Iraq is witnessing the biggest protest movement since 2003, unprecedented in its nationalist and cross-sectarian nature. At first, grievances focused on unemployment, basic services and corruption, but as the government responded with force, protesters began calling for a complete overhaul of the political system. Comprised of mostly young and unemployed, the protests started in Baghdad on the first day of October.
Authorities have used excessive force in suppressing the protestors. After security forces used live ammunition against demonstrators, the unrest escalated and spread to other cities and towns. Over 150 people were killed over the five most intense days of the protests this month. The committee concluded that “officers and commanders lost control over their forces during the protests” and that this “caused chaos”.
There were calls for fresh demonstrations starting on the one-year anniversary of Iraq’s Prime Minister, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, taking office. Abdul-Mahdi has promised reforms and to reshuffle his cabinet to try to satisfy protesters.
Early Friday November 22, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called for the country’s politicians to speed up the reform of electoral laws, saying the changes were the only way to resolve the deadly unrest that has unfolded in recent weeks filled with bloodshed.
Iraq’s President Barham Salih has promised to hold a snap parliamentary election once a new law is passed in a bid to placate the protesters, but has not outlined any timeline for the vote.
The protestors don’t trust what the government is saying; they think the rhetoric is more of the same of a technique to placate the protests. They plan on continuing to demonstrate no matter what threat might be posed to them, for as long as their demands are not met.
The Iraqi Parliament accepted Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi’s resignation on Sunday December 1, posing a major challenge for Iraq’s fractious political class, which must now agree on a candidate that satisfies what protestors are calling for, while reconciling the competing interests of Iran and the U.S.. Abdul-Mahdi’s government will stay on in a caretaker capacity until the parliament forms a new government.
On Saturday, December 8, Iraqi officials said casualties had risen to 25 dead and 130 injured after unknown gunmen targeted anti-government demonstrators in the capital. Protesters said the electricity in the square was cut, creating chaos as they ran from the bullets and took cover in nearby mosques and streets. An attack leading into the early hours Saturday, was among the deadliest since October 1. The attack included the burning of a car park that demonstrators had converted into a base for their sit-in, while surrounding buildings in the square were pockmarked with bullet holes.
Activists have called for large-scale marches from other cities towards Baghdad but paramilitary leaders have warned such protests would be “ruinous”. “It will bring the most massive chaos yet to Baghdad,” said Qais al-Khazali, the head of the prominent Asaib Ahl al-Haq armed faction, who was blacklisted last week by the United States. Asaib Ahl al-Haq is one of the most powerful groups in Iraq’s Hashd al-Shaabi security force (also known as the PMF), a network of Iran-backed armed groups officially integrated into the Iraqi state security forces. Hashd chief Faleh al-Fayyadh over the weekend ordered the factions to stay away from rallies.
In addition to those killed, dozens of protesters went missing after the attack on the parking complex and have yet to resurface, their relatives told AFP. Demonstrators have for weeks complained of being monitored, threatened and harassed in an intimidation campaign they say is aimed at blunting their movement.
Baghdad has close ties with both Tehran and Iran’s arch foe Washington. After three months of protests and government suppression, 500 people have been killed and 20,000 wounded.
On New Years Eve, thousands of pro-Iran protesters broke into the US embassy compound in Baghdad and destroyed the reception area in retaliation for US air strikes against the Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah militia that killed 25 fighters. There were also mass demonstrations on the perimeter of the United States embassy after an American strike that killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad. Soleimani was the leader of Iran’s elite Quds Force, and orchestrated much of Iraq’s militia action.