Iraqi protesters clash with pandemic, demand political change

Some groups have suspended rallies, while others continue to protest, saying the corruption in the Iraqi government is worse than the virus.

As Iraq has confirmed over 500 cases of coronavirus, including over 40 deaths, activists in the country are calling for a temporary break from protests that have rocked the country since last October. Though the protests have been largely leaderless, organizers and government critics have told protesters to stay home to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Some groups have suspended rallies, while others continue to protest, saying the corruption in the Iraqi government is worse than the virus.

Sinan Antoon, an Iraqi scholar, poet, and novelist, has emphasized that the push for institutional change is about creating a more resilient Iraq.

“It’s unprecedented in the modern history of Iraq that so many people from so many different backgrounds come together for this set of demands,” he said. “It’s basically the culmination of 16 years of corruption and inefficiency and failure on the part of the political class.”

“What’s really important is the reclaiming of Iraqi identity and a new sense of Iraqi nationalism that transcends the sectarian discourse,” said Antoon.

Though Iraqis are bracing for the impacts of the global pandemic, many still take to the streets to demand change, unwilling to let anything stop them in their movement to regain sovereignty and national identity. The pro-sovereignty protests have highlighted the ineffectiveness of Iraq’s self-interested government to combat the spread of the virus.

“The government is very weak, it’s very tired, they have no solution for the crises, no solution for the youth who have no jobs,” said one young Iraqi amid the COVID-19 outbreak. “With corona it is very difficult because no one can rely on the government.”

Since last October protests have shaken Iraq’s political and social system, destabilizing the government as a popular movement draws millions of people into the streets. The protesters are pushing for a new alternative to the dysfunctional sectarian regime that came to power after the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. So far, the demonstrations have forced a Prime Minister out of office and over 600 protesters have been killed and 15,000 more injured.

The movement exposed the corruption of an Iraqi government built on sectarian divides and increasingly influenced by Iran and its domestic Shia allies. The now-shaken regime was founded on the idea that Iraqis are divided into Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds, to say nothing of the Yazidis, Christians and smaller minorities in the country.

“Sectarian politics are one of the factors which have most affected minorities since 2003, as they were the weakest link in unequal conflict and in an environment with no role for the law,” said Mikhael Benjamin, director of the Iraq-based NGO Nineveh Center for Minority Rights.

While protest movements were initially led by Sunni minorities, interestingly, many of the protesters in the “October Revolution” are Shia who call for a revision of the political regime run by Shia leaders. Clearly, Iraq’s protesters aren’t focused on sectarian differences: they’re seeking an end to corruption, incompetence and foreign intervention—a rebuilt Iraqi national identity.

Constant foreign meddling and wedging of sectarian divides in Iraq has left the Iraqi people splintered and without national pride or patriotism. Iraqis primarily see themselves as belonging to one of the country’s religious sects. As Watheq Al-Hashimi, director of the Iraqi Group for Strategic Studies in Baghdad, says, "Ask someone in Iraq who they are and, likely as not, they will not reply, as in the past, ‘Iraqi.’ Instead, it will be another identity. Sunni. Shiite. Kurd."

Since 2003, foreign interests and Iraqi politicians—as well as ISIS, militia groups and holdouts from the former Baathist regime—have exploited the country’s sectarian divides, creating tensions where there was coexistence and eroding Iraq’s sense of national pride. For 17 years, leaders in Baghdad have stretched the Iraqi national interest to breaking point, securing ever-more support from Iran, the US and other regional powers.

As social divides became entrenched in Iraq’s post-Saddam political system, elements of the country’s Shia community became increasingly aligned with Iran. Tehran backs Iraqi political parties and relies on Iraq to project its political power in the region and skirt sanctions to export oil, gas and agricultural products.

Iran has backed the Iraqi government's crackdowns on the protesters, with some estimates saying Iranian-backed militias in the country number as many as 150,000. And as the coronavirus outbreak has worsened, violent attacks by Iranian militias on civilians and Iraqi and international troops have increased.

Conflict between the United States and Iran has also exposed both the fragility of Iraqi society and the country’s vulnerability to Iran. The US targeted strike against Iranian military leader Qasem Soleimani in January this year, threw Iran’s role in Iraqi domestic politics into the public spotlight.

Tehran had sent Soleimani to oversee Iran’s intervention in the Iraq protests—and also check up on the Iranian-backed Iraqi militias who also attacked the US embassy in Baghdad. The Iraqi government was ostensibly enabling the Iranians to operate on its territory unimpeded.

However, Iranian influence has caused popular support for Iraq’s political establishment to drop, especially among youth, and protesters have pushed for political factions and militias backed by Iranian influence to disband. Even Shia protesters, perhaps groups who once looked to Iran for spiritual and political leadership, have chanted “Iran! Out! Out!” in the streets and attacked an Iranian consulate.

Instabilities in the social and political system that were swept under the rug as ISIS grew and the rule of law collapsed are now in the crosshairs of a movement backed by millions of young people.

Protesters have rallied around the slogans “No, no to Political Parties” and “We want a homeland,” calling for a new country, one with a political system grounded in popular legitimacy and national identity rather than foreign interference.

The slogans first gained traction during demonstrations in the city of Basra in 2018, where protesters rejected existing political leadership and any formal organization. But without international pressure, the country’s leadership will seek to maintain the status quo.

Protesters’ demands, once nothing more than ineffective street chants, are now beginning to find political footing in Iraq. Under the umbrella of the Sovereignty Alliance for Iraq, groups like the National Independent Iraqi Front, the National Wisdom Movement, and the Najafa Brothers seem to embrace and foster national identity through their anti-sectarian platforms. Organizations like these, along with the protesters representing those abandoned by a dysfunctional state, can restore Iraq's national identity.

The current Iraqi leadership clearly is incapable of building national unity. Last month, Iraqi President Barham Salih appointed former communications minister Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi as the new prime minister, but Allawi was unable to secure the support of the Iraqi parliament and stepped down in early March. Allawi is a Shiite leader who came to power in Iraq’s post-2003 political climate and, like ousted prime minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, he lacks legitimacy in the eyes of Iraq’s diverse popular movement—he doesn’t reflect a new Iraqi national identity.

In many ways, the protests since October have been about exactly this: redefining Iraq’s national interest, free from foreign influence and sectarian exploitation.