What Is New in Iraq’s Protests. And Why Are the Shiites Taking to the Streets
Chiara Cruciati 1 September 2015

Thousands of Iraqis first applauded the efforts made by Prime Minister al-Abadi and the reforms implemented at the beginning of August. Then they remained on the streets to express the exhaustion of a country that is the victim of the Islamist offensive, as well as an intentional institutional stalemate. For years Iraq has been at the top of global dishonourable rankings for having one of the highest levels of internal corruption, which, added to the absences of planned reconstruction, is facilitating the propaganda of the so-called caliphate.

These protests have resulted in a spontaneous movement, for now only at the urban level, consisting of the many different souls of Iraqi society, ranging from secular and religious movements to individuals, liberals and communists. It is a movement flying only one flag, the Iraqi flag, opposing the many internal and external attempts to use sectarianism as the means for fragmenting the country.

What is restraining this desire for change that could turn into the best counter-offensive against Islamic State, is Iraqi politics with nepotism and power interests that have built an invisible wall that is suffocating the country, as well as preventing the reforms called for by Prime Minister al-Abadi from being implemented. For over a year the premier has made transparency and honesty his mantra, unlike his predecessor Nouri al-Maliki’s well-known nepotistic policies. For the moment it seems all these attempts have been made in vain, slowed down by the Islamist invasion of a third of the country and resistance from the many hidden centres of power in Iraq.

The most recent announcement came on Friday August 28th, stating that the Green Zone will be reopened to the people. The order issued to Iraqi security forces came directly from al-Abadi. The objective is symbolic, indicating that abolishing the closing of an area that has been fortified for over a decade means returning authority to the central government, trapped between more or less antagonistic political and para-military groups. But there is also a tangible objective since the Green Zone also contains the foreign embassies (among them the American embassy), government and military offices as well as parliament.

It is a decision that followed parliament’s approval of the premier’s reform package and envisages the abolition of one third of the government’s ministries as well as many positions of deputy ministers and deputy secretaries, a reduction of the worst bureaucratic procedures, greater transparency in the management of state power, a battle against corruption and support for judicial investigations. These are brave choices but they do not affect the internal balance of power as the parliamentary majority is firmly in the hands of the Shiites (52% of seats) with Kurds holding 17% and the Sunnis 21%.

The western media is paying little attention to an issue that has the energy of an earthquake. This protest is popular and anti-sectarian but contains elements that are potentially divisive. In primis there is the well-known Shiite religious leader Muqtada al-Sadr, who last week summoned his Peace Brigades, the former Mahdi army, which caused so much trouble to the post-Saddam U.S. occupation. After Friday prayers there were hundreds of al-Sadr’s supporters in Baghdad mingling with the thousands of protesters, thereby adding a religious element to the Iraqi flag in a clear attempt to take over the protest. This initiative was not appreciated by the base movements and the activists.

Speaking in Najaf on Monday August 24th, al-Sadr had said, “All people and all Sadrists must attend Friday’s protest in Baghdad. Sadrists must join other protesters as one single, Iraqi, national group.” Commandeering a mass protest would further strengthen the role of a militia with thousands of members and that, unlike many other Shiite militias, keeps its distance from Iran, a country that makes no secret of its desire to entrench its political and military influence over Baghdad.

Power over the protests is also fought for by Shiite political parties, divided between supporting and suffocating the protests. In both cases the objective is clear; they wish to prevent the protest from questioning their interests and want to immobilise the hesitant al-Abadi, who sways between the people’s legitimate requests and those of political parties, between his country’s best interests and dependence on Tehran.

The consequences could be those envisaged by the country’s most influential religious personality, the Ayatollah al-Sistani. Often reluctant to publicly address political issues, last Friday al-Sistani supported the efforts made by al-Abadi and warned of the potential danger posed by Iraq’s many internal players. There are many political groups that are working on undermining the base of the reform programme. There are also many who make use of the current chaos to increase the already very real internal sectarianism, fomenting a fragmentation of Iraq into ethnicities and religions that are useful to those, in Iraq and abroad, who are aiming for an end to national unity and the creation of small, weak, federal states that will therefore be easier to control.

Translated by Francesca Simmons



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