Demonstrators in Baghdad’s al-Tahrir Square

By Farah Alrajeh

Academic and PhD researcher in Iraqi Literature,
Sussex University

Iraqis around the world are accusing the Baghdad government of crimes against humanity in a brutal crackdown against opponents. Some 300 people have been killed since demonstrations against the Abdul Mahdi regime began in early October. Iraqis are appealing to the United Nations and international courts to hold their government responsible for gunning down protesters with live bullets and tear gas canisters.

Videos, photographs and eye witness accounts of the regime’s atrocities abound on social media, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq,  Reuters, Associated Press, the Guardian, BBC, Jadaliyya, Al Jazeera and other news media. Amnesty International published a shocking report on 31 October documenting fatalities from tear gas grenades. Several vigils have been held in London’s Trafalgar Square.

The Iraqi state is using aggressive power including firing tear gas canisters directly at people’s heads and bodies, persecution, imprisonment, torture, and kidnapping of male and female protesters, with activists receiving death threats.  Police and security vehicles are being driven deliberately into groups of protesters to maim and kill. In addition to those killed, another 12,000 have been injured.

People of many different faiths and none, Muslims and Christians as well as different religious branches or sects, such as Sunnis and Shi’a, have united in mass actions against the corrupt regime and their demands are similar.  Large numbers of women – young and old – have been prominent on the streets, confronting the military.

 “In Iraq and Lebanon society is rebelling against an entire political class that, while ostensibly sharing power on a multi-sectarian basis, is actually looting state resources and failing to provide the most basic services”, as David Gardner of The Financial Times has noted.

Iraqis, young and old share the widespread anger with the regime’s poor governance and its failure to deal with political and economic crises. People want public services, jobs, and a revival  of infrastructure development. They are discontent with the power given to militias and Iranian interference in Iraq’s affairs and their control over decision-making in the political system.

The majority of the demonstrators are teenagers seeking a better future and jobs. However, people of different ages and social backgrounds have joined the demonstrations, raising similar demands with the youth. The protest began when groups of people gathered in Baghdad and other provinces in southern Iraq to protest against the corrupt regime, demand employment and improved services. Activists began using social media to rally people. The movement is characterised by spontaneity and lack of leadership: the masses are united by their nationalist passion, aims and demands.

Previous demonstrations had been exploited by political and religious figures for their own agendas. That’s why the current movement has rejected individual leaders and preferred to stay spontaneous. The protests have taken the form of sit-ins.  Demonstrators in Baghdad have occupied the symbolic al-Tahrir (Liberation) square, gathering in front of the Nasb al-Hurriyah Freedom Monument.

Although groups have marched to other streets and areas in Baghdad, al-Tahrir remains the centre point of the movement. The demonstrators state that they won’t leave until they feel their issues have been addressed and the government has listened to their demands. They want shot of the corrupt political parties who presently constitute parliament and create a presidential system. The current parliamentary system was created after the 2003 US-UK invasion, with a constitution adopted by referendum in 2005. Though crafted by Iraqis and enabled by the Americans, it enshrined a system of dividing political power along religious and ethnic lines. It deepened corruption and sectarianism and brought many militias and corrupt politicians to power. Iran exploited that framework, using its allies in the parliament to embed itself in Iraqi affairs. People want new institutions and elections to be supervised by the UN.

The government has tried to play the sectarian card as part of a divide and rule policy and to incite people against each other to divert attention, but people are aware of these schemes as they have been victims of sectarian conflicts stoked up by political parties before.

The mass upsurge in Iraqis is described by some as a new Arab Spring.  But Iraq has unique political and historical circumstances. As a result, the movement in Iraq resembles only itself because it is the result of these unique conditions. The Arab spring of 2010-12 was against dictatorial regimes like those of Ben Ali, Mubarak and al-Qadhafi.  People in Tunisia, Egypt,  Libya and elsewhere protested against them, seeking to create new democratic systems. In Iraq, the situation is different. Iraq has been through war and occupation in 2003, and the US forces toppled the Ba’ath party dictatorship.  The new political system has proved a failure and worse than the previous regime. That’s why people are protesting against this regime and want to change it. They want a democratic regime in its full meaning, not only slogans.

During the Arab spring, the West and some international players supported the protests against  dictatorial regimes. In the movement in Iraq, the West and the international community seem to have opted to remain disengaged, although fully aware of the suffering, oppression, and killings of people by the current regime. Iraqi people are pleading for the United Nations and international courts to hold the Iraqi government criminally responsible for committing genocide against civilians with the intent to destroy people and mute their voices.