[Marxism] Iraqis Rise Against a Reviled Occupier: Iran
lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Nov 5 06:57:58 MST 2019
NY Times, Nov. 5, 2019
Iraqis Rise Against a Reviled Occupier: Iran
By Alissa J. Rubin
BAGHDAD — It started quietly a month or so ago with scattered protests.
Those steadily expanded until last week more than 200,000 Iraqis marched
in Baghdad, raging against the Iraqi government and a foreign occupier —
not the United States this time, but Iran.
While the current leaders of the Iraqi government cower inside the Green
Zone, where officials running the American occupation once sheltered,
the protesters outside direct their anger against the Islamic Republic
of Iran, which they now see as having too much influence.
“Free, free Iraq,” they shout, “Iran get out, get out.”
On the streets and in the squares of Iraq’s capital, in the shrine city
of Karbala — where protesters on Sunday threw gasoline bombs at the
Iranian Consulate — in back alleys and university hallways, a struggle
is taking place over who will shape the country’s future. Iraq, along
with Lebanon, another heavily Shiite country that has been roiled by
protests, is part of a developing revolt against efforts by
Shiite-dominated Iran to project its power throughout the Middle East
The protesters, he said, were fed up with corruption and the Shiite
militias, some of which have evolved into mafias running extortion
rackets. But more than that, he added, this is “a revolution with a
social dimension. In Iraq, patriotism was always political, now it has a
social justice component.”
While Iran is the immediate target of the protesters’ wrath, the fight
is larger than that. It is a struggle between younger Iraqis and an
older, more cautious generation, between a political elite and a rising
cohort that rejects their leadership.
It is a struggle, above all, between those who have profited handsomely
since the American invasion toppled Saddam Hussein, and those who are
struggling to get by and look on with fury as the political parties,
some with ties to Iran, distribute payoffs to the well connected.
“It was exactly 99 years ago that the last great Iraqi revolution took
place, it was totally Iraqi born,” said Laith Kubba, an adviser to the
While the 1920 revolution was ultimately defeated, the sentiment that
drove it, the rejection of foreign influence, remains embedded in the
Iraqi psyche. A century ago the target was the British; in the early
2000s, it was the Americans that ran afoul of Iraqi nationalism; now it
The system put in place after the 2003 invasion, although crafted by
Iraqis and enabled by the Americans, enshrined a system of dividing
political power along religious and ethnic lines. Iran exploited that
framework, using it to embed itself in Iraqi politics.
As the United States retreated from Iraq after 2009, the Iranian-linked
parties extended their networks inside the government. In 2014 when the
Islamic State invaded, it was Iran that rushed to Iraq’s rescue, helping
form militias to fight the militants and by 2018 becoming so powerful
that political parties linked to Iran became the kingmakers in the
It was an influential Iranian general, Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the
head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, who brokered the deal
that created the current government.
Meanwhile, at the grass-roots level and among the country’s young
people, there was a growing sense that Iran was profiting at the expense
of Iraq. While often exaggerated, the complaints have become part of the
political backdrop to the protests.
“All of our budget goes to Iran to support” the Revolutionary Guards,
said Ali Jassim, a construction worker, as he washed tear gas out of his
eyes below the Jumhuriya Bridge, where the demonstrations are focused.
“All the ministries, all the civilian facilities in Iraq are run by
Iran,” he said, but, “still our passports are not good in almost any
country. We want to get rid of this government, we want our country
back, we want an independent president.”
“When we were growing up our parents said, ‘Shut up, the walls have
ears,’” said Mohammed al-Amin, a second-year medical student who was
working at one of the first aid stations, treating protesters suffering
from tear gas and pepper spray exposure.
“But we have internet, we have traveled. We can see what the world is
like and we want a different life. We want to be like the other
countries, we want our rights,” he said.
The demands of the demonstrators — to get rid of corruption, end
political parties, create a presidential system instead of a
parliamentary one — seem at once reasonable and almost impossible to
realize; at least, not without bloodshed.
It is all the more difficult to achieve since the demonstrators are
increasingly demanding immediate results, as if they want to see the
lawmakers and ministers pack their bags, slink out of their privileged
villas in the Green Zone and vanish altogether.
Those politicians who would like to work with the protesters recognize
that the fundamental changes they are demanding — new election laws, new
elections and ultimately a new Constitution — cannot be achieved
overnight. Their methodical approach, however, frustrates protesters who
are impatient to see changes start now.
