Iraq protesters to government: Listen to us (not to Iran)

Why We Wrote This

For democracy to work, people need to feel their concerns are heard. When that doesn’t happen – or protest is met with violence – sharper lines can be drawn, making compromise and a path forward much more difficult.

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Two Iraqi antigovernment protesters check their phones on Dec. 6. Behind them, street graffiti depicts Iraqis' fight against corruption, and portrays American and Iranian influence on the country as tooth decay. Protesters have stepped up their demands for wholesale political change after a brutal crackdown that has left more than 400 Iraqis dead since Oct. 1.

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Like hundreds of thousands of protesting Iraqis, disenfranchised by corruption that has failed to convert vast oil wealth into wider prosperity, Rasoul Adel knows what he wants, even if he can’t articulate how to get there.

The recent resignation of Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi was a first step, he and others say, in meeting demands for broad reforms and less influence from Iran. “The citizens will make the decision who will be prime minister and who will be in the cabinet,” asserts Mr. Adel, who has been wounded three times amid violent antigovernment protests in Baghdad.

On Jumhuriya Bridge, protesters have fortified barricades; young men carry clubs and walkie-talkie radios. Backing them is a system of food and water delivery, and makeshift clinics. But the political class appears to be aimed at preserving control. One official notes the dearth of leadership offering a hopeful vision for the future.

“Most likely, this revolution will fail. What it will lead to is a hastening of the next set of demonstrations. It hopefully will lead to … us upping our discourse. So the glass is still half full; it’s not half empty just yet.”

Rasoul Adel has been wounded three times at the front lines of Iraq’s increasingly violent antigovernment protests. But that has made him only more determined to see the country’s political elite uprooted, wholesale.

Canisters of military-grade tear gas – heavier than those normally used for crowd control, and shot directly into crowds – twice smashed into his leg, breaking his right shin. A percussion grenade exploded on his back.

But like hundreds of thousands of protesting fellow Iraqis, disenfranchised by a corrupt and sectarian political system that has failed to convert Iraq’s vast oil wealth into wider prosperity and jobs, Mr. Adel knows what he wants, even if he can’t articulate the next steps to get there.

The resignation of Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, on Nov. 29, was only a first step, he and other Iraqis say, in meeting their demands for top-to-bottom reforms of Iraq’s political structure, and for less influence by neighboring Iran in Iraqi politics.

“The citizens will make the decision who will be prime minister and who will be in the cabinet,” asserts Mr. Adel, as he stands on crutches, his right leg in a cast, among a throng of protesters on the bank of the Tigris River. “We are the biggest bloc to choose the government. Our motivation has increased because we won the first round, but we need support.”

Where that support will come from is unclear, especially given the lack of both leadership among the protesters and a political rising star with a vision that appeals to an increasingly vocal and restive population – which this time is noisiest in nine mostly Shiite provinces and Baghdad, places that would normally back the Shiite-dominated government. But amid a lack of political action and a harsh government crackdown, the stakes are rising sharply, as deepening divisions set off a cycle of violence between competing camps. 

“When the protests first started, the demands were reasonable: people wanted jobs, services, and to fight corruption,” says Sajad Jiyad, head of the Al-Bayan Center for Planning and Studies, a think tank in Baghdad.

“The problem is the government’s response was very violent, and people’s demands became maximalist: change the whole system, get rid of everybody,” says Mr. Jiyad, adding that a lighter touch might help reverse that escalation and yield “more realistic” demands. 

“But right now, there are no confidence-building measures being done by the government to get anyone to do anything different,” says Mr. Jiyad. “It’s just continued bloodshed and intimidation, so [protesters] feel like, ‘Why should I back down from those demands?’”

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor
An Iraqi antigovernment protester who gives the name “Dr. Marwan” stands on Dec. 6 on the edge of Jumhuriya Bridge and Tahrir Square in Baghdad, wearing a military tactical vest with medical bandages inserted where bullet magazines would normally be.

Iraq’s top cleric speaks out

In his Friday sermon today, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani – Iraq’s highest Shiite religious authority – called on the new premier to be named within a constitutional deadline of 15 days, and “without any foreign interference.”

Mr. Abdul-Mahdi was widely seen to owe his post to a deal brokered last year by Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Qods Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. General Soleimani has been in Baghdad again this week, “back to strike the next deal,” according to one Iraqi official who asked not to be named.

