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Iraq - Protests 2019

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blamed the United States and its allies for spreading "insecurity and turmoil" in Iraq and Lebanon, urging anti-government protesters in both countries to seek changes in a lawful way. "Their people also have to know that although they have legitimate demands, those demands can be met only through the framework of legal structures," he said on 30 October 2019 in rare remarks addressing the wave of demonstrations that erupted in Iraq and Lebanon earlier in the month. Khamenei accused "America and Western intelligence services" of inflicting damage and of creating "chaos" in the region. "They are destroying security. This is the worst kind of hostility and the most dangerous and spiteful behaviour against a country," he said.

Adel Abdul Mahdi was appointed the prime minister in October 2018 after a summer of anti-government protests and months of negotiations between various political forces in Iraq, as well as Iran and the US. Lacking a party of his own to back him, he was a consensus figure who wielded little personal political power. The Iraqi public expected him to form a new technocratic government and push through important reforms. But faced with political bickering between pro and anti-Iran parties and an uncooperative parliament, he achieved neither. He was pressured by various forces to appoint specific candidates for ministers which were then blocked in parliament; his appointees for key ministries, like defence, interior and justice, were not approved until eight months into his premiership. The prime minister was often blocked from taking decisions by external and domestic powers and orders he issued were overridden by people in his own office linked to Iran.

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) also wanted him to remain in power for lack of an alternative. The KRG, in particular, had found in Abdul Mahdi a partner willing to negotiate and put an end to the five-year-old dispute between Erbil and Baghdad over budget allocations and the KRG's oil sales. He also faced intense pressure to remain in his position from Iran, which feared losing the strong positions it had established in Iraq if another government was to be negotiated.

In what had become an annual ritual, tempers flare in the sweltering end of summer heat in Iraq. Protesters descend on the streets of major cities around the country, including the capital Baghdad, to demonstrate against government corruption, a lack of public utilities and services, and a completely shambolic economy that has led to high unemployment and youth disenfranchisement. The fact that this happens almost every year at near enough the exact same time is diagnostic. There is something deeply flawed in Iraq that leads its citizens to take to the streets and to call for major reforms, and for those same citizens to then be subjected to death and violence by the security forces.

Iraq is not really much of a functioning democracy but simply maintained the masquerade that it is one. The protesters on the streets of Nasiriyah, Amara, and Hilla are predominantly Shia Iraqis demonstrating against a Shia-dominated government that they accuse of corruption and of bowing to foreign interference, particularly from Iran whose presence can be seen and felt across every sphere of influence.

Iraq, a country of 38 million, was rocked by days of protests as thousands of mostly young men demonstrated in different parts of the country against corruption, unemployment and poor public services. Protesters blamed corruption and infighting among political leaders for failing to improve their lives even in peacetime, two years after the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) armed group was declared defeated in Iraq. Security forces used water cannon, tear gas, live rounds and rubber bullets to disperse the crowds. The mostly leaderless demonstrations were the biggest challenge yet to the year-old government of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi. Abdul Mahdi had insisted security forces had been acting "within international standards" in dealing with the demonstrators, but Iraq's military later admitted it had used "excessive force".

The day after anti-government protests erupted in Iraq, Iranian Gen. Qassim Soleimani flew into Baghdad late at night and took a helicopter to the heavily fortified Green Zone, where he surprised a group of top security officials by chairing a meeting in place of the prime minister. The arrival of Soleimani -- the head of Iran's elite Quds Force and the architect of its regional security apparatus -- signaled Tehran's concern over the protests.

By early Octber 2019 Iraq was in the midst of a greater crisis sparked by what appeared to be a spontaneous outburst of anger over unemployment, poor services and corruption. Days of anti-government protests convulsed the capital, Baghdad, and several other cities. Thousands of mostly young men headed waves of protests, which began in Baghdad on Tuesday before spreading to cities dotted throughout Iraq's south. The protests did not appear to have been coordinated by a particular political group and seemingly cut across ethnic and sectarian lines. This could make it more difficult for the year-old government of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi to contain the unrest.

