[Marxism] The Fight for a New Iraq

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Nov 6 08:15:24 MST 2019

NY Times Op-Ed, Nov. 6, 2019
The Fight for a New Iraq
By Mina Al-Oraibi

The persistence and magnitude of protests in Iraq since early October 
and the brutality of Iraqi government forces and militias seeking to 
crush them have shaken the country. More than 275 protesters have been 
killed and thousands injured, but the protests continue unabated.

Iraqis initially protested against corruption, unemployment and the 
failure of the government to deliver services, but after a month of 
brutal state violence, the protesters have called for the resignation of 
Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, a complete overhaul of the political 
process in the country and disbanding of powerful political factions and 
their militias, most of which are backed and run by Iran.

The Iraqi government and the political elite have failed to respond in 
any significant manner to the protesters. On Thursday, Barham Salih, the 
president of Iraq, promised to draft a new electoral law, claiming that 
it would allow more young people to join the political process and put 
an end to the current system of deal-making in government formation. He 
also promised to reform the country’s election commission by bringing in 
independent experts as its members. And yet these promises were quickly 
dismissed by protesters as too little, too late — cosmetic changes aimed 
at upholding a discredited political system.

Most of the protests are taking place in Shiiite-majority cities. The 
killing of more than 18 protesters in the holy Shiite city of Karbala 
last week highlight how Shiite-majority provinces of Iraq haven’t 
benefited from political parties using “Shiite identity” to gain and 
retain power.

The protests and the violent response have shredded the myth of 
sectarianism as the organizing principle for political power: 
State-sponsored sectarianism has failed to offer protection and progress 
to the citizens.

The trouble lies largely in the political system imposed on Iraq by the 
United States-led alliance in 2003, which fostered the lie that Iraqis 
did not have a unifying national identity and that their overriding 
identity was sectarian or ethnic: Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds. Apart from 
isolating the majority of Iraqis who believe in their national identity, 
these divisions also isolated Christians, Yazidis, Mandaeans and other 
minorities in Iraq.

In contrast, the young Iraqi protesters have been carrying the Iraqi 
flag and rejecting all other political and sectarian symbols. Iraqi 
patriotic songs that were sung in the 1980s during the war with Iran 
have filled the streets once more. The slogan that has resonated the 
most is, “We want a homeland,” calling for an Iraq that does not suffer 
from the ills of sectarian divisions or is manipulated by politicians. 
Another popular slogan insists, “I am going to take my rights myself.”

Rather than build on the principles of citizenship after the fall of 
Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, the political class in Iraq since 2003 
worked on a sectarian system of patronage to win political power and 
profit. It enshrined sectarian identity as an unwritten basis of 
power-sharing — a Shiite prime minister, a Kurdish president and a Sunni 
speaker of Parliament — solidifying sectarian divisions and undermining 
meritocracy or electoral legitimacy. Government formation has become a 
cynical exercise in power brokering based on coalition-building before 
and after the vote.

A significant section of the Iraqi political class’s being beholden to 
Iran makes things worse. Anger against Iranian influence over the 
political establishment of the country has increased significantly as 
credible reports have shown that a majority of killings have been 
carried out by the militias backed by Tehran.

The mostly Shiite protesters have taken to chanting, “Iran! Out! Out!” 
Protesters have burned Iranian flags and torn down posters of Iran’s 
supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who blamed the United States and 
Western intelligence agencies for the protests in Iraq — and Lebanon — 
and called upon Lebanon and Iraq to “stabilize these security threats.” 
On Sunday, protesters attacked the Iranian consulate in Karbala.

The protesters are calling for a nationalist government not beholden to 
any external power and have singled out Iran because it controls a 
majority of political parties and militias in Iraq. Tehran had sent Gen. 
Qassim Suleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ 
Quds Force, to Baghdad to oversee the militant response to the uprising. 
General Suleimani has ensured that Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi does not 
resign, despite the latter indicating that he is willing to do so.

Images emerging from cities like Nasiriya, Basra and Baghdad generate a 
mixture of hope and fear. The courage of the protesters has given Iraq 
hope that change is possible, and the brutality of the response by the 
government forces and Iran-backed militias has shown that Tehran and its 
clients will do everything in their power to protect their interests and 
investments. Iran today relies on Iraq to circumvent international 
sanctions, sell its gas and agricultural products, and project its power 
in the Arab world.

Young Iraqis continue protesting night after night, defying the 
government’s repeated attempts to impose a curfew. The political class, 
which remains barricaded in the Green Zone and disconnected from the 
street, does neither know nor understand the activists leading the protests.

The callousness of the Iraqi government was epitomized by its recent 
statement that it did not know the identity of government snipers who 
shot and killed numerous protesters in Baghdad.

As the protest enters the second month, the Sunni-majority provinces and 
cities have been sitting out the protests for fear of being branded 
Baathists or Islamic State supporters. They also worry about a return to 
lawlessness that they endured when the Iraqi state collapsed between 
2014 and 2017. Some protesters from these provinces have joined the 
protests in Baghdad, carrying banners expressing solidarity from their 

Although economic deprivation and political collapse drove Iraqis to the 
streets, a sense of pride has risen out of the protests and cohered 
around the ultimate demand to see Iraq as a sovereign country.

At this point, the government’s promises to improve job opportunities or 
to start a drawn-out process to reform the electoral law will not 
suffice. Millions are calling for overhauling the political system.

A lasting solution to tackle corruption and state capture will mean 
holding corrupt officials to account, ensuring a transparent system in 
forming the next government and ensuring that Iraq — which holds the 
world’s fifth-largest proven oil reserves — can deliver basic education 
and health services to all its citizens.

People are tired of the current power-sharing system where several 
political parties have a seat at the table but none of them takes 
responsibility, simply blaming a rival for the collective failure. Calls 
for a presidential system, where a leader would be responsible for the 
welfare and sovereignty of the state, are growing.

Iraqis are essentially demanding competence and accountability from 
their political leaders. Whoever fails to deliver can no longer hide 
behind “the system.” They are “the system,” and if they don’t fix it, 
they will be overturned with it.

Mina Al-Oraibi is the editor in chief of The National, a newspaper based 
in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

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