests. We ask you and warn you not to challenge the free demonstrators again."

"There is no voice but the voice of Iraq, and there is no slogan other than the Iraqi flag in Tahrir Square,” he wrote. “If your movement wants to hold private sit-ins, there are many squares in Baghdad, and also many overpasses. Go liberate those from the corrupt gangs.”

This attack on Sadr shows the heterogeneous nature of the protesters, who have so far not managed to establish any discernible united leadership that could negotiate with the government. When the government asked the demonstrators to provide names of activists with whom it could discuss their demands, one protester wrote in a Facebook post: “We sent them the names of the victims killed in the streets by militia fire.”

Muqtada al-Sadr drives a car as he joins anti-government demonstrators gathering in the central holy city of Najaf, October 29, 2019.
Haidar Hamdani/AFP

Sadr actually could have represented the protesters. But he is now seen as part of the government, and therefore as someone who can’t be trusted.

In 2016 he led one of the largest demonstrations in Iraq's post-war history, when hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets and even occupied the parliament building. In a speech he gave then, Sadr called for "a great popular revolution to stop the corrupt ones."

He is also a vehement opponent of Iranian involvement in Iraq's affairs, who has reached out to the Sunni minority and champions the idea of unifying nationalism. As far back as 2013 he supported a Sunni protest in Iraq's Anbar province. Sadr also visited Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, in a bid to help Iraq reconnect with the Arab world.

In last year’s election, the bloc he heads won a large majority, enabling him to influence the choice of prime minister. That bloc, which received five government portfolios, includes human rights activists, civil society leaders and even representatives of the Communist Party, in line with Sadr’s view that Iraq should be guided by civic and national considerations rather than the sectarian ones that currently determine the allocation of key government posts.

A man sits as he takes part in ongoing anti-government protests in Baghdad, November 21, 2019.
Khalid al-Mousily/Reuters

Sectarian politics were entrenched by the American occupation, which was also responsible for the fateful decision to rid the army of its Baathist spine. The Americans decided on a sectarian division of key officeholders in the Coalition Provisional Authority set up by American envoy Paul Bremer. This division created governmental centers of power in which every sect and party sought to increase its share of the government, established private militias and divvied up revenue sources and lucrative contracts among the elites.

In this system, parliament is unable to supervise the activities of either the government or the army, because it, too, is held captive to sectarian divisions. Every member of parliament is a loyalist and emissary of a group that feels no sense of obligation to the national interest.

Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi gives a televised speech in Baghdad, October 9, 2019.
Iraqi Prime Minister Media Office/Handout via Reuters

Sadr supported Abdul-Mahdi’s appointment as prime minister, but shortly after the demonstrations began, he called for his ouster and even recruited his political rival, Hadi al-Amiri, to this end. Amiri heads the Fatah Alliance and is considered the political leader of the Shi’ite militias that operate under Iran’s auspices and funded by it.

But then Iran intervened by sending Soleimani to save its ally’s government. An agreement was reached among the heads of the najor blocs, including Sadr and Amiri. Yet Iraq’s political upheavals didn’t end there.

This past week, key political leaders, including former prime ministers Nouri al-Maliki and Haider al-Abadi — but without Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi — met with the commanders of the Shi'ite militias and agreed to give the prime minister 45 days to implement reforms and pass a new election bill that would give independent candidates a realistic chance at making it into parliament. If he fails to do so, they said, parliament will follow through with a no-confidence vote.

This meeting was attended by some notably pro-Iranian figures, indicating that Iran may have understood that its efforts to preserve the current government have failed. To defend the status of the pro-Iranian Shi’ite elite, Tehran will apparently have to accede to the protesters’ demand to replace the prime minister and hold new elections, in which it will try to ensure the success of its supporters.

Iraqi anti-government protesters clash with security forces near Ahrar Bridge, Baghdad, November 22, 2019.
Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP

Iran and its Iraqi backers, however, can't tell how the public will react to their maneuver to oust Abdul-Mahdi, realistically assuming he won’t manage to implement reforms in the time allotted to him. But judging by social media posts, the protesters won’t be satisfied with the just prime minister’s head.

They seek not only to get rid of the entire existing government, but also to establish a new system of government, one that doesn’t effectively guarantee the heads of the major parties a role in government.

After all, these are the very leaders whom the demonstrators blame for Iraq’s deep-rooted corruption, economic crisis and sectarian divisions. Consequently, they demand elections in which independent candidates — no die-hard loyalists who owe their political career to parties or large clans that dictate their interests or those liable to Iranian influence — can find a place in the Iraqi leadership.

Iraqi security forces ride with a picture of Shi'ite cleric Ali al-Sistani in the central holy shrine city of Najaf, November 8, 2019.
Haidar Hamdani/AFP

In all these demands, they can rely on Iraq’s most important Shi’ite cleric, 89-year-old Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who presides over a network of millions of loyalists and controls enormous financial resources with which he helps not just Shi’ites and Shi’ite charitable foundations, but also Sunnis displaced by the Islamic State. In 2013, he even issued a fatwa by which harming Sunnis is prohibited.

Sistani supports a secular state, and is therefore ideologically at odds with the religious and political establishment in Iran. In his sermons, he calls for uprooting corruption and nurturing human rights. He has also expressed support for the protesters, as he has during previous waves of protest.

It's somewhat paradoxical that for the protesters to have any chance or achieving their aspirations for a civic state that doesn't rest on secterian divisions, they need the support of a cleric like Sistani. For now, the dream of separating religion and state in Iraq seems like a distant one; at most, demonstrators can hope to replace the government. But “the system” will go on. Too many powerful parties won’t let it collapse.