A Different Storm
Haider Karim hasn’t been home for three months. Spending night and day on the streets of Baghdad, he has been immersed in the recent protests that have swept across Iraq. And since October 1, the Tishreen Revolution—Tishreen meaning October in Arabic—has pulled thousands of other young Iraqis like him into the demonstrations.
Karim hadn’t expected this turn of events just four months before the start of the protests, when he moved to an apartment on the outskirts of Baghdad and settled down, marrying a fellow activist. But since Tishreen, he hasn’t left the siren call of the protests, despite being faced with a barrage of pleading, tear gas, and bullets.
His friend, Aymen Al-Faisal, told The Politic, “Since the outbreak of protests, [Karim] has been protesting and sleeping in tents and refuses to return to his home and his bride until the demands of the demonstrators are answered…. He is in the protests and cannot even be contacted.”
Karim’s story is one of many. With tens of thousands of young Iraqis on the streets and more than 500 civilians killed over the past three months, Iraq and its youth have reached a critical point with the Tishreen Revolution. Amid cries for a complete overhaul of Iraqi politics—in particular, a crackdown on corruption and an elimination of foreign involvement—Iraq’s protesters have turned out across the country, grasping at the prospect of change.
Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s leadership, Iraq has plunged into almost continuous conflict. The situation has only worsened with the Syrian Civil War and other challenges to the region’s power balances.
Following the deposition of Saddam Hussein, the United States instituted a transitional government in Iraq, assisting the shift in power to the country’s Shi’a Muslim religious majority. When elections were held in 2005, Shi’a candidate Nouri al-Maliki assumed the premiership, distressing the Sunni minority population that previously held power under Saddam Hussein.
Tensions between different ethnic and religious communities in Iraq have been exacerbated over the years, with sectarian fighting breaking out between Shi’a, Sunni, and Kurdish groups. While the Sunni minority had primarily governed under Saddam’s regime, they were largely excluded under the post-invasion government. Disaffected by this exclusion, Sunnis across Iraq banded together, joining extremist groups like Al-Qaeda in Iraq and leading to the rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS).
It has only been since the supposed defeat of IS in late 2017 that conflict in Iraq has begun to die down, granting Iraq’s citizens newfound freedom to join protests.
In an interview with The Politic, Baghdad-based reporter Ali Nabhan explained, “There [has been] a potential for Iraqis to protest since 2011…but by 2014, the priority was the war against Daesh [IS]. After the defeat of Daesh, Iraqis got a big hope that things would finally change. Iraqis got united and sectarian tensions have kind of vanished.”
After years of warfare, the timing was finally right for protests in Iraq.
But the protests have been anything but straightforward. Indeed, the demonstrations are best considered in the plural, with no singular aim for any protester and factional movements on different sides.
Perhaps the biggest issue on the minds of Iraqis, and especially the Iraqi youth, is corruption. Baghdad-based political analyst Dr. Muhammad Al-Waeli explained in an interview with The Politic, “Many of the protesters [are] very young. These people are going to need jobs, and this wasn’t available after ISIS was defeated—because of corruption.”
Karim, too, faces this issue. After his father died from a car bomb explosion in 2007, Karim was left with the task of supporting his family. He hoped to find a stable career after completing a degree in political science but instead had to settle for a job at a local money exchange. Working multiple jobs to make ends meet, he eventually pulled enough together to purchase the apartment he hasn’t seen in months.
Karim’s employment problem is shared by many other young Iraqis, who overwhelmingly see governmental corruption as the source of the issue. Despite being equipped with years of education and college degrees, Iraq’s educated youth still cannot find jobs that maintain a decent standard of living.
With the aim of uprooting and removing the corrupt elite that has ruled the country since 2003, Iraqi protesters have demanded reforms to incorporate newer and younger figures into politics and bring an end to persisting corruption.
Pressured by weeks of protests, the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi on December 1 was hailed as a necessary first step towards dismantling the corrupt elite by many demonstrators across Iraq.
Furthermore, when an Iran-backed bloc in Parliament nominated veteran politician Asaad Al-Eidani as Mahdi’s replacement, Iraq’s President, Barham Salih, threatened to resign in a statement of dissent, signaling the influence of the demonstrations. “[President Salih] didn’t want to be remembered as the one who gave the power to a political nominee of the parties. The protesters are trying to pick up an independent, non-partisan prime minister,” explained Nabhan.
In addition to the resignation of the Prime Minister, pressure from the protests has resulted in the passage of crucial new election laws in Parliament. Iraqis can now vote for individual politicians rather than from party lists, allowing independents to compete for seats in Parliament. Moreover, with the passage of a bill reforming the High Electoral Commission, Iraqis now have hope for an independent and non-partisan electoral committee.
However, some still harbor concerns about the reforms. “Despite the approval of the election law and the commission law, I believe the government and Parliament are not serious about meeting the demands of legitimate protesters. Nothing will change because of the Iranian pressure on political parties,” said Al-Faisal.
It’s this Iranian pressure that so many young protesters like Al-Faisal’s friend, Haider Karim, have taken issue with.