Dozens of people have been killed during clashes between demonstrators and security forces, who have attempted to disperse the protests by using live ammunition, tear gas and water cannon. In addition to those killed, more than 1,000 protesters have been wounded and scores arrested, according to the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights. Curfews have been declared in Baghdad and the southern cities of Nasiriya, Amara, Najaf and Hilla. Authorities also imposed a near-total internet blackout in a bid to make it harder for protesters to mobilise.

The death toll rose to almost 100 as the unrest entered its fifth day on 05 October 2019. More than 4,000 people have also been injured since the protests against chronic unemployment, poor public services and widespread corruption erupted in the capital on 01 October. A total of 540 demonstrators had been arrested, of whom nearly 200 remain in custody.

Angered by Iraq's stuttering recovery from years of conflict, protesters have rallied to demand improved services, more jobs and an end to the corruption that analysts describe as endemic. The focus of the demonstrators' ire has been not just the government but Iraq's wider political establishment. Youth unemployment is at 25 percent, Iraq is ranked 168 out of 180 countries worldwide in how corrupt it is, and state-sanctioned violence against largely peaceful protesters that has led to the killing of even children has meant that people cannot even express their anguish.

Unemployment, particularly among young people, is a major issue, while millions lack access to adequate healthcare, schooling, water or power supplies. Much of the country's infrastructure remains in tatters after decades of near-ongoing conflict, including a United States-led invasion, and United Nations sanctions. The economic struggles have come despite Iraq enjoying relative stability in recent years after the defeat of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) group in the country in 2017.

Iraq's most senior Shia spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani urged both sides to end the violence, and he blamed politicians, particularly lawmakers, for failing to enact promised reforms on the economy and corruption. Sistani said the government needed to act now "before it's too late" to address popular grievances or the protests would simply intensify. The crisis required "clear and practical steps" or the protesters will "simply come back even stronger," he said. The government "must do what it can to improve public services, find work for the unemployed, end clientelism, deal with the corruption issue and send those implicated in it to prison," Sistani added.

The unrest, was the first major challenge for Abdul Mahdi, who took office last year backed by Shia parties that have dominated Iraq since the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein. It came on the eve of the Arbaeen Shia pilgrimage, when as many as 20 million worshippers are expected to journey for days on foot across southern Iraq in the world's biggest annual gathering, 10 times the size of the Mecca Hajj.

A total of 157 people, mostly civilians, were killed in Iraq because security forces used excessive force and live fire to quell this month's wave of anti-government protests, a government committee tasked with investigating the violence found. State television on 22 October 2019 cited the committee's official report which found that 149 civilians and eight members of the security forces were killed since the demonstrations erupted on October 1. It blamed senior security officials for losing command and control over their forces and recommended the Baghdad operations commander and other senior officials be sacked.

Eight Iraqis were killed and dozens wounded on 26 October 2019, police and hospital sources said, as demonstrators and security forces clashed in a second day of protests against Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s government. The unrest followed violence on Friday in which at least 52 people were killed around the country as protesters vented frustration at political elites they say have failed to improve their lives after years of conflict and economic hardship. In Baghdad, security forces lobbed tear gas to try to disperse demonstrators in Tahrir Square. Four were killed after being struck directly in the head by tear gas canisters, police and hospital sources said. Two people were in critical condition from similar injuries.

Iraq’s military and Ministry of Interior signalled in statements that they planned to respond more firmly to protests. Whereas tear gas was used only to repel those who approached the capital’s fortified Green Zone housing government buildings and foreign embassies, security forces were using it on everyone in Tahrir Square, at one point throwing canisters into the crowds roughly every 15 minutes. In Baghdad protesters distributed masks and homemade remedies to protect themselves from the tear gas. Others handed out food and water.

Members of the powerful Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) militia turned their guns on protesters in both Nasiriya and Amara, leaving scores dead. AAH also clashed with another powerful militia, one loyal to populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Despite a curfew and federal anti-riot forces dispatched from Baghdad, thousands gathered across cities in the south.

More than a dozen people were killed and hundreds injured when Iraqi security officials "opened fire on protesters" overnight, according to reports. . The death toll since protests first began on October 1 — with the latest fatalities in Karbala not included— is placed at over 220.

