Protests Against Unemployment and Corruption in Iraq

Death toll crosses 100 and wounded 6,000

by Countercurrents Staff, published October 7, 2010

Protests against unemployment, poor public services and corruption in Iraq have seen blood over the last few days. The death toll from anti-government protests in Iraq is at least 104.

A total of 540 protesters have been arrested, of whom nearly 200 remain in custody, the human rights commission said.

More than 6,000 people have been wounded, according to the officials.

The unrest is continuing for near a week.

Curfews were imposed on Baghdad, and in the cities of Nasiriya, Amarah and Hillah.

Authorities also shut down the internet across the country – except in the Kurdish north – to keep demonstrators from organizing on social media platforms.

At least eight people were killed in clashes between police and protesters in the capital Baghdad on Sunday, medical and security sources said.

On Saturday, at least five people killed in the latest clashes in Baghdad.

A number of deaths were reported on Friday in the southern city of Nasiriya.

On Sunday, the government said that over 100 people, including several members of the security forces, have been killed since the anti-government protests first started on Tuesday.

The daytime curfew in Baghdad was lifted on Saturday, and smaller groups of protesters renewed their action.

The city’s Tahrir Square has been the focal point of protests, but it was blocked on Saturday.

The violence has also affected majority Shia Muslim areas in the south, including Amara, Diwaniya and Hilla.

Sadr calls for PM’s resignation

The Iraqi government is worried about political fallout, with protesters backed by the powerful Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The Shiite cleric, who controls the largest bloc in the Iraq parliament, has already sided with protesters and called for prime minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi to resign.

Muqtada al-Sadr has called for representatives to boycott parliament until the government presented reforms that could be accepted by the people.

Sistani calls for reform

Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most senior Shia cleric, urged the government to respond to the demands for reform, saying it had “not answered the demands of the people to fight corruption or achieved anything on the ground”.

An emergency session of parliament failed to go ahead on Saturday afternoon.

The security forces were again reported to have used live rounds.

Demonstrators say they are taking a stand against unemployment, poor public services and corruption.

Funerals of a number of protesters were held on Saturday after the daytime curfew imposed on Baghdad was withdrawn.

The spreading protests of the people are the first major challenge to prime minister Mahdi’s fragile government, nearly a year since he came to power.

PM’s pledge

Meanwhile, Mahdi has pledged to meet with “brotherly protesters” without armed escort.

I will go and meet them without weapons and sit with them for hours to listen to their demands,” he said on Saturday.

Earlier Sunday, he also introduced a series of 17 measures to appease the protesters, such as boosting welfare and unemployment benefits, providing subsidized housing and land distribution, and creating new jobs.

According to Mahdi, people killed in the unrest would be designated as “martyrs”, making them eligible for state benefits.

Iraqi PM acknowledges ‘righteous’ demands of protesters.

The PM has vowed to address government corruption but urged protesters across the country to go home.

In a televised address on Friday, Mahdi said that protesters’ demands for social and political reforms were “righteous”, conceding that the government must do more to fight corruption.

Mahdi vowed to respond to protesters’ concerns but warned there was no “magic solution” to Iraq’s problems.

He said he had given his full backing to security forces.

While the pledge failed to stop the violence, the latest protests saw fewer people take to the streets compared to previous days.

The authorities have been trying to control the protests through curfews and a near-total internet blackout.

The unrest began spontaneously with no formal leadership in mostly Shia areas in the south, and quickly spread.

Iraq blames “malicious” forces for violence

New clashes in Baghdad claimed several lives despite the government’s pledge to help those suffering from poverty. Security forces deny firing directly at protesters and blame “malicious hands” for the ongoing bloodshed.

Live ammunition used

Security forces have repeatedly used live ammunition in a bid to clamp down on the wave of protests that have swept across Iraq this week.

Demonstrators and journalists attending the rallies reported security forces firing live rounds at the participants.

Iraq’s semi-official High Commission for Human Rights slammed the police response.

There is no justification for the use of live bullets against peaceful demonstrators,” commission’s chief Aqeel al-Musawi said.

On Sunday, Iraqi Interior Ministry spokesperson Saad Maan denied that police and military troops had directly targeted the citizens. Instead, he said that “malicious hands” were targeting both the protesters and the security members.

Security forces did all they could to preserve the safety of the protesters and security personnel,” Maan said. “We express our deep regret over the bloodshed.

In a news conference broadcast on state television, Maan said that eight members of the security forces died in the violent clashes and dozens of public buildings and political party headquarters had been torched by protesters.

The violence erupted in Sadr City, the Shiite-dominated neighborhood in the east of the Iraqi capital. Military troops blocked the main road leading to Baghdad’s central Tahrir Square and then reportedly fired at the protesters to suppress them. Protesters burned tires and launched fireworks at the police.

The latest clashes follow days of apparently spontaneous unrest, with Iraqi citizens expressing their frustration with poverty and corruption in the country.

