The Iraq Report: Blood on the streets of Karbala as protests intensify

The Iraq Report: Blood on the streets of Karbala as protests intensify
Iraqi security forces and militias have been criticised by human rights organisations and civil society for using excessive force, including a massacre in the Shia holy city of Karbala.
7 min read
02 November, 2019
Demonstrators marched against the government in the holy city of Karbala [Getty]
Iraqis have continued to defy government crackdowns and violence inflicted by pro-Iran Shia militants after more than a month of demonstrations across central and southern Iraq.

Despite the federal government instituting a number of curfews and internet outages, demonstrators have continued to hit the streets to call for an end to endemic corruption and Iranian meddling as anti-Tehran sentiments run high.

Iraqi security forces and allied Shia militias have been sharply criticised by human rights organisations and civil society for using excessive force, including a massacre in the Shia holy city of Karbala. Security forces have also been shown to be firing tear gas canisters directly at protesters’ heads, leading to severe injuries and fatalities.

While it is unlikely these protests will succeed unless they become organised, such brutal events taking place in holy cities will serve as symbolic reminders and lightning rods for future protest movements against the establishment.

Massacre in Karbala fuels demonstrators

At least 18 protesters were killed in Karbala overnight last Monday, hours after the army declared a nationwide curfew in an attempt to quell the popular unrest that has gripped Iraq since the start of October.

Videos shared on social media showed demonstrators fleeing in panic as security forces used live rounds to disperse the demonstrations against government corruption, a lack of public services, and high unemployment.

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The Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights, a semi-official agency, reported that 18 protesters had been killed. Others have claimed higher fatality figures, with the number of wounded in the hundreds.

More than 250 people have been killed by Baghdad-backed forces since protests erupted at the beginning of October.

Karbala has symbolic significance to the largely Shia protesters, as it is the site in which Hussain bin Ali – the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed – was killed by the forces of Yazid I in the 7th century. Hussain is revered as a man who stood up to oppression, tyranny and corruption, and paid the ultimate price.

Such symbolism will not be lost on demonstrators who are themselves calling for an end to corruption that has had Iraq at the bottom of numerous transparency indices for the past 16 years. Iraq is currently ranked 12th from bottom in Transparency International’s corruption index, an unenviable position.

To Iraq’s Shia Arabs, Karbala is seen as a city of martyrdom, and for government forces and allied militias to gun people down in the streets and create new martyrs has created a powerful narrative of the protesters being on the side of Hussain bin Ali, while the government security forces are on the side of tyrants such as Yazid I.

This is not without irony, considering the fact that former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki once described anti-government Sunni demonstrators as being “from the camp of Yazid” as protests took place in 2013. Such inflammatory and sectarian rhetoric was used to mollify the masses as Maliki ordered Iraqi security forces to clear out protest camps across Sunni governorates, killing hundreds and directly triggering the entrance of the Islamic State group in 2014.

While Shia Islamist politicians backed by Iran continue to use sectarian rhetoric to justify persecution of Sunni Arabs in particular, they have found it much more difficult to do so on this occasion due to the Shia-dominated nature of the demonstrations. The government is struggling to slur protesters as supporters of al-Qaeda, IS, or the Baathists who formerly ruled under Saddam Hussein.

Anti-Iran sentiment running high amongst Iraqi Shia

While the Iraqi political elite has been unable to denigrate the largely Shia demonstrators using the same slurs they used against Sunni protesters in 2012-2013, they have resorted to some age old classics of the pro-Iran axis.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei took to the airwaves and Twitter last week to suggest that protesters in Lebanon and Iraq had been taken under the sway of a conspiracy by the “Zionist regime”.

“I recommend those who care in #Iraq and #Lebanon remedy the insecurity and turmoil created in their countries by the US, the Zionist regime, some western countries, and the money of some reactionary countries”, he said in a controversial tweet hinting at Gulf Arab involvement.

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani echoed Khamenei, accusing those protesting against corruption of “foreign interference”.

The editor of the hardline Iranian Kayhan newspaper, Hossein Shariatmadari, described the protests in Iraq as being “directed by the embassies of America and Saudi Arabia”, and his words were supported by leading figures within Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

Such constant interference and interjections from senior Iranian officials have caused Iraqi protesters to react angrily, burning posters of Khamenei as well as senior IRGC commander Qassem Soleimani.

Iran out, out! Iraq will remain free!

Iraqis have consistently used the chant “Iran out, out! Iraq will remain free!” and this has been repeated and replicated across central and southern cities.

Such strong anti-Iranian sentiments are the legacy of Tehran’s wholesale involvement in Iraqi affairs since the collapse of the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein in 2003. While Iran has sought to portray itself as a friend to its Iraqi Shia coreligionists, it has in fact been behind some of the most influential political actors in the country, contributing to the corrupt environment Iraqis now complain of, and even using the Iraqi economy as a buffer against US sanctions.

Much of the Shia political elite that have been supported extensively by Iran have relied upon the Shia heartlands for votes to get into positions of power and influence. They now feel threatened because it is these same voters who are now calling for total reform or replacement of the system.

Cross-sectarian solidarity

Notably absent from most of the Iraqi demonstrations over the past month are the ordinarily highly politically active protesters hailing from Sunni-dominated governorates in western and northern Iraq.

Southern Shia demonstrators have frequently carried banners showing that their concerns are cross-sectarian and affect all Iraqis, calling on Sunnis and Shia to come together against corruption. However, and apart from some protests in Diyala, the Sunni governorates have been relatively placid.

A lack of Sunni involvement is not because of a lack of interest, but out of a palpable fear of mass displacement, being killed by militias and security forces, and having their homes destroyed.

After all, the last time Sunnis came out in peaceful protest, they were brutally suppressed by Maliki’s forces and then had their movement hijacked by groups such as IS who exploited the situation. The memory of such events are still very fresh in Sunni governorates who also felt let down by their Shia countrymen who could have stood with them against sectarianism in 2012 only to be branded as terrorist sympathisers.

This is unfortunate as, not only are the protests largely spontaneous and disorganised, but they also lack nationwide involvement due to the legacy of the war against IS and the mass human rights abuses perpetrated against Sunni Arab civilians - a well-documented fact.

Sunni groups fear that if they rise up against the government again, then even more of them will be sent to displacement camps, have their identity documents confiscated, and be crushed under the heavy boot of the government’s bureaucracy that will throw up all manner of hurdles to ostracise them from public life.

It is therefore unlikely that Sunni governorates will join their Shia counterparts anytime soon, and certainly not unless there is some measure of organisation and coordination. This would be to ensure a measure that everyone was truly in it together and that there would be no backing down until rights were achieved for all segments of the Iraqi population.

Tallha Abdulrazaq is a researcher at the University of Exeter's Strategy and Security Institute and winner of the 2015 Al Jazeera Young Researcher Award. His research focuses on Middle Eastern security and counter-terrorism issues. 

Follow him on Twitter: @thewarjournal

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.