Following a surge in targeted killings of prominent activists and journalists, hundreds of Iraqis took to the streets of Baghdad on May 25th to demand accountability and justice for the victims of targeted assassinations, shouting “who killed me?” and waving the portraits of victims in a plea to identify the perpetrators who are going unpunished. Security forces, however, met protesters with brutality, killing one person and injuring many more.
The political upheaval that has resulted in ongoing protests began in October 2019, when people took to the streets of Baghdad to express their outrage over the country’s massive unemployment, inadequate public services, and foreign intervention. However, when security forces responded with heavy-handed tactics, killing hundreds of unarmed protesters, the demonstrations quickly evolved into calls for accountability, demanding the removal of Iraq’s ruling elite, who have been blamed for the country’s problems.
While there have been protests against the government in the past, they have not culminated in a sustained protest movement, especially one led by Iraqi youth. The 2019 demonstrations have been described as a “wake-up” call for all Iraqis, who stand united in their discontent and intolerance with economic stagnation and Iran’s growing influence. The nationwide social uprising in 2019 was sparked when Ph.D. and Master’s students began protesting outside Baghdad’s ministry buildings against unemployment, which the UN estimates is at a high 30 percent, as well as a lack of job opportunities post graduation. Following this peaceful protest, a video of protesters being dispersed by water cannons drew widespread attention and outrage. However, due to the government’s heavy-handed response and the coronavirus outbreak, the movement had dwindled by February of last year.
These socioeconomic grievances, however, have evolved into a broader movement against political corruption, with demonstrators demanding a complete overhaul of the country’s political system, which has been in place since the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. Fanar Haddad, Senior Researcher at Singapore University, describes the situation in Iraq as a “culmination of years of anger and frustration,” as well as a “raw expression of rejection of the political system that has failed Iraq for nearly 16 years.” According to Vox, the Iraqi government’s incompetence and lack of accountability has increased Iraqis’ animosity towards Iran, which they believe exerts disproportionate influence over Iraq’s politicians and domestic affairs. In this sense, Iran is seen as defending and supporting the status quo, which ultimately serves Iranian interests rather than Iraqi citizens.
Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi resigned about two months after the demonstrations began, with Mustafa al-Kadhimi taking his place in May 2020. Given that the majority of demonstrators are dissatisfied with the country’s governance system, Adel Abdul Mahdi’s resignation did little to ease tensions, especially when protesters continue to express their disdain for the country’s current constitution and electoral process, which many argue allows for a climate of impunity to prevail. In fact, following Mahdi’s ouster, Kadhimi’s failure to prosecute those responsible for the killings of protesters and activists, as promised, led to the most recent uprising in Karbala.
Ihab Jawad al-Wazni, a prominent anti-government activist, is one of 35 activists killed since the country’s anti-government protest movement began in October 2019. Indeed, activists and journalists have been specifically targeted in a campaign to silence prominent voices and demands for political reform, with experts and protesters accusing Iran-linked militias of the killings. The High Commission for Human Rights also estimates that up to 600 protesters have been killed, with no identified perpetrators or convictions to date, leaving the country with a significant accountability deficit.
The parliamentary elections scheduled for October 2021 have further complicated matters, with many expressing their refusal to participate. Protesters initially demanded that Kadhimi hold early elections, but as public distrust deepens and the death toll from targeted killings climbs, many are calling for a boycott, with protesters like Deena al-Tai stating that “as long as there are armed militias connected to the [political] parties and who kill the opposition, we cannot say it’s a legitimate process.” Thus, without any hope for accountability, the unrelenting insecurity afflicting the people of Iraq, particularly its youth, will stymie any chances for long-term stability, trust, and prosperity.
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