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In the last week, Iraqi security forces have established a curfew from midnight to 6am until further notice in response to the surge of anti-government protests. These protests and the violent response to them have broken the two-year streak of Iraq’s relative stability. Prior to these two years, Iraq had fallen to foreign occupation, internal conflict, and a rise in the Islamic State. The poverty that has consumed the lives of the people in Iraq during these times of conflict and still does today has become a main point on the protesters’ agenda. Al Jazeera reports that this oil-rich country still has nearly three-fifths of its 40-million people living on less than 6 dollars a day. This poverty is also apparent in the lack of resources available to the people, such as a lack of access to healthcare, education, and water.
The people of Iraq have been demanding change since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 and little has been done by the government to work towards improving the quality of life for their citizens. According to NPR, President Barham Salih has stated that he is going to step down and have an early election, whereas it is still unclear for how much longer Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi will have control in Iraq. Mahdi has made promises to introduce the reforms the protesters are asking for but there is a general distrust in those reaching fruition and a wanting away with his government. Specifically, the BBC reports that Mahdi “promised to carry out a cabinet reshuffle and cut the salaries of high-ranking officials. He also said he would allocate $66m ($51m) to support the unemployed, set up training programmes for youths, and build 100,000 homes in poor areas.” These promises are only the beginnings of what these protesters are fighting for.
The push for change came with the rise in influence of Iraq’s most powerful Shiite clerics, Muqtada al-Sadr. His agenda essentially demands the uprooting of the current political order and the re-establishment of the need for the people’s voice to be the momentum behind the government’s action. Sarah Madhi’s report to the Washington Post articulates the desire of the people well. She says, “our demands are clear: change the electoral law and hold a new election that allows us to elect the person we want, not a party that makes agreements behind closed doors to decide our future according to their own self-interest.” It is clear to see that a strong force is forming against the current political state of Iraq and the agenda of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi.
This force was strengthened drastically as Mahdi received the backing of some major political figures. The following day, rallies broke out across the country with cries of voices louder and stronger than before. Security forces in Iraq have been criticized for using excessive force to control these crowds. While any violence or act of harm should be considered inhumane, there were specific atrocious accounts of security forces spraying the protesters with scalding hot water, attempting to run them over with their vehicles, and using military-grade tear gas to control the crowd.
The rallies have attracted a wide variance of people from adults to students and their fervor is truly a force to be reckoned with. The students in universities around Iraq have been some of the most passionate leaders in this demand for change. Reuters includes a student witness that conveys well the spirit behind this movement: “we are here today for freedom, dignity, and a good life. We demand the fall of the regime, the suspension of the constitution, and an emergency government.” As this student articulates, the right to freedom, a recognition of dignity, and quality of life are the quintessential pillars of human rights. These students stand as leaders in their community for fighting for their rights and setting a precedent for future generations to follow. Another example from Reuters of one particularly courageous protester’s reaction to the ban is, “we will stay here until the last day, even if there are a thousand martyrs.” As this protester projects, the number of martyrs is nearer to a thousand than it should ever be. According to The Guardian, these fatalities have reached 256 since early October, and if something does not change soon, these numbers will only increase exponentially.
It is imperative that the voice of the people is heard and their needs be considered and put into action. Their act of protest is an empowered peace approach that both conveys their demands and the boldness with which they are willing to fight for their right to be heard and their rights to be recognized. The fervor of these people should implore the current administration to either be open to reconstruction of the political schema or commit themselves to serious reform within the current one. Both options come with risk to the people; the former runs the risk of instability and therefore a continued increase in violence, while the latter runs the risk of inaction and resuming the same oppressive system. Thus, Iraq is currently facing threats of not only current, but future instability—and the protests of these people need to be met with change by the government so that order and justice can ensue.