Deadly protests engulf Iraq, but what has ignited this rage?

Deadly protests engulf Iraq, but what has ignited this rage?
Chronic corruption, an endemic job inequality and an absence of improvement in public services – just a few of the factors forcing Iraqis to take to the streets in protest.
4 min read
08 October, 2019
Iraqi police are seen deployed in Baghdad's predominantly Shia Sadr city [Getty]

Herded, chased and bashed along the streets of Baghdad, or picked off from "unidentified" snipers' nests on rooftops in bright daylight, the crackdown in Iraq on nationwide anti-corruption protests has so far left at least 100 killed and 6,000 wounded.

In a televised speech late on Monday, Iraq's President Barham Salih urged for calm, stating that the targeting of peaceful protesters and security forces with live ammunition and assaulting journalists was "not acceptable".

His speech came as the internet access, albeit limited, was restored, allowing social media to be flooded with gory videos from nearly a week of unrest. The content online pushed security forces to then admit using "excessive force" against civilians in Baghdad.

Spontaneously, Iraqis took to the streets of the capital on Tuesday en masse, decrying chronic corruption plaguing the state, the endemic job inequality and an absence of improvement in dilapidated public services. However, protests turned deadly as causalities began to rise. 

Gunmen also attacked the offices of TV channels in Baghdad, with reports on social media saying that journalists and activists in the cities of Baghdad, Basra, Diwaniyah and Najaf had received messages promising reprisal if they participated in the protests.

So what ignited the protests?

Pushing handcarts to eke out a living along the narrow alleyways of central Baghdad, making around $20 a day, then returning home to browse online and see the comfort of their peers elsewhere in the world, Iraq's desperate youth were agitated at what they called a wholly corrupt political system.

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In the build up to the massive demonstrations that kicked off in Baghdad and spread to other cities in the country's south, global media was busy celebrating the "grand opening" of the Green Zone, writing about the restaurants springing up across the city.

But their rosy narratives excluded the large number of homeless children and widows who were begging or selling bottled water at intersections, or the abundant amount of child workers who were being exploited at the corners of Baghdad, all conveniently unseen by elusive politicians.

In recent months, authorities rounded up street vendors and removed their makeshift stalls, depriving thousands of families from their source of income, without providing an alternate employment opportunity. This inevitably stirred up rage among the city's poorest.

One protester near Tayyaran square in Baghdad said he had joined the demonstrations because he was poor. His breadwinner brother was killed during the war to dislodge Islamic State militants from Iraq and no adequate rights were presented by the state in return. Another protester said he was a college student who was also demanding the rights for his brother killed on the battlefield.

Their brothers were part of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), or Hashed al-Shaabi in Arabic – an umbrella body of mostly Shia armed militias that report directly to the PM and the Commander-in-Chief Abdul Mahdi.

Protesters in Baghdad chanted against what they said was an increasing sway of Iran and its proxies on Iraq's economy and politics.

Abdul Mahdi's government boasts striking investment deals with giant companies, a boosted cooperation with other countries and the role of playing mediator to deescalate regional tensions. But the people in Iraq say none of that is tangible and their living standards are deteriorating while the rift between the two keeps widening.

Over sixteen years have passed since the United States and Britain invaded Iraq and bequeathed a political system that repeatedly failed its people and pushed the country to the edge of the abyss; the everyday life of ordinary citizens remains challenging and marred by a myriad of hardships.

In Baghdad, the Tigris river bank is littered with plastic waste, people look frustrated, unhappy and are always complaining about the slacking officials.

The streets of the capital are suffocated with unending traffic jams and power shortages continue to irritate people in the country with a population nearing 40 million.

Health institutes remain unreliable in Iraq and there are shortages in drugs and medical equipment. Many patients end up having to pay large amounts of money for drugs at private pharmacies and clinics, which has caused further anger. 

Meanwhile in the wealthy port-city of Basra, people live among piles of garbage, breathing in poison spewed from oil exploitation operations of foreign companies. Cancers and narcotics are spreading and little development has taken place to rehabilitate the ramshackle water and sewage systems according to a Human Rights Watch report.

In response to the masses, the PM pledged stipends to the poor, more job opportunities and housing complexes to be built across Iraqi provinces. He promised more reforms in the coming days.

It is unclear if any measures taken by his government in response will appease those who lost a brother or a friend in the violence that accompanied the protests, but it is likely to spark further unrest in the future. Nevertheless, people are yearning for a change, thus, an implementation of the reforms proposed by Iraqi officials might extinguish the rage of the masses, albeit temporarily.

Nabil Salih is a reporter based in Iraq