The Iraqi people began their fifth day of protests on 29 October 2019 as tens of thousands of demonstrators packed Baghdad’s Tahrir Square to call for early elections and the removal of the government. The demonstrations were strongly motivated by the security forces shooting dead protesters in Kerbala overnight and the prime minister’s refusal to call early elections. It was the largest gathering in the capital since a second wave of demonstrations against Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s government and the ruling elite resumed on Friday. Security forces stationed on the nearby Jumhuriya bridge, lobbed tear gas at protesters who tried to break through to the heavily fortified Green Zone, which houses government buildings and foreign missions. The crowd consisted mostly of young men, many draped in Iraqi flags. Surrounding streets brimmed with cars, taxis, motorcycles and tuk-tuks as more people made their way in.

Barham Saleh attempted to mollify the popular movement, promising demonstrators early elections, but had not outlined any timeline for the vote. Significantly, videos have been circulating of protesters hitting their shoes against a poster of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s elite Quds force, the (in)famous Qassim Soleimani, in what appears to be Baghdad’s Tahrir Square.

Iraq's top Shia leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called for new elections to restore public confidence in the country's political system amid weeks-long mass anti-government demonstrations. In a weekly sermon delivered by a representative in the Shia holy city of Karbala, al-Sistani said on Friday 15 Novembe 2019 that a fresh poll would give voters the opportunity to bring "new faces" to power in Iraq. "Passing a law that does not give such an opportunity to voters would be unacceptable and useless," al-Sistani said. "If those in power think they can evade dealing with real reform by procrastination, they are mistaken," he added. "What comes after the protests is not the same as before, so be careful." He said corruption among the ruling elite has reached "unbearable limits" while large segments of the population are finding it increasingly impossible to have their basic needs met while top leaders "share the country's wealth among themselves and disregard each other's corruption."

Falah al-Fayadh, the national security adviser to the prime minister and head of the government Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) commission, attended a meeting with Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in Tehran on November 21, along with Hadi al-Amiri, the head of the Badr Organisation, and Abu Jihad al-Hashimi, the head of the defence office, in which it was decided that protests will be suppressed no matter the cost.

Trump and Pence perceive Baghdad as a "lost cause" - that it is inherently pro-Iran and that no amount of US funding or presence would change that. Mixed messages from Washington reflect not only the lack of coordination on foreign policy between the White House, State Department and the Pentagon, but also growing perceptions within the US presidency that Washington should invest less effort and resources in Iraq.

Anti-government protesters in Iraq stormed the Iranian consulate in the southern city of Najaf and set fire to the building on 27 November 2019. A protester was killed and at least 35 people were wounded when security forces fired live ammunition to prevent them from entering the consulate. Iranian consulate staff reportedly escaped from the backdoor unharmed. Iran has condemned the attack. Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi issued a statement on Thursday, calling for a responsible and strong response from the Iraqi government.

On 28 November 2019, security forces shot dead 46 people in another southern city, Nassiriya, 18 in Najaf, and four in Baghdad, bringing the death toll from weeks of unrest to at least 417, most of them unarmed protesters. This was described as the "bloodiest day" since the anti-government demonstrations began in early October. The crackdown by security forces was meant to send a message from Iran to the Iraqi political forces that Abdul Mahdi must stay as Prime Minister. That, however, caused al-Sistani to intervene.

The country's top Shi'ite Muslim cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who only weighs in on politics in times of crisis and wields huge influence over public opinion, warned on Friday 29 November 2019 against an explosion of civil strife and tyranny. He urged government forces to stop killing protesters and protesters themselves to reject all violence. The government "appears to have been unable to deal with the events of the past two months ... parliament, from which the current government emerged, must reconsider its choices and do what's in the interest of Iraq", a representative of Sistani said in a televised sermon. Protesters "must not allow peaceful demonstrations to be turned into attacks on property or people", he said.

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi announced his resignation on Friday after Sistani called for lawmakers to reconsider their support for a government rocked by weeks of deadly anti-establishment unrest. "In response to this call, and in order to facilitate it as quickly as possible, I will present to parliament a demand (to accept) my resignation from the leadership of the current government," a statement signed by Abdul Mahdi said. According to Article 81 of the Iraqi constitution, the president is expected to "charge another nominee to form the Council of Ministers within a period not to exceed 15 days". Abdul Mahdi's government remained as a caretaker one until a new prime minister is chosen.

