By Ahmad Rafat
Anti-government protests that began on October 1 in the central and southern provinces of Iraq have turned more violent in recent days. There have been fierce clashes between rioters and security forces in the capital Baghdad and other cities around the country. According to unconfirmed reports, nearly 300 people have died during the protests, which have been nicknamed the Tishreen Revolution, and the 2019 Iraqi Intifada.
Tens of thousands of people recently marched on the Republic Bridge and on Liberation Square in the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, where government buildings and foreign embassies are located. The protesters called for a complete overhaul of the Iraqi Constitution, free elections, and the removal of officials who came to power after the fall of Saddam Hussain and his Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party in 2003.
Marchers also demanded that Iran and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Qods Force (IRGC-QF), which Iraqis have dubbed as the “Mother of All Corruptions,” to stop meddling in their country’s domestic affairs.
Asil, a Shia Iraqi whose real name we cannot disclose for safety and security reasons, worked as a translator with the writer of this article in Baghdad immediately after the fall of Saddam Hussain’s regime in 2003. Nowadays, she must conceal her identity, mostly when reporting on events. As with many of her colleagues, she has received several death threats.
Asil has been staying with friends and colleagues for the past two weeks.
“Do foreign journalists ever wonder why the protesters have not been calling for the government and [Prime Minister] Adil Abdul-Mahdi to resign?” Asil asked rhetorically during a phone conversation with Kayhan Life. “Because the problem does not stem from a single government or one person. If Adil Abdul-Mahdi leaves, another corrupt person will replace him. Nothing changed when [former Prime Minister] Nouri al-Maliki left office [in 2014]. The problem is the pro-Iranian politicians, officials, and parties in Iraq.”
In its 2019 report, Transparency International, a Berlin-based non-government global coalition against corruption, ranks Iraq among the top 15 most corrupt countries in the world. Despite being the fifth-largest exporter of crude oil in the world, Iraq has inflation and unemployment rates of 40 percent and 20 percent, respectively. People live with chronic water and power shortages. Lack of safety and security is the primary concern in the country.
One-third of all Iraqis live under the poverty line.
“The protesters in Baghdad initially contacted each other and organized the marches on Facebook,” Asil noted. “Initially, they were demanding jobs, electricity, water, and security. However, after a few days, the protests morphed into a political struggle. People realized that they would achieve none of their objectives without a fundamental political change in the country.”
According to Asil, people were chanting “Everyone is Corrupt” at the most recent protests.
“We celebrated the overthrow of Saddam Hussain 15 years ago. We were hoping to achieve a basic democracy in the country,” Asil said. “Our dream turned into a new nightmare after only two years. We escaped Saddam but fell victim to the Islamic Republic. The Kurds live in a relatively better condition than the rest of the country. However, Iraqis in the central parts and those living in the southern regions have, respectively, suffered under ISIS and Islamic Republic rule.”
“Iraqis are fed up and want to regain control over their country and destiny. People do not want ISIS’s Sunni caliphate or the Islamic Republic’s Shia state to rule their country. We do not want to be identified as Shia or Sunni, but only as Iraqis,” Asil explained. “Recent protests have shown that we have moved beyond religious and ethnic labels and come together to reclaim our country.”
Footage posted on social media shows protesters in Baghdad and other cities chanting “Sunnis and Shiites: we are all Iraqis.”
“No political party or religious leader has urged the protesters to pour into the streets. Some 300 people have died so far to end this government,” Asil added. “The reason we have seen no protests in the Sunni enclaves is that people fear that if they march, then the entire movement would be branded as being pro-ISIS or pro-Saddam.”
The commander of Iran’s IRGC-QF Major-General Ghasem Soleimani reportedly told a group of Iraqi intelligence and security officers recently that Iranian forces knew how to deal with protesters in Iraq because they had extensive experience in crowd management and controlling civil unrest.
General Soleimani was undoubtedly referring to the Iranian anti-riot police, the Basijis (volunteer forces) and plainclothes security agents, who have been arresting, attacking, brutalizing, and shooting protesters in the massive protests that started in northeastern Iran in December 2017 and quickly spread to other parts of the country.
“The Islamic Republic considers Iraq as its outpost, why else should Ghasem Soleimani chair a meeting of Iraqi senior security officials?” Asil pointed out. “Why should Soleimani stop Adil Abdul-Mahdi from leaving his post and overrule Iraqi President Bahram Saleh, who had asked for the prime minister’s resignation?”
Asil asked: “Why would [Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah] Ali Khamenei say that people who protest against their government are agents of foreign powers? Does he mean that hundreds of thousands of Iraqis are on the payroll of foreign governments? The question is, what has the Iraqi government, which is a puppet of the Islamic Republic has done to prompt hundreds of thousands of people of different ages and walks of life to protest in the streets?”
“Iraqi Shia leaders with close ties to the Islamic Republic warn us that the country may end up like Syria,” Asil explained. “We already live like Syrian people. Daesh occupied half of our country for a few years. More than one million Iraqis have died in the last 15 years. There is a severe shortage of water and electricity, forcing many people to leave their homes in smaller towns and villages. Moreover, no one is held accountable.”
“A report by the committee investigating the death toll at recent demonstrations concluded that police and security agents had used excessive force against the protesters,” Asil noted. “The report did not, however, mention anything about the IRGC-sponsored Shia militias and the Popular Mobilization Forces of Iraq, who brutalized the protesters and opened fire on the crowd. It also said nothing about snipers, some of whom admitted to being Iranian nationals after the protesters captured them.”
Asil pointed out: “Saddam was sentenced to death for killing 128 people in Dejail, 65 kilometers north of Baghdad, in 1982. The current Iraqi government has killed 300 people, and the number is rising daily. There are reports that the Islamic Republic military units entered Iraq at Diyala border area, in eastern Iraq, on November 2. They will reportedly be stationed in Karbala, Basra, and the port city of Um Qasr in southern Iraq. If the reports are correct, we will see more Iraqi citizens die at the hands of Iranian military and IRGC-backed militias.”
Asil also mentioned a video posted on social media which allegedly shows an Iraqi military officer in the outskirt of Karbala speaking to his base command on two-way radio. The officer could allegedly be heard saying that Iranian-backed forces were shooting at protesters. The official and semi-official sources in Iraq have neither verified nor disputed the authenticity of the video footage.
[Translated from Persian by Fardine Hamidi]