Bottom Line Up Front
- Since the protests began in October, security forces have killed more than 319 and injured as many as 15,000 civilians.
- In a tactic common to governments attempting to attenuate the momentum of the protests, the internet and access to social media has been shut down or blocked intermittently.
- There are legitimate fears that the protests could be hijacked by groups attempting to capitalize upon the chaos by pursuing sectarian agendas.
- As has occurred with other protest movements worldwide, progress occurs in fits and starts, with momentum easily reversible and subject to being rolled back by entrenched power structures.
Iraqi security forces have continued to open fire on protesters with live ammunition, rubber bullets and cannisters of tear gas in a brutal display of excessive force. Since the protests began in October, security forces have killed more than 319 and injured as many as 15,000 civilians. Protesters are demanding reforms that extend to constitutional amendments while highlighting the need to move away from the current patronage-based model of governance, which excludes significant segments of the Iraqi population. Even though the protests were catalyzed by anger over widespread government corruption and general ineptitude, they have grown to include a broader swath of grievances, such as high youth unemployment, and a backlash against increasing Iranian influence in Iraq. Amid widespread unpopularity, Tehran has lent political support to embattled Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi. Demonstrators are demanding early elections and calling for the government to resign.
In the past week, protesters seized three bridges in central Baghdad, holding them as focal points of the spreading demonstrations, which have spread throughout the country and increased in intensity. Elsewhere in the country, protesters have disrupted the port at Um Qasr, where significant amounts of Iraq’s crude oil is shipped from. Tahrir Square in Baghdad remains the protests’ center of gravity and rallying point for demonstrators, though on Monday protests took place in Najaf, Karbala, Hilla, and Kut as well. In a tactic common to governments attempting to attenuate the momentum of the protests, the internet and access to social media has been shut down or blocked intermittently. By denying civilians access to the internet, governments seek to disrupt civil society and any tools that protesters can use to organize, coordinate, and document the range of violent offenses committed by the security forces. The Iraqi government has also implemented curfews and set up roadblocks throughout the country in an attempt to clamp down on protesters’ freedom of movement.
Throughout southern Iraq, including in Basra — a stronghold of political power for influential cleric Moqtada al-Sadr — security forces clashed with protesters near government buildings. The city of Karbala also witnessed fierce clashes between protesters and the security forces. The Iraqi government is pursuing a draconian approach that has led to the arrest of hundreds of protesters. The heavy hand is an attempt to silence the protests and intimidate civilians and civil society. There are legitimate fears that the protests could be hijacked by so-called ‘spoilers,’ or groups who attempt to capitalize upon the spreading chaos by pursuing sectarian or other narrow agendas. Another potential threat looming in the background is the reemergence of the so-called Islamic State, which will seek to exploit current unrest for its own advantage as the militants work to regroup in the aftermath of the death of longtime leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Over the weekend, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) called for the release of any demonstrators being detained and also put forth a roadmap outlining a way out of the current political morass. In the proposal, UNAMI highlighted a series of anti-corruption initiatives and electoral reform procedures. But any progress will have to be uniquely Iraqi in nature if it is to succeed, with true power sharing emanating from some of the marginalized factions in the country. As has occurred with other protest movements worldwide, including Sudan, Algeria, Lebanon, and elsewhere, progress is slow and can occur in fits and starts, with momentum easily reversible and subject to being rolled back by entrenched power structures dominated by longtime political elites.