[Marxism] The Fight for a New Iraq
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
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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