Baghdad's Tahrir Square broke out in celebration minutes after Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi announced he will submit his resignation to parliament after weeks of deadly anti-government protests. But while the move was welcomed with singing and dancing in the capital, some protesters remained sceptical and reiterated their demands for the complete overhaul of the country's political system.

According to the Iraqi Human Rights Commission, at least 430 people had been killed and 19,000 injured since the start of the unrest.

Since November 2019, protesters occupied three strategic bridges in Baghdad — Sinak, Ahrar and Jumhunriyah — leading to or near the fortified Green Zone, the seat of Iraq's government, in a standoff with security forces.

In late December, Parliament approved a new election law aimed at giving political independents a better chance of winning seats, a key demand of protesters. Once implemented, the new law would change each of the country’s 18 provinces into several electoral districts, with one legislator elected per 100,000 people.

An Iranian-backed bloc in Iraq's parliament on 25 December 2019 nominated Asaad al-Eidani, the governor of the southern province of Basra, as the new prime minister, a move rejected by many protesters who demand a complete overhaul of the political system. "As the largest parliamentary bloc according to Article 76 of the Iraqi constitution, the Binaa bloc has nominated the governor of Basra, Asaad al-Eidani, as the new prime minister," the bloc's spokesman Ahmad al-Assadi, told Al Jazeera. The Binaa bloc, which is linked to the Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Units (PMF), includes the Fatah alliance led by Hadi al-Amrir and the State of the Law Coalition led by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Protest organisers struggled in recent weeks to bring large crowds to Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the movement, sparking fears the movement might be losing momentum. In an attempt to bring back focus to the goals of the protest movement, in mid-January 2020 anti-government protesters in the southern city of Nasiriyah gave the government a week's deadline to take serious steps to implement changes.

A massive demonstration – called for by a prominent Shia cleric – flooded the streets of the Iraq's capital Baghdad 24 January 2020, with thousands voicing their anger at the US military presence there. Early on Friday morning, throngs of protesters – men and women, young and old – began amassing at al-Hurriya Square in central Baghdad, near the city's main university. The anti-America rally, dubbed the "Million-man March," [but faling far short of that number] was called by Moqtada al-Sadr, one of Iraq's top Shiite clerics. Some were wearing white robes, symbolizing their readiness to die for a religious cause, while others were pictured holding signs that read: "To the families of American soldiers – insist on the withdrawal of [your] sons from our country or prepare their coffins!"

On 01 February 2020, skirmishes had taken place between supporters of powerful Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr and politically independent protesters, after the former took over the strategic Turkish restaurant building and drove out the other demonstrators from there. The Sadrists, along with members of an affiliated militia Saraya al-Salam, had rejoined the protest a week after al-Sadr, head of the largest bloc in Parliament, announced his withdrawal. But on Friday, al-Sadr called for a renewal of "the peaceful reformist revolution".

A year on, public anger hasn't fully receded even though last year's protests led to the ousting of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi. Committed to seeing their government perform along the margins of equality and development, the Iraqi youth has learned a crucial lesson from last year's protests — and that is to survive and keep the movement alive. On 25 October 2020, the protesters marked the first anniversary of the rallies. As the day panned out, maintaining civility on the streets proved to be a tough task, as several thousand protesters, who took to the streets in Baghdad, suddenly moved to the heavily fortified Green Zone, where government offices and foreign embassies are located.

The protest movement had the potential to transform Iraq. The uprising managed to rekindle Iraqi nationalism and elevate national identity above ethnic and sectarian ones.

Iraqi authorities reopened Baghdad's Tahrir Square and Al-Jumhuriyah bridge on 31 October 2020, symbolically ending more than a year of demonstrations in epicentres of an anti-government protest movement. Protester tents have been dismantled at the Tahrir roundabout, now again circled by cars, and the towering concrete walls used to close off the Al-Jumhuriyah bridge across the Tigris River have been removed.

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Page last modified: 27-08-2021 14:30:26 ZULU