Protests in Iraq : September 2015

By Mundher Adhami

Basra is the third largest province in Iraq, and produces 90% of the income of the Baghdad government, yet it has neither regular electricity, nor clean drinking water. Its local government is dominated by religious parties and rife with corruption.

There has been sporadic local protests in Southern provinces for the last three years, continuation of the first round of mass protests in 2011 which was violently suppressed.  The local protests involves demonstrations in front of local government offices, blocking public roads, vigils at entrances to oil company and port facilities in Fao, Um Qasr and Ma’aqal. There is a long list of grievances, general and local people complain about, mixed with political tribal rivalries, with trade unions curiously not prominent.

Friday 17 July in Madeyna in Basra a demonstration against the electricity cuts in searing heat turned violent. There was shooting and a young demonstrator Muntadhar Al-Halfi was killed. This sparked more demonstrations in Basra, largest of which was on 31 July with slogans directed at corrupt officials. There are local rivalries between religious parties that play a role, but the demos was nonpartisan, non-sectarian, and in fact vilifies by the main political groups. This spread to other provinces through various media coordination methods.  Basra is the third largest province in Iraq, and produces 90% of the income of the Baghdad government, yet it has neither regular electricity, nor clean drinking water. Its local government is dominated by religious parties and rife with corruption.

Friday 11 September was the 7th protest Friday of protest in Basra, and the 6th in Baghdad and 8 other provincial capitals : Wasit, Babylon, Kerbala, Najaf, Qadidsia, Muthana, Dhi Qar, and Maysan.   The numbers in Baghdad are declining to the hundreds rather than thousands but in the rest of the country the momentum is maintained and the anger increases. BaghdadIya, Sharqiya,  Rafidain and Taghyeer TV channels have adopted the protest as a “revolution for reform”.  Protests at the town levels are increasing in all the provinces  including in Diyala  and Ta’amim provinces north of Baghdad.

The focus of the mass protests in the centres of cities went through phases:

  • ■At first the focus was on electricity shortages (causing health hazards in the searing heat of summer that exceeded 50 degrees,  as well for several years now closing down 17,000 production medium and small industrial and commercial facilities by official figures) and non-payment to farmers and old state sector employees.
  • ■The focus shifted quickly  to removing corrupt officials and punishing them, including the leadership of main political parties, especially Maliki and his cronies.  The agenda seems initially supported by the government of Prime Minister Abadi itself, and by the religious authorities who have fallen out with the Maliki –Iranian camp,  pressing the Prime Minister to remove corrupt officials. The demonstrations were protected by the riot police under command of the PM. The momentum was initially so great that the parliament unanimously passed a set of austerity measures, pruning some higher level positions.
  • ■The focus of the slogans then moved to dismissing the parliament and the constitution and restart the political process anew, without the sectarian quota etc. The political parties started claiming infiltrations by the Ba’ath and terrorists,  withdrew their verbal support, and intimidations tactics started against activists. But the regularity of the protest drew in several disenfranchised groups of the unemployed and poor, whose numbers seem to increase, judging by the videos of many provincial demonstrations, and the illiteracy of some of the hand-made placards, compared with those raised at the start by the students and professionals.
  • ■Several side demands are present simultaneously with the national demand to root out corruption, with people carrying placards with slogans about jobs and non-payment of salaries or compensations, and women carrying pictures of missing young men, or demanding investigations of massacres
  • ■Political groups try to put their imprints, like the so called Democratic Civil Current, under which label spread communists and liberals of various kinds.  It does seem that many of the activists are from traditionally Left and  communist social background, whether those that accepted the shameful position of the official party in collaborating with the occupation or not.  The Najaf religious authorities were placed under pressure from the dominant slogan of “They robbed us in the name of Religion” and they supported the reform demands. The Hashd groups (formed as militias in 2013/14 loyal to the religious authorities and nominally led by the army and other militias)  tried to press for slogans against terrorists, Baathists and ISIS, which surprisingly did not hold.  There is a distinct non-sectarian and anti-sectarian flavour, and a sense that the people feel betrayed and hoodwinked by religious garbs.
  • ■The dwindling of the Baghdad numbers seen on 11 September may be understood  by the intimidation and attacks on activists, on the political parties instructing their supporters to avoid the demonstrations, and the abandoning of the fight by those in government jobs and pensions , numbered 8 million. But judging by the increase in numbers and militancy in the provinces, the composition of the protests is shifting towards the workers and the pooer sections of the population.
  • ■The anti-sectarian stand of demonstrations is a stark rebuff to the political system as a whole.  Even the fight against terrorism and ISIS is missing, and the slogans include placards like “Corruptions is terrorism” or “worse than terrorism”.   The big project by the religious authorities and the religious parties of building up support for the popular mobilisation  have vanished.
  • ■The so called Sadr Current, originally  the Shi’a religious mass anti–occupation movement led by Muqtadal-Sadr,  is in a difficult position regarding the protest.  Their social base are the poor and disenfranchised groups who use its Arab-religious cover as a fence against the influence of Iran-supported groups, and the collaborationist Najaff’s  Shi’s authorities.  These masses are the natural component of the protests which made some academics call for a political Left-Sadrist alliance, ignoring the religious and cultural aspect as irrelevant.  The problem has been the pragmatist zigzagging way of its leader, Muqtada,  frequently bending to Iranian pressures at key moments to salvage sectarian political agenda, participating in sectarian killings for a period before denouncing them,  joining in the government while denouncing it.  The Sadrist Current ended up splitting into several factions the most prominent being the Maliki –loyal Iranian-funded murderous militia Asa’ibilhaq. The 40 members in the parliament sometimes act differently from its social base and its leader.  So do the local councils Sadrist groups implicated in corruption.  But the mass base, and its need for a religious cover, remains potent. It is the development at this social base level, with or without its current leadership,  joined by many other smaller Shi’a religious, urban neighbourhoods, poor countryside tribal, and destitute worker groups, that may be the key factor in what is to happens next in the Iraqi protests.