Calm may have returned to Iraq after protests were violently suppressed, but the threat of further unrest remains, experts say, amid public rejection of politicians and a failure so far to heed calls for reform.
In six days of demonstrations from October 1, more than 100 Iraqis died, mostly protesters killed by live ammunition fired into crowds. The perpetrators have not been arrested, or even identified.
Mohammed al-Kaabi, a 28-year-old unemployed graduate, says he is ready to return to the streets at any time.
“We protested and will protest again to denounce the poverty, unemployment and corruption that ruin our lives,” he told AFP.
Unproductive meetings in parliament held since haven’t convinced him otherwise, he said.
Nor have proposed reforms — unemployment aid, housing allowances, an online job portal — promised by a government that he would like to see fall.
“What are these reforms and why were they only announced after young people died?” he asked.
“It’s been a long time since people had confidence in the government,” he said, adding that politicians “spend their time making promises without ever keeping them.”
According to Falah al-Khazaali, an MP for the Fatah party, the current cabinet “isn’t responsible for the errors of its predecessors.”
Fatah is the political arm of Hashed al-Shaabi — the paramilitary force dominated by pro-Iran groups — and is part of the ruling coalition.
“But whether protests continue will depend on the government’s ability to fulfil its promises to the Iraqi people,” he added.
At least 165 people have now died in the crackdown on Iraq’s anti-government protests, according to a source in the health ministry.
— Louisa Loveluck (@leloveluck) October 9, 2019
‘Fire in the Street’
During protests – which started in Baghdad and spread to southern Iraq — demonstrators denounced an absence of jobs and lack of functioning public services while leaders benefited from corruption, which reached $450 billion (410 billion euros) in 16 years according to official figures.
In a country where voter turnout is declining amid polls regularly tainted by fraud, “the failure of the political system is the principal reason for this movement,” Iraqi political analyst Essam al-Fili told AFP.
Facing protester demands for radical change, reforms proposed in recent days by a government already heavily in debt “are not an action but a reaction, without planning or strategy,” said Fili.
“They’re just trying to put out the fire in the street, but if nothing changes, fires will flare again,” he added.
Breaking: In their first joint meeting after #Iraq_protest, Iraqi President, Prime Minister, Parliament Speaker & head of the judiciary adopt the proposal of senior cleric Ali #Sistani 2 form independent technocrats committee 2 diagnose the deep problems facing state institutions pic.twitter.com/oms70Jslke
— Mustafa Habib (@Mustafa_Habib33) October 14, 2019
‘Crisis of Confidence’
According to political analyst Wathiq al-Hachemi, the root problem – “a crisis of confidence between the people and power” – isn’t new.
“Successive governments have promised reforms without ever putting them in place,” he said.
But this time, an inability to implement reform is compounded by “a political and economic crisis and allegiances abroad,” he said, with factions choosing sides between Iran and the United States, the two major foreign powers in Iraq.
Mounting tension between Tehran and Washington is a serious challenge to Iraq, scene of four decades of conflict and violence.
For Zine al-Abidine al-Bediri, a 27-year-old lawyer who demonstrated in the southern city of Kut, the situation calls for a total overhaul.
“I want to change the political system, the politicians and even the constitution,” he told AFP.
If the protest movement stops before having obtained all this he said, it’s because demonstrators find themselves facing “political parties and their militias.”
During the unrest, protesters were targeted by gunmen, who the government labelled “infiltrators”.
Human rights groups accused security forces of the attacks.
Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, spiritual leader for Iraq’s Shiite majority, said “the government is responsible when, under the eye of law enforcement, protesters are fired on illegally.”
In response, the government launched two enquiries, one to investigate protest deaths and injuries, and another to hold to account security forces who acted illegally.
Despite the violence, “the youth braved bullets without fear,” said Bediri.
And if their demands are not met, “we will show them something even bigger and stronger.”