Iraqi protesters set fire to the entrance of the Hakim shrine—an incident that was cheered and filmed on mobile phones—in the southern holy city of Najaf on Saturday. In response, security forces fired tear gas to disperse the protestors, a move that is sure to lead to more bloodshed. Saturday’s incident is the latest in a flurry of protests and clashes that have been taking place across several cities in Iraq, including Nassiriya and Baghdad. Earlier in the week, protests set fire to the Iranian consulate in Najaf.
The violence—which has pitched mostly Shiite protesters against the Shiite-dominated government backed by Iran—has seen scores of people killed (an estimated 400 in total), with security forces using live ammunition, tear gas and stun grenades against protesters since the beginning of the demonstrations on 1 October. The growing casualties resulting from these confrontations with the security forces has prompted the International Committee of the Red Cross to release a statement stating that “firearms and live ammunition must only be used as a last resort”.
This all came a day after the country’s Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi announced that he was going to resign in order to stem the violence and public anger that has engulfed the country over the past two months. Mr. Mahdi did so after Iraq’s top Shi’ite Muslim cleric, Ali al-Sistani, criticized the government’s heavy-handed approach and urged parliament to withdraw its support to Mahdi’s government to prevent further deaths. Mahdi claims to have been swayed by these words. He stated that his resignation was in order to help the country “preserve the blood of its people, and avoid slipping into a cycle of violence, chaos and devastation”.
At the time of writing this piece, parliament has yet to make Mr. Madhi’s resignation official—something that shall be done via a vote in parliament (all within 15 days).
In the meantime, Mr. Mahdi will remain as prime minister in a caretaker capacity until a new government can be chosen during what promises to be a tense period of political wrangling in the weeks ahead. Historically, the process of picking a new prime minister has taken months, as different political factions try to balance power. It does not help that the constitution does not state how long Mahdi’s government can keep its caretaker status if the nomination of a new candidate is delayed.
More worrying still, is the fact that Mahdi’s announcement has done little to change the mood among most protesters, who are demanding the overhaul of the current political system. The specific changes that they are calling for include measures to tackle corruption, address Iraq’s high unemployment rate, and end foreign interference—mainly from Iran. Another major demand is to get rid of the political establishment, which has been blamed for its role in the bloodshed (as a result of the violence meted out to protesters).
Of the above-mentioned factors behind the protests, the issue that seems to have triggered the protesters is Iran’s influence in Iraqi politics. That’s because in recent years, especially after the successful fight against ISIL, Iran has played a significant role in Baghdad and its local political scene. In other words, a lot of the country’s ills are viewed as an extension of that foreign influence.
And it was not until the recent and detailed reporting by the New York Times and the Intercept, that the casual observer of Iraqi affairs became aware of the extent of Iran’s ties with the current prime minister (and the political establishment as a whole). These ties are believed to have led to the popular counter-terrorism chief Abdulwahab al-Saadi, who despite his role in helping defeat ISIS, being sidelined because he worked closely with the US—a fact that is said to have infuriated Iran, whose powerful head of the Iranian Quds forces, Qassem Suleimani, has been a central figure in the crackdown. However, the violence dished out to civilians does not appear to have diminished the protestors’ resolve, since some of them have now turned their anger toward official Iranian facilities (as demonstrated by last week’s firebombing of the Iranian consulate in Najaf and the attempt to scale the concrete barriers of the Iranian consulate in Karbala).
Presently, there is no guarantee that the protesters’ actions will not escalate and lead to further bloodshed. Nor is it safe to assume that the government, which is engaged in a period of transition, will carry out the necessary steps to address the core issues that have angered the protesters and that have led to the period of turmoil that threatens to plunge the country into total chaos-after what had recently appeared to have been a period of relative tranquillity following ISIL’s reign of terror in parts of the country, and the turbulent decade post-Saddam.
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