“The protest movement aims to save Iraq from external domination…. Regarding the Iranian influence, this influence came as a result of the weaknesses of the Iraqi state…and [these] young Iraqis are angry at the controlling of factions outside the authority of the state,” said Al-Faisal, speaking of Karim and the protesters.
On November 27, Iraqi protesters in Najaf stormed the Iranian Consulate, burning down the building and demanding an end to Iranian influence in Iraq. Not only did this action break from the peaceful majority of protests, it also brought front and center the issue of Iranian interference.
Anti-Iranian protests are part and parcel of the anti-corruption movement Karim has joined. Joseph Sassoon, Al-Sabah Chair in Politics and Political Economy of the Arab World at Georgetown University, explained in an interview with The Politic, “I would say the vast majority of the protests have been more anti-Iranian [than anti-American]. Iran’s control of the politics is really, truly very profound…. The Prime Minister and all these guys can’t do a thing without approval from Iran.”
Since 2014, Iran’s presence in Iraq has been a fixture of the political system. Through funding militias such as Kata’ib Hezbollah in the fight against IS and forming select alliances in Parliament, Iran managed to claim its position in Iraq and hasn’t left.
And so as young Iraqis take to the streets, calls for an end to Iranian interference have proliferated.
A separate anti-American movement, however, has also found prominence. On December 31, just over a month after the burning of the Iranian consulate, an Iraqi militia and its supporters raided the United States Embassy in Baghdad. The attack followed an earlier American airstrike on Kata’ib Hezbollah, which had killed more than two dozen people.
“With regard to the American resentment, partly it’s political—whipped by Iran—but partly, there is this sense that the U.S., because of the invasion, has really brought Iraq into total, utter chaos,” explained Sassoon.
According to Sassoon, the distinction is that anti-American sentiment is largely harbored by those civilians older than the average protester, and not necessarily those out on the streets: “The people who are in their 40s and 50s and remember Saddam are having nostalgia for those days because there was security. Yes, there was corruption, but no one stole $400 million.”
So as young Iraqis like Haider Karim join the demonstrations, anti-Iranian sentiment has continued to take the front stage. Meanwhile, Iranian-supported militias such as Kata’ib Hezbollah hold the brunt of the responsibility for committing anti-American actions.
With the assassination of Iranian General and Quds Force Commander Qassem Suleimani in Baghdad on January 3, Iraq seems to serve as a proxy battleground between the United States and Iran as threats of attacks unfurl. Two days later, the Iraqi Parliament demanded the expulsion of all foreign troops from the country as anti-foreign sentiment continues to rise.
As foreign resentment heightens within the Iraq protests, entrenched resentments across sectarian lines have taken a back seat. Rather than the flags of sectarian groups or militias, the protests have mostly been characterized by a nationalist energy with Iraqi flags and emblems. Faced with the common enemy of foreign interference, people across different sects of Iraq have seemingly banded together.
“The protests are mostly about corruption and not political. And since it is not political, it has not become sectarian. It doesn’t matter if you are Sunni or Shi’a or Kurdish or Christian, you are suffering as an Iraqi citizen from the fact that the people at the top are stealing and stealing and stealing,” explained Sassoon.
Though the non-sectarian nature of these protests has presented a huge advantage, the movement has experienced its fair share of challenges. Faced with an intensive crackdown by the Iraqi Armed Forces and the predominantly Shi’a Popular Mobilization Units, more than 500 civilians have been killed and 20,000 injured over the span of two months.
Some civilians, too, oppose the protests due to fear that foreign powers might be pulling the strings. Al-Waeli explained that, “When there are protests you see bots on social media spreading and retweeting hashtags, and after investigations, it’s found that these are often troll farms located in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. So people are dubious about these movements and what they can be derailed to, as we have the example of the Arab Spring.”
This resistance seemingly stems from fears of Iraq spiraling into another brutal conflict promoted by foreign powers, similar to those of failed regime changes in the Arab Spring.
As the United States and Iran send threats to one another, the Islamic State has begun to pose a new danger in Iraq. On January 5, the international coalition fighting IS—including the U.S. and the U.K.—announced that it would suspend operations against the terrorist group due to concerns about a potential U.S.-Iran conflict.
Yet, this announcement comes just two weeks after Lahur Talabany, an Iraqi Kurdish commander, claimed that IS is “getting stronger again in Iraq.”
Stuck between IS and a U.S.-Iran dispute, the future of the protest movement in Iraq doesn’t look bright. Since 2011, Iraqi protests have been silenced time and time again under the pretense of war and the fight against IS.
But until full-scale conflict remains simply a possibility and not a certainty, the Iraqi youth and Haider Karim still find themselves on the streets.
“The young people who went out in Iraq finally found themselves able to make some change, and although it is not what they have been looking for, there was some response. Those young people believe they can make a change. This is a huge shift in the mentality of the Iraqi people,” said Nabhan.
The Iraqi protesters have stood through years of war, corruption, terrorism, and foreign interference. After repeated silencing, the protests have finally claimed their moment and taken up the push for change.
Al-Waeli shared, “Change happens when you continuously push in a very well-thought manner and with a plan and long-term thinking. That’s when change happens—that’s when reform happens.”