In the most recent demonstrations that took Iraqi streets by storm, protestors have for the first time raised demands for the overthrow of the current government.
These demonstrations thus differ from previous protests in 2016 and 2018, which were organized by the Sadrist movement, under firebrand Shia cleric and politician Muqtada al-Sadr, as well as the Iraqi Communist Party which put forth fewer demands, mostly for better services, political reform and combating corruption.
The protests have expanded in various proportions to reach Baghdad and nine Shia-majority cities in southern and central Iraq, with no indication that the Sunni provinces will participate in the uprising.
On Wednesday and Thursday, dozens were killed and injured as the Iraqi government took unprecedented security measures reflecting the reality of the country’s difficult situation and fear due to security threats.
However, Iraqi medical sources on Friday brought the number of deaths up to 42, along with hundreds of injured, since the eruption of protests.
The Iraqi government tried to control Baghdad and other cities by locking down several squares and streets that lead to the center of the capital and Green Zone — the center of the government and the headquarter of the embassies — blocking social media sites in the city’s eastern and southern parts.
Iraq’s Defense Ministry ordered the army to be on high alert while the Iraqi prime minister declared a curfew in Baghdad, Najaf, and Dhi Qar provinces.
The move is believed to have quelled the protests in Baghdad and its suburbs with the possibilities that protests might move to cities in central and southern Iraq which could potentially worsen the situation.
This wave of protests — the fourth — was the biggest so far rejecting the country’s political situation, demanding an overthrow of the government and focusing on the removal of Iran from Iraq.
Tehran or Washington?
Demonstrators’ focus on eliminating Tehran’s clout in the country has brought some leaders of armed factions in Iraq to suspect a link between the demonstrators and the U.S.
Accusations from local allies of Iran have emerged, such as Qais al-Khazali, the chief of the pro-Iran Asaib Ahl al-Haq.
Describing the protests as “politically-motivated”, al-Khazali stressed: “The demonstrations allegedly launched on Tuesday, Oct. 1, are linked to the [U.S.] deal of the century which aims to settle the Palestinian issue.”
He underlined that the Sadrist movement, which leads the Alliance Towards Reforms bloc, confirmed that the protests did not “represent the alliance or the direction of its leaders,” despite the fact that the government “did not accomplish any achievements in the arena of service, economic or political,” which had led the Sadrists to organize several protests over the past years.
The main factors for which these protests erupted were deep deterioration in living conditions, poor basic services, corruption and a lack of jobs. None of these reasons seem to be politicized in any capacity.
Threatening to become the most dangerous challenge to date to Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, the demonstrations have made officials on high alert.
In an attempt to break the crisis, the country’s National Security Council held an emergency meeting with Abdul-Mahdi discussing how to address the protests, with the Interior Ministry blaming “incitement to violence on a group of rioters.”
Experts believe that the Iraqi government’s reaction was “exaggerated” and brought the protests to forehead to headlines worldwide, grabbing the political attention of countries such as the U.S. and several international organizations.
However, Iraqi authorities have failed to agree on a common position regarding the protests
Iraq’s president and the speaker of the parliament both agreed on the demonstrators’ right to peaceful protest without harming public property or attacking security forces.
The prime minister said his government was keen to “find real radical solutions to many accumulated problems” and did not “differentiate between demonstrators exercising their constitutional right to peaceful demonstration.”
A second meeting was held on Thursday Oct. 3. among the Presidency, Prime Ministry and Parliament Speaker, who issued a general statement stressing the importance of communication channels with the protestors, setting up a committee to understand their demands and implementing the country’s social security law.
The violence caused by the protests from both demonstrators and security forces has made local neighbors like Iran as well as the U.S. worry about the situation in Iraq.
Since tensions began escalating in May between Washington and Tehran following the reinstatement of U.S. sanctions, Iraq has turned into an arena between both countries over militias allied to Iran that have repeatedly targeted U.S. interests in Baghdad and Basra.
With between 5,000 to 8,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, the U.S. is concerned for the fate of its military presence as well as thousand of employees in American companies.
In a statement, the U.S. embassy in Baghdad supported the demonstrators’ “right to protest peacefully.”
Beyond fear for its troops’ and employees’ safety, the U.S. is also concerned that if the Iraqi central government were to lose control of the capital, Iran-allied forces could move to control Baghdad in a similar fashion as Tehran-backed Houthi rebels took over the Yemeni capital of Sanaa in 2014.
*Bassel Barakat contributed to this report from Ankara
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