In the second phase of protests in Iraq, demonstrators are risking everything to demand more — early elections and an answer to the question, who killed the protesters?
Everyone in Iraq knew that Friday, October 25 wouldn’t be a quiet day. The security guards stood holding guns and took their position around Baghdad’s fortified green zone long before sunrise, as Baghdad’s inhabitants stood ready for the second phase of the protests that erupted on October 1.
Iraqis have been frustrated for a long time amid an ongoing lack of jobs and basic services, as well as rampant corruption. In the first phase of the protests, they stopped demanding reforms as they have done before and asked for a complete political change. That cost the lives of more than 150 people in less than a week. At least 23 more protesters were shot dead in a fresh wave of demonstrations on Friday, taking the death toll to 173 until this story was published.
A break in the protests followed the violence. Some felt intimidated by the brutality that the protesters faced, and some decided to wait for the government’s response while thousands of Shiite pilgrims walked to the shrine of Imam Hussain in Karbala on October 19.
Thousands of the protesters, from Baghdad to Basra, returned to the squares on Friday with new chants in addition to the ones demanding the overthrow of the government. “Where are the snipers? Where are the murderers? Where is the investigation? Where did the blood of the people who were killed go?”
They’re angry that no one was held responsible for the killing of the protesters. Instead, Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi promised that the violence wouldn’t be repeated as people started getting ready for the new protests. By midday, at least two people had been killed by what protesters say were tear gas canisters or live ammunition fired by security forces.
Protests turn deadly one more time
By midday, at least two protesters were killed and around 350 people wounded as Iraqi security forces determined to repel the crowd marching towards the Green Zone.
But the protesters say neither violence nor the arrests are intimidating them anymore.
“Now we've passed the fear,” Mosa Rahmatalla, a 28-year-old veterinarian from Baghdad told TRT World as he marched with others in Tahrir square.
“Anybody who speaks against the government or holds a meeting is arrested, even though there is no official order,” he says.
“During the period that we stopped protesting, we gave the government time to address our demands, but we’re now passed that too, we’re here to break the government and the parliament.”
Mahdi has introduced some reforms, but the protesters say they are in no way relevant to what they have been asking for. For them, these reforms became a justification for the violence in the renewed protests.
Iran-affiliated militias blamed
Despite the question of who is to blame remaining unanswered, amid increasing aggression against the protesters many directed their anger at Iran as much as Baghdad. Through its militias that backed the Iraqi army in the fight against Daesh, Tehran increased its influence in the country’s politics and army.
A video captured in Tahrir square showed a member of riot police breaking down in tears after witnessing the violence against the protesters, while the Green Zone security guards kept firing tear gas.
For Mahmad, a 30-year-old Iraqi army officer who attended the protests in Byblos as a civilian on Friday, he puts the blame on Iran-affiliated militias, Saraya al Khorasani specifically.
“It’s Iran-affiliated militias who are firing at the people,” he said, defending the army and the police. He says they never turned against the people.
“For Iran, it doesn’t matter if the protesters are Shia or Sunni, and the majority of the protesters are Shias,” he said.
But for Rahmatalla, the protester from Baghdad, the government is complicit in the crimes agaşnst the protesters and should be held accountable regardless of who pulled the trigger.
“The government says they don't know who's behind the protests but we all know that they know,” he said. “There’s an apparent internal disagreement within the government.”
‘Sadr is with us’
The first phase of the protests was largely organic, with no visible protest leader taking the lead. The government’s decision to sack the well-respected Shiite commander Abdul Wahab al Saadi, who has been seen as a symbol of the fight against the corruption and Daesh, became the main trigger.
The protests remained largely organic in the second phase too. But this time, some protesters were encouraged by Muqtada al Sadr, a firebrand cleric who rebranded himself as an anti-corruption and anti-sectarian leader during the country’s elections in 2018. Sadr, who almost emerged as the strongest figure in the elections, came out in support of the protesters and called for the renewal of the protests.
“It’s a very dangerous here in Tahrir square,” Haidar Obada, a 24-year-old local journalist from Baghdad told TRT World. “This is our breakfast today,” he jokingly said in a video showing a bag of empty tear gas canisters.
But he says it’s a relief to know that Sadr is backing the protesters and his militias, Saraya al-Salam, are there as well to defend people.
The country’s top cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, on the other hand, invited the protesters to calm down during his sermon on Friday. He previously criticised the government for its handling with the demonstrations.
*Additional reporting by Ala Azzam.