THE STORIES BEHIND THE HEADLINES

Abu Dhabi

London

New York

Wed, 22 Jan 2020 20:59 GMT

Iraq in the Balance

Politics

James Watt

Tue, 19 Nov 2019 18:04 GMT

The protests in Iraq continue against the corrupt and paralysed political system. They began spontaneously on 1 October from anger at the chronic failure of successive governments to deliver basic public services, at a time when Iraq's oil revenues have long recovered from the effects of the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein and subsequent conflicts. Popular fury was also directed at the corrupt, self-enriching networks established by the political class, and at the role Iran was seen to be playing in sabotaging the country's independent political development. The protestors' demands soon expanded to include the resignation of all current politicians, and the creation of a new constitutional order firmly based on social justice and respect for the equal rights of all citizens. The response from the political class so far has failed to persuade the protestors that they have got the message: that this is real, this is serious.   

Just as in Lebanon, where similar protests erupted on 16 October and continue, the mostly young demonstrators have occupied a central location in the capital. Tahrir Square in Baghdad carries memories of the toppling of the huge statue of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Rather ominously, its name echoes Cairo's Tahrir Square, where similar scenes of joyful and peaceful revolt in January 2011 turned later into a bloodbath, and the ruin of a generation's hopes of freedom and a new beginning. The crowds in Baghdad as in Lebanon have adopted the national flag as their symbol, avoiding the flags or symbols of sects or parties. Everything in the festive and peaceful atmosphere they have created proclaims their rejection of sectarianism: the labelling of citizens by religious sect, and the division of government power on the same basis, which has proved a disastrous formula for democratic government. When it was introduced in the wake of the overthrow of the dictatorship it seemed to some to be a pragmatic formula, reflecting the communal and ideological realities of Iraqi society. Others warned against it, pointing to the grief that such a formula has brought Lebanon. The warnings have been shown to be amply justified. It opens the way to corrupt manipulation of a system that is almost guaranteed never to respond to the needs and wishes of the ordinary citizen. It also hands a veto control, in both countries, to elements directed by Iran and serving Iranian strategic power-plays, to the detriment of national interests.  

The parallel with Lebanon cannot be taken much further, though. Iraq is a much larger country, and less well supported by a wealthy and influential diaspora. The protests from the start brought out disadvantaged young people from the poor Eastern quarters of Baghdad, whose demands were all the more urgent and more related to their desperate economic situation. The same was happening in the major southern city of Kerbala. It should be said, though, that many parts of Iraq remain untouched by the protest movement. Najaf is reported to be defiant but peaceful. Students and the impoverished middle class are also supporting the protests, but there is more of a sans-culottes and revolutionary feel to the developments in Iraq than there is in Lebanon. The security forces in Baghdad have chosen to use ruthless violence to prevent the protestors forcing their way across a key bridge to enter the Green Zone, the heavily fortified area housing government buildings and foreign embassies. Their intention seems to be to confine the protestors to a shrinking space centred on Tahrir Square. At least 320 people have been killed by live fire since the start of the protests, and 15,000 wounded. These are shocking figures in themselves. They are set to rise as the government appears set on crushing the uprising by force, hoping the outside world will grow tired of the story and turn a blind eye. This is unlikely to happen, as so much of the region's peace and stability depends on Iraq finding its own equilibrium, and its own formula for justice and sustainable prosperity for all its citizens. We owe it to the people of Iraq to back their struggle.  

The future in both Iraq and Lebanon remains uncertain. In Baghdad, the police and army are not permitted by their commanders to carry their weapons. They look on helplessly as black-clad, anonymised security shock troops shoot the unarmed protestors. Who exactly is accountable for these killings? What does it tell us that the authorities do not trust the police and army not to side with their fellow-citizens? What is happening in the senior ranks? In Lebanon the police and army have their weapons, and have refused to turn them on the protestors, despite being under pressure to do so from parts of the corrupt and cynical hierarchy clinging to its power. In Beirut there have been incidents designed to trigger violence as a pretext for crushing the protests, but they have got nowhere. In Baghdad things are nearer to the brink, not least because terrorist elements will seek to sow chaos. The car bomb in central Baghdad on 14 November was the first since the protests began on 1 October. No one has claimed responsibility, but whether it was a terrorist attack, or a fake one to be used as a pretext for more violence by the authorities, the prospects for a peaceful outcome look increasingly threatened.   

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of 7Dnews.

Middle East