In Iraq, protesters have long been demanding reforms. But this time, they want to take the government down, and they don’t need a protest leader to mobilise.
Iraqis are angry. The black smoke from burnt tires rises in the streets of the capital Baghdad as the protesters, mostly young people, keep chanting even as the police fire live ammunition at them.
“The people want to overthrow the system” and “Baghdad is free, Iran out” were the chants in the capital and other provinces including Nassiriya, Diwaniya, Amara, and Najaf.
This is not the first time Iraqis have protested the lack of services, corruption or unemployment in the country. What’s different this time is that they say they have no faith that the government is willing to improve anything.
For them, the removal of a well-respected Lieutenant General, Abdul Wahab al Saadi, who has been at the forefront of the fight against Daesh and fight against corruption, embodies the hopelessness people feel.
Mohammed Ali Alwan is a 30-year-old protester working as an engineer in Baghdad and feels that Saadi has been treated unfairly.
“Our anger is because they removed Abdul Wahab al Saadi, a person who sacrificed many things for Iraqis and liberated Mosul from Daesh - the government must honour him instead, not punish his service,” Alwan said in an interview over the phone.
“The demonstrations will continue until the fall of the government,” Alwan added.
“There is rampant corruption in the government causing the lack of services, unemployment and basic needs. These thieves robbed our homeland, and we want Iraq [back] again.”
In Iraq, 40 percent of the population is under 14 and youth unemployment is around 40 percent. So it is no surprise that most of the protesters are young people, both Shia and Sunni, but with a heavier Shia presence.
Sectarianism has been a driving force in Iraqi politics for years, but especially so after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, when a quota system based on sectarian and ethnic divisions was adopted in the parliament.
Divisive sectarian policies from the government polarised Iraqis during a chaotic time in the country which in turn helped Daesh exploit the marginalisation of young men, growing the group’s numbers.
At the same time, Moqtada al Sadr—once a sectarian-cleric who rebranded himself as an opponent of the established sectarian system and supporter of the underprivileged—garnered support by riding the wave of protests against the government in 2015 and in the coming years. He later became the most influential name in the country’s elections in 2018, the first election after the defeat of Daesh.
Iraqis now seemed to have moved on from the dominating paradigm of sectarianism or Sadr.
“We’re not Sadrists or Sistanist or Sunni or Shiite. We are Iraqis. Why do you fire at us? I make $8 a day, we want to live!” one young protester said on camera.
For Fanar Haddad, Senior Research Fellow for the Middle East Institute, what is significantly different about these protests is that they aren’t spearheaded by the Sadrist movement.
“This challenges the assumption that the Sadrists are needed for real street mobilisation,” he told TRT World.
After the 2018 elections, Sadr faced challenges in keeping promises he made during the campaign. This time around, his support only popped up once protesters spontaneously mobilised, mainly through social media.
“These protests are different to previous episodes in that, firstly, it is unclear who the leaders are or indeed if there are leaders at all. No organised political movements have taken part,” Haddad explained.
“Secondly, the protests seem to be aimed at the political order in its entirety rather at specific issues. It will be difficult for any of the political parties to hijack these protests as has happened in the past,” he added.
‘Same motives, different trigger’
Iraq’s leaders have struggled to appease protesters, they’ve tried to speak their language and connect with them, but at the same they are trying to suppress them by force.
President Barham Salih said the protests are a legitimate right, while Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi blamed ‘violent’ protesters for the casualties - more than 100 people* have been killed in six days of protests. Tear gas, water cannons, rubber bullets and live ammunition have all been reportedly used to quell the protests.
On the second day of protests a curfew and a near-complete internet blackout followed. Demonstrators, however, showed no sign of withdrawing as they attempted to move forward to the airport and the bridge over the Tigris connecting the Green Zone, which was later sealed by security forces.
Ahmet Tabaqchali, Non-resident Fellow at IRIS Middle East told TRT World that the current anger of the protesters is the result of a huge growing disconnect between the political elites and the population.
“The triggers are different, but the real reasons are the same,” Tabaqchali said.
For him, the reason why Saadi’s removal became the trigger has exactly the same grounds: corruption.
“He was sidelined because he was effectively fighting corruption,” he said.
“He almost became like a hero in the liberation of Mosul from ISIS [Daesh] but also we keep hearing that he was also heavy-handed on corruption in forces, especially in Kirkuk.”
The protests also came amid tensions between the US and Iran in Iraq, as Baghdad became the centre of a tug of war between its allies. The US has long been putting pressure on Iraq to take steps to curb Iranian influence in the country and recently demanded Iran-backed militias, Hashd al Shaabi, to be cleared from Iraq.
Some protesters hold Iran’s influence in the country responsible for the country’s problems, and more recently, removal of Saadi. The general has been widely seen the US’s hand in the military, as he was trained in the US and rejects Iranian influence as a Shia himself.
Iran cemented its influence in the country through its military and trade, particularly after it helped the weak Iraqi army territorially defeat Daesh with the help of its Hashd al Shaabi militia. The militia was later fully integrated into the Iraqi army.
The resentment against Iran has been simmering for some time now and last year protesters in Basra set the Iranian consulate ablaze and attacked political parties associated with Iran. Tehran, on the other hand, blames the US and Israel for the unrest.
“In people's minds, Iran is what kept these corrupted parties and [inaudible] or administers in power,” Tabaqchali explained.
“Iran was blamed last year for these militia parties because its ministries are behind the militias who are behind the corruption - that’s the strong perception.”
*Editor's Note: The death toll has been updated in the article to reflect the most recent casualty count.