Since October 1st the death toll of protesters in Iraq has risen to an estimated 300 people over the past few weeks, and continues to rise. In addition to 300 casualties, over 15,000 people have been injured as a result of the relentless and violent attacks from the Iraqi security force in attempts to disperse the vast crowds of protesters. The violent repression has been concentrated in Tahrir Square in Baghdad, but has also dispersed throughout the southern and central provinces. The violent reactions levelled against protesters have caught the attention of a number of United Nations human rights experts. In addition, on Saturday November 9th, Amnesty International made a statement calling the events in Iraq a “bloodbath” and calling upon the Iraqi governments to cease violence towards protesters in Baghdad. The prominence of indiscriminate attacks using tear gas, live ammunition, and stun grenades have transformed all potential for peaceful protest into violent catastrophe.
Those carrying out the violence are members of the government’s security services composed of the factions from the government alliance created in 2018, most notable the paramilitary group Hashd al-Shaabi. The protests represent are due to widespread discontent towards the incumbent Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, particularly with nepotism and corruption in the government, and the economic misfortune which has accompanied his time in office. Protesters have voiced concern over the high level of unemployment and low levels of public services. Another significant concern regards Iranian involvement in the Abdul-Mahdi government.
The events over the past couple of weeks in Iraq are being compared to unrest following the American-led invasion to overthrow Prime Minister Saddam Hussein in 2003. The protests come as no surprise, as tensions, especially amongst the younger population, have been rising for over a year. As Iraq is one of the most youthful countries in the world, with a median age of 20.2 years, the young population is an essential aspect of the protest. The youth population has been exceptionally vulnerable to the demise of the Iraqi economy over the past months, with the diminishing quality of education and the depleting job market. Female activists also took to the streets of Baghdad in hopes of a future which was not ridden with corruption and inequality.
Thus the protest itself remains a collective movement amongst a diverse range of people, advocating the end of a 16 year political system. The mobilization is grounded in demands for constitutional amendments and government reform to remedy the current system. Although Abdul-Mahdi has refused to step down in the wake of the widespread unrest, he has committed to the roll out of economic welfare benefits that have yet to arrive. As change appears to be at a standstill, the violence continues throughout Iraq, threatening the lives of thousands.
In light of the simultaneous protests in Lebanon protests and the subsequent resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, it is evident that change is on the horizon in the Middle East. Such change must be intensely watched by the international community in order to ensure accountability for the violence in which security forces have levelled against the protesters. In the case of Iraq, this means member states of the United Nations putting increased pressure on Iran in order to put a halt to the Hashd al-Shaabi, and its subsidiaries.