Several videos of wounded and distressed protesters have been widely shared on social media as the violence continued throughout the week.

Security forces have used live ammunition to disperse the demonstrators, with the death toll reaching 40 on Friday, according to reports.

Corruption, unemployment poor public services

The protests in Iraq did not exactly come as a surprise.

Last year, a wave of protests washed over the country as well, hitting the southern city of Basra, for instance, the hub of Iraq’s oil industry. Those protests were sparked when thousands of Iraqis fell ill from drinking contaminated water.

This time, the protests appear to be more spontaneous in nature. Nevertheless, they seem to have been touched off, in part, by the firing of Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi, a popular general who previously served as second-in-command of Iraq’s counterterrorism service. Al-Saadi was an important figure in the fight against the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” (IS) terror group. Recently he was transferred to another post.

His supporters are convinced he was ousted because he was standing up to Shia militia groups within the Iraqi army. Those groups are said to have close ties to neighboring Iran. Al-Saadi’s face was seen on a large number of protest placards over the past few days, a sign the protests are also aimed at Iranian influence in Iraq.

Corruption, unemployment and poor public services are at the heart of the discontent faced by young Iraqis today. Iraq’s one in six households has experienced some form of food insecurity. The unemployment rate was 7.9% last year, but among young people it was double that. Almost 17% of the economically active population is underemployed. Youth unemployment currently stands at 25 percent. Living conditions remain dire in many conflict-affected areas, with insufficient services. The country is also struggling to recover after a brutal war against the Islamic State group.

Social frustration is the primary force behind the protests. Experts have long warned of an explosion of discontent, especially among Iraq’s youth, which has been crushed under the weight of unemployment.

Daniel Gerlach, editor-in-chief of the German Middle East magazine Zenith, said the grounds are as follows: Lack of energy, lack of public services, high unemployment, poverty and corruption.

“Iraqis have the feeling that the government is involved in every aspect of life — and that although some people are getting rich while the country develops, average citizens are entirely underprivileged,” he said.

That phenomenon can be seen clearly in Baghdad’s Green Zone, where everyday citizens are prohibited from entering certain areas. “That frustrates people,” said Gerlach. At the moment, the protests are dominated by calls for the end of maladministration and corruption. Yet, the agenda could quickly shift in the face of escalating violence.

Middle East expert Gerlach explains corruption is mainly to blame for the fact that many Iraqis live in poverty and are forced to suffer power outages in the summer — when temperatures regularly climb as high as 50 degrees Celsius.

Many Basra residents blame government mismanagement and corruption for collapsing public services, including the recent hospitalization of thousands of people who drank contaminated water.

According to a recent anti-corruption index published by Transparency International, Iraq won the ignominious distinction of being ranked 168 of 180 worldwide, making it one of the most corrupt countries in the world.

Gerlach said the situation is made worse by the fact that

“in Iraq we see a phenomenon in which the people are the supplicants and the state is the benefactor.”

He said the country is suffering under the favoritism of those who happen to control the complex ruling system at any given time. In that system, political leaders from different political, religious or regional groups often take control of the country’s resources and then either keep them for themselves or dole out the profits to their supporters. In the end, desperately needed revenues for health care and other public services are nowhere to be found.

People feel they have been robbed.

Gerlach said one reason for the escalating violence is a lack of training for Iraqi security forces. “Iraq’s security forces are not trained to deal with mass protests,” he said. Rather, they are trained to fight terrorists or well-armed rebels.

Thus far, the protests have taken place in those Iraqi cities and regions with Shia majorities. To date, Sunnis and Kurds have played no role, nor have interdenominational tensions. Most signs indicate a conflict within the majority Shia population, which also exhibits pro- and anti-Iranian tendencies.

Although a number of anti-Iran placards have been seen at demonstrations, protests remain primarily focused on the social issues of poverty, corruption and maladministration. There have also been differences of opinion over the question of whether Iran has a hand in the current situation.

Some media outlets have reported claims that Iraqi security forces spoke Farsi — the mother tongue of Iran — while violently suppressing protests. Evidence thereof, however, has yet to be seen. Gerlach said that unless he sees persuasive evidence to the contrary, the idea that Iran is involved in the protests “is not a credible theory.”

Iranian consulate stormed

Angry protesters stormed the Iranian consulate in Basra, denouncing alleged foreign interference in Iraqi politics.

Protesters outside Iran’s consulate on Friday burned an Iranian flag and chanted “Iran, out!” as they stormed the building. Many blame Iranian-backed parties for interfering in Iraqi politics, and thereby playing a role in the deterioration of public services.

Iran’s reaction

Iranian foreign ministry spokesperson Bahram Ghassemi called it a “savage attack,” while Iraq’s foreign ministry said it was “an unacceptable act undermining the interests of Iraq and its international relations.”

UN’s concern

The UN and U.S. have expressed concern over the violence, and urged the Iraqi authorities to exercise restraint.

 

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