Amidst growing tensions between its allies Iran and the U.S., Iraq is facing its own set of challenges and controversies within its borders. What started as a demonstration against the dismissal of Lt. Gen. Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi, who contributed significantly in Iraq’s battle against ISIS, turned into protests calling for government reform to battle unemployment, poor public services, and corruption. Saadi’s dismissal likely came from the combination of growing suspicions of his close relationship with the U.S., and from Iranian pressure as the US-Iran relationship becomes increasingly strained.
The heavy-handed suppression tactics led to over 100 deaths and 6,000 injured. Throughout the week, protests were seen around Baghdad and in southern cities, with security forces responding with water cannons, tear gas, rubber bullets, and live rounds, despite the demonstrators being unarmed.
While the emergency parliamentary session to develop a 13-point plan to address the concerns of the Iraqi public was an appropriate first step, more is needed. Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s reforms focusing on housing and employment initiatives were posted on his social media, yet many Iraqis continue to be under an internet blackout. Despite his insistence that everything has “returned to normal”, many hospitals “are struggling to cope with medicines and blood supplies are running low”, reports Al Jazeera’s Khan. The two-day curfew, which was lifted last Saturday, also left rising food and fuel prices, according to the Iraqi Human Rights Commission.
Between the social media blackout, the curfew, and the emergency parliament session, all of Mahdi’s efforts to return the calm fail to acknowledge the blatant disregard for life shown this past week. Iraq’s military admitted that it had used “excessive force” against demonstrators. However, Mahdi’s replacement of security forces with police units, and his investigation into the incident seems more like a clean-up than a forceful condemnation. This is especially as he “insisted [that] security forces had been acting ‘within international standards’ in dealing with the demonstrations”, according to Al Jazeera. It is absolutely necessary that those responsible for the protester deaths be held accountable, in addition to government reforms. Iraq’s top Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani demanded “that the government investigate to find out which elements gave orders to shoot protestors, whatever their affiliation”. Legitimate peace cannot function without transparency and accountability –something that is currently lacking under the blackout and distrust, following the disproportionate use of force.
These recent protests are some of the largest Iraq has seen, after a period of relative peace. Iraq has suffered 16 years of destabilizing events since the US-Iraq war, the atrocities at Abu Ghraib, and a long battle against ISIS to reclaim lost territory. As a result, Iraq’s economy has suffered significantly. However, the spread of demonstrations from Saadi’s dismissal to a general critique of the government’s failures highlights a deeper, resounding problem that is worsened by foreign intervention.
Time reports that despite the internet blockade, Saudi Arabia managed to “use social media platforms to perpetuate violent protests in Iraq,” in hopes of toppling a government that Saudi Arabia perceives as pro-Iranian. As conflicts escalate between the U.S. and Iran, and as their allies are dragged in, there is a high likelihood that the barely stabilized Iraq will suffer from the aftermath. Iraq’s already comprised stability is also sure to suffer an additional blow following Trump’s recent decision to withdraw forces from Syria.
Iraq is stuck between two of its allies, has Saudi Arabia intervening to increase dissent, and now potentially faces security concerns at its border with Syria. Tahsin al-Khafaji, an Iraqi Defense Ministry spokesman, tells Al-Monitor, “The US decision definitely will impact our security and Iraqi-Syrian border security”, despite a well-rounded coalition developing to prevent terrorist groups from forming and strengthening in the wake of these conflicts.
The Iraqi government needs to actively ensure that its 13-point plan provides legitimate socio-economic reform and stability to combat the increasing tensions within its borders and in neighbouring countries. Improved living conditions prevent internal tension and conflicts, but if the Iraqi people do not see a significant movement towards change, then grievances may escalate once again. Iraq’s government needs to ensure that its borders are protected and that potential terrorist movements are quickly snuffed out. On the international front, the U.S. withdrawal from Syria should have never happened, as it leaves space for groups to take advantage of a vulnerable and volatile moment.
Maintaining peace following a week of violence and bloodshed is necessary for the Iraqi government in order to protect its long-term stability. As the Middle East is thrust into another wave of conflict, Iraq needs consistency and security to ensure that it is not further destabilized by regional antagonisms.
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