headlines about the Middle East crisis, there’s a casualty you may have missed.
Most already know that, in retaliation for a U.S. drone strike that killed
Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani and militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis at
Baghdad’s airport, Iran launched missile strikes on Iraqi bases housing U.S.
the hidden news: This crisis is threatening to undermine the peaceful protest
movement that for months has been challenging the Iraqi political system and
establishment — putting the protesters in a very difficult situation, diverting
attention from their demands and, worse, making it easier for the Iraqi
establishment and its attendant militias to mistreat them.
before the crisis, I have been in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, researching the
protests that started in October and moving through the tents of different
protest groups. Here’s what they are saying about the uprising and the recent
Does The Uprising Want?
2003 U.S. invasion, the Iraqi state was already weakened by a decade of U.N.
sanctions. However, the U.S. occupation provoked a collapse of the state; the
political system the United States then imposed on Iraq plunged the country
into a sectarian war. The U.S. administration put in place a system based on
ethnic, sectarian and religious quotas and brought in Iraqi exiles to run the
country. This exacerbated communal, social and political tensions, and
fragmented the country along communal lines, which contributed to the rise of
the Islamic State.
uprising has attempted to reverse the resulting political dynamics. The
protesters proclaim Iraq’s unity and sovereignty, and are calling for a
functioning, transparent and democratically elected government with strong
state institutions that deliver services equally to all citizens. Through their
main slogan, “We want a homeland,” protesters are denouncing political
corruption, sectarianism and nepotism, as well as the rule of militias and
armed groups tied to the political elite that have been attacking journalists,
civil society activists and protesters.
come from throughout the population: young working-class and poor Iraqis, the
educated middle class, university students, workers unions and civil society
activists. They’ve argued that Iraq has been weakened by a flawed political
process and sectarian, corrupt and repressive governments. Together they’ve
demanded radical changes, including the organization of new elections following
the appointment of a new prime minister, a new electoral law and constitution,
as well as the prosecution of the political leaders accused of corruption and
the killing of unarmed protesters. They demand that Iraq’s rich oil resources
be redistributed to benefit the poor and to build electricity, water, health
and housing infrastructures, as well as state institutions and services.
severely wounded young men are part of the Tahrir Square protests, including a
significant proportion of former Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) members who
volunteered to combat Islamic State fighters in Mosul in 2014. Having been
deeply marked by the war against the Islamic State, they now accuse political
leaders of using their sacrifices for their country simply to benefit the elite
and its militias.
response, the Iraqi political establishment has cracked down on the protest
movement, working with Iranian-allied groups and militias that shoot with live
ammunition and tear gas canisters. Many of the protesters consider the two
people killed in Baghdad — Soleimani and Muhandis — to be partly responsible
for the bloody repression that has reportedly killed more than 500 unarmed
Iraqi protesters and wounded some 20,000 others.
members of the Iraqi establishment and their militias are tied to Iran. As a
result, slogans against Iranian influence in the country have been prominent.
But protesters have been vocal in rejecting not just Iranian but also U.S.
influence, asserting Iraq’s sovereignty.
time under many protesters’ tents, I heard similar demands expressed from
individuals with very different backgrounds. They’ve developed a similar
discourse defending “civic-ness,” or madaniyya in Arabic. They have refused the
use of Islam by politicians to justify sectarian politics and corruption, and
insist that state security forces should be the only ones wielding weapons.
U.S. Strike Threatens The Uprising
political elite have often accused protesters of being American agents in Iraq.
The U.S. drone strike has further inflamed anti-American sentiment, including
the Iraqi parliament’s recent vote to call for the expulsion of all U.S. forces
On Jan. 3,
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo commented on the U.S. drone strike in a Fox News
interview. He said that Iraqi protesters were celebrating the death of
Soleimani — and claimed that the protests were not against America. With his
comments, he put protesters in direct danger of being attacked by pro-Iran
armed groups and militias, bolstering the militias’ claim that they represent
the resistance to U.S. presence.
result, for now, the protesters’ political demands have been pushed to the
side. Some key political constituencies had been leaning toward supporting the
demand for madaniyya (civic-ness) and nonviolence, including supporters of the
Shiite Islamist political leader Moqtada al-Sadr. But Sadr and some of his
supporters are now eager to once again take up arms against the United States.
Immediately after the U.S. drone killings, Sadr called on his armed groups,
including the Mahdi Army, to assemble and “fight against Americans.” In the
past few days, supporters of Soleimani and Muhandis have taken advantage of the
crisis to violently attack peaceful protesters in Baghdad, Basra and Nasiriyah,
killing two people.
Square protesters are trying to push back. After Soleimani and Muhandis were
killed, protesters released a statement: After expressing determination to
remain in Tahrir to push forward their demands, the statement denounced the
attack on Iraq’s sovereignty and the breach of international laws and
reiterated the uprising’s refusal of any external influence, Iranian or
American. Protesters now call for a massive protest on Friday that will renew
their demands, and emphasize their opposition to having Iraq used as a
battleground for a proxy war.
Ali is assistant professor of sociology at Rutgers University at Newark and the
author of “Women and Gender in Iraq: Between Nation-Building and
Headline: Iraqis have been holding peaceful mass protests. The U.S. strike and
its aftermath are undermining that.
Source: The Washington Post