Gaithe Alwahab is a JURIST staff correspondent in Iraq and a law graduate of Al Iraqia University. Here he reports from Baghdad. A version of this dispatch was originally filed as his first regular contribution from Iraq in late August, but circumstances he discusses at the end of this piece pre-empted it.
Iraq has been out of the spotlight for international audiences ever since 2017 when ISIS was defeated and the threat of a rogue extremist state threatening one of the most important regions in the world (the Middle East) was for the most part gone.
However, after the celebrations were over and the feeling of victory died down, Iraqis slowly realized once again that they have to face reality. And that reality was not pleasant, to say the least.
Iraq has an infrastructure that is falling down and is plagued with issues such as an electricity grid that only works for 12 hours a day in summer (when 50 degrees Celsius heat is normal in mid-day). We have an economy that is in shambles, where 25% of the youth population is unemployed in a country where the youth represent 60% of the population. We have government institutes filled with corruption and a political system that is based on distributing every high-ranking position in the country from the prime minister to the head of parliament to the president of the nation to the ministers and so on in a sectarian way where every sect has their positions. This last is a practice that goes against the modern Iraqi constitution that clearly states that every Iraqi citizen must have equal rights in all aspects of life. But it is firmly practiced by all political sides in Iraq, which leads to extremely important positions being given to individuals not because they are the best fit for the job, but because of their surname that indicates they are from a certain sect.
In light of these difficulties it should come as no surprise that protests started taking place. At first it was small gatherings of people, each with their own demands. Those small protests were met with unnecessary force even though no rioting ever happened. Eventually, calls were made for a grand protest on 1st of October 2019 at the biggest square in Baghdad, called “Al-tahrier square”. Those calls were answered and tens of thousands of people showed up in Baghdad and also in other provinces of Iraq, with demands ranged from providing more jobs to changing the entire system of governance. The authorities responded in a brutal way that was never seen before: live bullets were fired directly at crowds and smoke grenades fired from grenades launchers leading to horrifying deaths where those grenades went through people’s skulls. Everywhere we saw mages of riot police dragging protestors even when they were out of the protesting areas and beating them. There were even snipers shooting people from rooftops, even though the authorities denied any connection to them. And if all of that was not enough, paramilitary groups and militias got involved and they were no less brutal.
As a result, chaos spread and the situation in Iraq was dire, but even at that people kept protesting. This kept going for months until the prime minister of the time finally resigned on the 30th of November 2019 after many massacres committed against civilians. After that the protests finally began to slow down, but then the unexpected happened. On the 29th of December 2019 the US conducted an air strike against ammunition deposits and bases belonging to Hezbollah (a paramilitary organization that primarily operates in Iraq and Lebanon with allegiance to Iran) and the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (another paramilitary incorporated into the Iraqi government – they played a big role in the war against ISIS but were then involved in a lot of activities that made them a controversial group in Iraq, with almost the entirety of the people protesting being against them). This strike was in retaliation to those two groups launching a mortar strike against an American military base in Kerkukon on 27th of December 2019 that left one American citizen dead and 4 service members wounded. The American response led the militias groups to attack the American embassy in Baghdad on the 31st of December 2019. No one was killed and those supporters weren’t able to get that far inside the embassy. But nevertheless, the Trump administration was outraged by this attack and the response they prepared was something no one imagined.
Exactly at 1am on the 3rd of January 2020 the US struck a vehicle moving across Baghdad International Airport highway. That vehicle was carrying both Abu Mahdi al-Mohandis and Qasim Soulaimani. The first was the time the vice president of the popular mobilization forces mentioned earlier and one of the most prominent faces of that organization, not to mention that he was calling the shots for almost every prominent Iraqi shi’a militia. The second person killed in this strike, Qasim soulimani, was the head of Iran’s Quds forces, a division of Iran’s revolutionary guard responsible for all external operations. He considered the right hand man to Iran Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s and was connected with every Iraqi militia by providing support for them and also calling the shots for many of them ever since the 2003 US led invasion of Iraq. Additionally he controlled many Iraqi politicians, and every time there was an issue that was developing a little too much, the next day we’d hear about him visiting Iraq. To put it simply, these two were of utmost importance to the Iraqi political system for better or for worse. As a result, we in Iraq were in disbelief at first. It was just unthinkable that it could happen. But, later this disbelief turned into fear. It felt like the entire system is going to collapse and every Iraqi knows how fast things can turn violent in our country. However, things didn’t go as horribly as every one thought they would have. The militias alongside Iran promised bloody revenge, but thankfully they didn’t commit to it that much and settled for mortar attacks on American bases. leaving injured soldiers at most and mortar strikes on the US embassy that somehow kept missing their target.