Iraqi officials say General Soleimani was instrumental in organizing the heavy-handed crackdown against the Iraqi demonstrators. That included the sudden use of snipers against the crowds in early October by Iran-backed Shiite militias, which helped raise the death toll toward 450, an unprecedented figure since the American military toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.

More violence erupted overnight Friday near Tahrir Square, when scores of unknown, masked militants attacked a six-story parking garage filled with demonstrators, killing at least 14, with some taken away, according to witnesses. That followed a series of stabbings in Tahrir Square that wounded at least 13 demonstrators the day before.

General Soleimani and other Iranian officials also sought to prevent Mr. Abdul-Mahdi’s resignation.

But despite the protesters’ success in foiling that effort, they are bracing for the long haul. 

“I won’t leave the square until we expel the corrupters from the Green Zone,” says Mr. Adel, whose determination is widely echoed on these streets. “They should go to court like Saddam Hussein.”

High above him on Jumhuriya Bridge, which leads from the epicenter of the protests at Tahrir Square to the Green Zone, protesters have fortified barricades, while young men carry sticks, clubs, and walkie-talkie tactical radios, and sometimes wear masks as they sleep behind concrete pilings that form the front. Security officials have built their own fortified defensive line just a few dozen yards away.

Backing the demonstrators all around Tahrir Square is a system of food and water delivery, makeshift clinics, shrines to the “martyrs” killed already in this fight, and often a carnival atmosphere where Iraqis take selfies in front of revolutionary graffiti art. Protesters have turned a tall abandoned building, damaged in previous wars and known as the “Turkish Restaurant,” into an unofficial headquarters. 

The makeshift clinic closest to this front line, on the ramparts of the bridge, is one of 40 or 50 treating thousands of injured protesters.

“We are part of the people, we are part of this revolution,” says a thickly bearded medical assistant in a doctor’s white coat, who gave the name Abu Skandar.

“People need all the cabinet to be expelled. People here want a government for the people, not the parties,” says Abu Skandar.

“When you see all the classes of the people here, you have more motivation. For 16 years our rights have been taken, and we need to take them back,” he says. “Of course, there is no retreat unless there is a victory.” 

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor
Iraqi protesters walk beneath an Iraqi flag hanging from Baghdad's Tahrir Square on Dec. 6. The street graffiti depicts protesters' two-month battle against a corrupt and sectarian political system.

But how do you define victory?

Any reshuffling of old faces to form the new government will be akin to “putting lipstick on a pig,” says independent Iraqi analyst Hamzeh Hadad.

“There are power centers now, patronage networks, and you just can’t expect these power centers to give up,” says Mr. Hadad. “My hope from these protests is not an overhaul, because it’s never going to happen like that. My hope is that we build a movement, that leadership comes out that can present me an alternative [and] proper civil society.”

A harder view prevails on the streets, says a psychology graduate who gave his name as Dr. Marwan. He is wearing a sand-colored tactical military vest in which the pockets for clips of bullets and grenades have been filled instead with medical bandages.

“We are here for two months because the government is corrupt and killing people, and stole the people’s money,” says Dr. Marwan. “People will stay here until there is a new government with clean hands.”

But Iraq’s long-entrenched political class appears to be searching for solutions that will preserve its control. That is despite a socioeconomic malaise that made “Iraqi people without hope” pour into the streets in anger, says the government official.

“What Iraq is missing is true national leadership that provides Iraqis with a vision for the future, which then leads us to having hope,” says the official.

“You’ll ask 10 people what they want, and they’ll give you 10 different answers, and most of them will give a slogan, like ‘We want a nation.’ What does that mean?” says the official.

“There is no blank page. It’s vested interests. It’s pieces of the cake,” he says.

Still, he notes, Iraq’s democracy is in its earliest stages.

“After 7,000 years of history, we’ve been only democratic for 14,” says the official. “We haven’t given it a long enough time to work. And the system we do have is imperfect, so what we need to do is reform it, enhance it.

“Traditionally, revolutions are a failure,” he continues. “Most likely, this revolution will fail. What it will lead to is a hastening of the next set of demonstrations. It hopefully will lead to civil society organizations, and us upping our discourse ... so the glass is still half full; it’s not half empty just yet.”

*This story was updated to include the shootings that took place overnight Friday in Baghdad.

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