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Apolitical youth are driving force in Iraq’s bloody protests

Oct 08,2019 - Last updated at Oct 08,2019

Even as protests in Baghdad and southern provinces appear to have subsided for now, the fact is that Iraq finds itself in the eye of a political storm that threatens to bring down the one-year-old government of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi. More than 100 have been killed and over 6,000 injured, according to security sources, in six days of sporadic and spontaneous anti-government protests, where anti-riot police and army are accused of using live ammunition against largely peaceful protesters. But there are indicators that infiltrators, including snipers, have targeted both protesters and police.

The protests have rattled the government, which, after initially using force, announced that it was implementing steps to tackle unemployment, poor services and corruption. But it is anyone’s guess if such steps will pacify an angry public that is fed up with a skewed political system that has made Iraq, an oil rich country, one of the most corrupt in the world. Iraq was ranked 168 out of 175 countries on a list of least corrupt nations, according to the 2018 Corruption Perceptions Index reported by Transparency International.

Since the US invasion in 2003, Iraq has been going through one crisis after another; the most recent was to battle Daesh, which at one point had occupied almost one third of the country. The operation to wrestle territory from Daesh came at a huge expense, with millions displaced and thousands losing their lives. The effort to rebuild has yet to begin.

Iraq’s ethno-sectarian system continues to plague a country of multiple ethnicities and faiths. Previous governments have deepened the sectarian divide and the current one has done little to heal the wounds. Corruption has become so institutionalised that it seems impossible to confront it when most lawmakers and politicians stand to benefit from the status quo. When it comes to lack of services, unemployment and poverty, both Sunnis and Shia share the suffering. Last year, it was the Shia-majority southern provinces that erupted in mass protests; torching party offices and an Iranian consulate.

Aside from a broken political system, Iraqis find themselves caught in a fight between Iran and the United States over influence and control of the country. Iran’s presence in Iraq has been growing over the past years and Tehran now has thousands of armed loyalists in the form of sectarian militias under the banner of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF). These militias answer to Tehran and not to the Baghdad government and efforts to put them under the Ministry of Defence command have largely failed.

Iranian leaders make no secret of their blatant interference in Iraqi affairs. In fact, as US influence wanes in Iraq and across the region, Tehran appears to have increased its presence in Iraq. Geopolitical tussle between Iran and the US has dragged Iraq into becoming a possible battlefield. Tehran has made a number of threats that if attacked by Washington, US troops in Iraq will become a target. PMF bases have been hit by drone strikes over the past months, most likely by Israel. The Iraqi government has expressed its dissatisfaction with Iranian threats and underlined that Iraqi territory will not be used in a potential confrontation. But its protests change nothing on the ground.

While the recent protests centred on poor services, unemployment, now averaging 14 per cent, and corruption, there were chants denouncing Iran and its meddling in Iraqi affairs. But Iraq’s deepening crisis has to do with its largely corrupt political elite as well. No prime minister can muster the strength to uproot corrupt officials without facing dire consequences. Abdul Mahdi has failed to deliver on many of the promises he made when he took office. It is unlikely that he will be able to wage a campaign against corruption under the present political system.

The supreme Shia religious authority under Ayatollah Ali Sistani has sided with the protesters’ demands and called for a dialogue. But influential players such as cleric Muqtada Sadr and former Prime Minister Haider Abbadi have called for early elections. But without fundamental changes in the political system, which continues to rely on quotas, as well as foreign interference in Iraqi affairs change is unlikely to happen. For now, Iraqis are hostage to a system that is genetically dysfunctional and will continue to be so.

Like other Arab countries that are going through transition and crises, it is the youth that are the main drivers of protests and change. A recent survey by Arab Barometer of youth in the region, released last August, found that less than half of Iraqi youth identify as religious and only 21 per cent are interested in politics. Only six per cent are satisfied with government efforts to improve employment opportunities. With youth making up 20 per cent of Iraq’s population of 32 million, no government can afford to ignore their demands. The protests may have died down for now, but they will be back again as soon as meaningful change fails to materialise.

 

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman

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