JANUARY 19th: Four more Iraqi protesters have died during the most recent round of anti-government protests in Baghdad. Iraqi security forces used teargas and live ammunition to calm down and end an increasingly vitriolic protest, killing four protesters and injuring dozens more, taking the total of those killed during the protests to nearly 500. Aljazeera reports that protests have been accelerating in the cities of Kut, Diwaniya and Amara, where there are prominent government buildings as well as in the capital Baghdad. This is the latest phase of four months of almost continuous demonstrations and protests in Iraq which began in October 2019 over what the protesters deemed to be corrupt and ineffective governance of the nation. Some protesters have called for the overthrow of the government and political system instituted after the U.S. led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Others have expressed their opposition to Iranian political influence in Iraq and threaten further escalation unless all their demands are met.
Analysts have criticised the fierceness of the response of the police towards protesters expressing their democratic right to protest. Toby Dodge, an expert on Iraqi politics at Chatham House said, “The coercive power of the state has been deployed to suppress valid political expression.” Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi resigned in November 2019 due to the fallout from the large scale protests, although he is currently acting as caretaker prime minister until a replacement is chosen. An advisor to the former Prime Minister, Laith Kubba, warned that the protests are forming an existential threat to the integrity of the nation and must be halted as soon as possible. It is clear that the Iraqi government is taking the protests very seriously, which in their view, justifies their harsh counter-measures.
The protests are multifaceted and although they were originally targeted at the policies of the Iraqi government, they have morphed into opposition towards the U.S. and Iranian political influence in the country. An eighteen-year-old protester, Mariam, said that she came to “protest against the U.S. being in our lands” whilst anti-Iranian chants were also heard at the march. This suggests that the latest bout of protests are inextricably linked to the U.S. targeted assassination of Qasem Soleimani, a major general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps on January 3rd. The assassination took place in Baghdad and Iran responded to this by shooting ballistic missiles at the U.S. Ayn al-Asad airbase in Western Iraq on January 8th. Many Iraqis are exasperated by the repeated violations of Iraqi sovereignty and the inability of the government to maintain control.
17 years since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the country remains unstable and without a functioning democracy, and it continues to be used as the chessboard for other countries to play their geopolitical battles on. The deep frustrations of ordinary Iraqis are understandable and the demands of the protesters are reasonable given the hardships the nation and her people have gone through. Thus the excessive violence of the security forces towards the protesters in recent days is reprehensible and only deepens the divisions in this already divided country. Iraqis deserve a competent and legitimate government that serves the interests and desires of its citizens rather than one that allows its police to fire on peaceful protesters. The events that have unfolded over the past few weeks including the recent deaths of four protesters have made this occurring in the new future ever more unlikely.
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