On 22nd of February 2020 the first case of Covid-19 in Iraq was discovered. This slowed things down. as now there was a fear that this could be a very deadly virus and a significant amount of attention was given to it. Furthermore the militia groups seemed to be quite content with their “revenge”. Nearly less than a month after that, Mustafa Al-kahdomy was appointed the head of the temporary government tasked with keeping the country running and ensuring that an early elections will be held. By that time protests had slowed down considerably and by the end of it all 669 civilians had been killed, 24,488 injured and 2,806 arrested. Unfortunately there was little to no coverage of this outside of Iraq and the Arab world.
It is safe to say that after all was said and done things changed in Iraq. But, as usual they didn’t change in the way that the Iraqis hoped for. Political tensions rose up to a new high and new political parties emerged trying to represent the people, but they were a disappointment for the most part. Most importantly the tensions between supporters of change among average Iraqi citizens and the aforementioned militias backed by Iran and their supporters were reaching a boiling point.
Eventually, elections were held on the 25th of October 2021. The results were shocking. Muqtada al Sadar’s party swept the election taking 75 seats out of 320. Other parties, mostly the Shiaa’a ones, quickly claimed that the elections were rigged and demanded that the elections be held again. This kept going for months until eventually the results were ratified and the other parties formed a parliamentary alliance made up of almost every single shia’a party (with the exception of Muqtada al Sadar) and some Sunni parties and Kurdish parties. Muqtada al Sadar made a similar alliance and so far his alliance is still the majority alliance.
This was a huge problem to the opposing parties, because Muqtada al Sadar made it clear that he intended to abandon the old political practice where it did not matter who won the election as at the end of the day and instead all political parties from one sect must sit down and agree on who’s getting what positions. As an example: all Shi’a parties must agree on who is going to be the prime minister with no regard for who won and who lost. This of course would be an existential threat for the entire political system. And since that threat was of this level, it was met with a dangerous amount of escalation, ranging from a war of public statements by all sides to outright violence. The dangerous political situation even led to an assassination attempt on the prime minister, where bombs carried by Drones were fired at his residency on the 7th of November 2021. The perpetrators of this are still unknown to this day.
After that incident things remained relatively calm for a while,at least up until June 12 of 2022 where Muqtada al Sadar announced that he was done with the political games and that all the elected appalment members that belonged to his party must resign immediately. But this was not good news for the other political parties, as they knew that whatwould come after that would be escalation. And escalation did happen. On 7th of July 2022 Muqtada al Sadar’s supporters breached the Iraqi parliament. This was a moment that changed so much in the way that this political crisis was being handled and proved that no one was safe or untouchable. This enraged the opposing alliance. Statements came from every political party and figure condemning this move and demanding that all protestors get out of the Parlament and the Green Zone. The opposing factions formed their own protest but never got too close to the Sadrist protestors for fear of sparking clashes between the two factions, both backed by paramilitary groups. However, even though clashes between protestors never happened they definitely did happen between the armed paramilitary groups on both sides.
As on 30th of august 2022 Muqtada al Sadar announced that he will no longer participate in political life at all. Hours later his enraged followers marched into the presidential palace and overtook it, sparking fears of an upcoming coup or an event of that caliber in Iraq. Eventually all the protestors were driven out of the palace by law enforcement present in the Green Zone, but not without casualties. This led to the Sadrist party armed wing coming into the green zone and in turn starting an armed clash with the military units there and the other factions’ armed wings. The result was a bloody day for Iraq, in the middle of what was supposed to be the safest district in all of the country. After the night passed on that bloody day, Muqtada al Sadar appeared again on TV and stated that he was enraged by the actions of everyone who participated in the clashes that happened in the previous day, and that all of those who had harmed other Iraqis were not true followers of his and that all must leave the Green Zone immediately, whether they were peaceful protestors or armed militia. Within less than an hour of that speech videos emerged of Sadrists not just exiting but running out of the Green Zone in Baghdad. And with that all forms of protest ended. But the situation didn’t calm down all that much as tensions are still high and everyone is trying to anticipate what the next move might be.
Now you are all caught up with Iraq, for this moment at least. This country is still going through a very dangerous period of change, so there will be more major events happening in the near future and hopefully we here will keep you all updated.