The Iraqi president, Barham Salih, is trying to take steps in that
direction, introducing legislation that would eliminate the current
system of party lists and allow voters to cast their ballots for
individual candidates. But, in essence, he is asking Parliament to adopt
a system that would cost many of its members their seats.
On Friday night, the largest crowds ever to gather in recent Iraqi
history came to protest peacefully, but noisily, against the government,
wreathing entire buildings in flags. Inside the Green Zone, the
government’s guesthouse inside was as quiet as a library. The vast,
marble-floored reception area was perfectly polished as a few men
gathered on roomy couches to puzzle over the state of the country, while
a waiter served tea and coffee. It was as if there was no rush at all.
The two places were physically just a mile apart but metaphorically in
different worlds. It was hard to see how Iraqis would ever reconcile the
anti-elite, anti-Iran, anti-party feelings in the street with the
attitudes of those who have benefited from the system.
“There is the political level, the street and the security
establishment, and each one of these groups is very occupied with
themselves,” said Maria Fantappie, a senior analyst on Iraq at the
International Crisis Group.
“The protesters, for instance, they celebrate the feeling of freedom and
they feel empowered in the mood they created. Not just young males but
also for the first time young females and other factions of the
society,” she said.
But the protesters “are not looking at what might be the end goal,” she
added. “They are celebrating that they have created this movement.”
Members of the political class, too, are talking largely to one another
and not to the protesters — and often blaming one another for the
current situation. The Parliament has met just once or twice to discuss
legislation that might respond to the demonstrators’ demands.
“They are playing for time,” said Mr. Eskander, the former head of the
National Archives, noting that most politicians are still hoping that
the protests will blow over.
Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has drawn criticism for allowing
security forces to try to suppress the protests with force. During the
first week of October nearly 150 protesters died, a vast majority shot
to death, and some 5,500 people, including more than 1,000 members of
the security forces, were wounded, according to a government
investigation into the incident.
That miscalculation drew tens of thousands more people to the protests.
The gatherings have exploded into the range of 20,000 to 25,000 in
cities nationwide to close to 200,000 in the capital. And violence
flared again on Monday, when the security forces fired into
demonstrators as they sought to cross Al Ahrar Bridge in Baghdad,
killing at least five.
The prime minister, while the target of much criticism, has taken steps
to improve the lives of Iraqis, expanding and solidifying the
electricity supply, improving relations with Iraq’s Kurds and removing
the blast walls that had divided much of Baghdad. But he remains a weak
leader who owes his position to a political deal crafted largely by Iran
but also acceptable to Washington.
So while Mr. Mahdi has managed to place technocrats in the electricity
and oil ministries, Iranian-linked parties dominate at least five major
ministries, including those of the interior, communications and labor
and social affairs. That gives them access to thousands of patronage
jobs, contracts and grants, and breeds the corruption that the
protesters are condemning.
The corruption by now is endemic, and present even in those ministries
viewed as well run.
“I graduated in engineering, but when I applied for a job at the
Ministry of Oil they asked for $7,500,” said Muhaiman Fadil, 30. Now, he
says, “I work freelance in construction.”
On Friday in Tahrir Square in Baghdad, the center of the protests, young
men put up a white banner with red Xs drawn through photographs of Ali
Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, and General Suleimani.
The security forces themselves are divided several times over: between
lower-level officers and more senior ones; between those with the
Defense Ministry and those with the Interior Ministry, which includes
brigades close to Iran; and other, smaller schisms.
These divisions led to differences among security entities over how to
confront the protesters, who had taken over the unfinished structure
known as the Turkish restaurant building that looms over the Jumhuriya
Bridge. The army refused to agree to a plan to clear the building, even
though it afforded the protesters an ideal perch for tossing gasoline
bombs in support of their fellow protesters’ quest to cross the bridge
and reach the Green Zone.
Army officers feared further bloodshed that would ignite even greater
protests. “There is no need to make this big problem by going in,” said
a senior military official, speaking of the proposed plan to clear the
building. “You cannot imagine what the reaction would be.”
Iraqi news channels announced at midnight Monday that the government had
shut down the internet. There was no explanation, but officials also
shut it down in early October, when they believed the protests were
getting out of control.
Though the government gradually restored internet service, social media
services including Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp have been blocked
throughout the protests.
It remains unclear how long the protesters will remain in the streets.
For those who go to Tahrir Square every day with flags around their
necks, like Abu Jamal, 40, a baker, the answer is that they will stay as
long as it takes.
“I can demonstrate for a day, two days, a week, a year, 500 years,” said
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