Excessive Force Becoming The Norm On Both Sides Of Iraqi Protests

Iraq is no stranger to protests. Specifically, in recent months, anti-government protests have been gaining momentum all throughout the country. The people of Iraq are tired of waiting on their government to enact on promised reforms and free and fair elections. Since the beginning of the protests, hundreds have been killed and exponentially more have been seriously wounded. These protests slowed for a moment when Iran-U.S. tensions catalyzed military strikes in Iraq. With that being said, the protests are back and appear to have lost little-to-no steam. On Monday, January 23, 2020, five protesters were killed by Iraqi security forces. These deaths took place in Baghdad, Karbala, and Baqubah, with at least of them being the result of the use of live ammunition against crowds. In the days prior to the previously mentioned deaths, dozens of protesters were wounded as Iraqi security forces used tear gas and excessive physical violence against protesters. These are merely two examples of countless acts of excessive force on the side of the Iraqi government. However, it is not only the Iraqi security forces who are using violence. In most cases, protesters are not following the guidelines of peaceful civil disobedience. They are charging are officers and, oftentimes, groups will find large objects (rocks, debris, etc.) to throw at security officials. The use of, apparently reckless, violence on both sides of the Iraqi protests is leading to increased tensions; in fact, it is counterproductive to the movement as it is not allowing anyone’s true voice to be heard.

An Iraqi protester, who spoke with Aljazeera, was quoted saying, “We demand the central government go to early elections and the nomination of a new independent prime minister. If that doesn’t happen, we will escalate and block all the highways and centres of the city.” Each side is putting the blame of initiating violence on the other, as seen by the following statement of the Baghdad Operations Command Center. They initially stated that protesters attacked officers, but “Despite these actions, our forces continued to exercise restraint and follow up on the security duties assigned to them.” A protest organizer, Ahmed, claimed: “We are scared of one side trying to start a fight with the other side, for our part we are staying calm and focusing on our goals.” Neither side is currently admitting to their own faults in order to move forward in a productive manner. In an interview with Aljazeera, a medic gave his account of one particular protest in Baghdad. “We went to Tayaran Square in Baghdad. People wanted me to help them, I was also attacked by tear gas. I fell down as the security forces were using tear gas and live ammunition.” In an official UN statement, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert stood up for the people of Iraq. “Any steps taken so far to address the people’s concerns will remain hollow if they are not completed, [the] violent suppression of peaceful protesters is intolerable and must be avoided at all costs.”

It is clear that something must change regarding the Iraqi protests. With that being said, an idealist/Gandhian reformation of these protests is not realistic. The extreme levels of distrust and hate of both sides puts decision-makers in a very difficult situation. When this is then combined with the extreme instability and unpredictability of the region and government, it becomes clear that reaching a consensus will most likely require outside help. A key first step would be to have UN peacekeepers in place in order to provide a higher authority on both Iraqi security forces and protesters. Another way to possibly reduce violence in these protests would be for the UN and/or various other IGO’s to orchestrate (and monitor) regular meetings between protest leaders and Iraqi security officials. These meetings could serve as a space for the two to work together towards ensuring the safety of officers and protesters alike. The protests will not stop until there is governmental reform and the use of security forces will not stop as long as there are protests. So, until there is reform, each side must understand that the other will be there, there has already been far too much bloodshed for these protests to continue going as they have been. While the people do deserve governmental reform and free and fair elections, it is doubtful that this will happen until tensions within the region de-escalate. With that being said, the international community must work to reverse the tragic trend of violence on both sides of these Iraqi protests.

The future of Iraq will become much more evident in the coming months. There are many variables playing into said future all at once, and it is nearly impossible to know where they will all go next. With that being said, if the international community is able to step in and successfully promote peaceful protests (on both sides) then the Iraqi government may be in a good position to move towards a more peaceful and democratic future. However, stability must be fostered in the region and anti-corruption initiatives must be implemented in order for this shift to be effective.

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