When they started at the beginning of October, protests in Iraq were attributed to general malaise in government and, crucially, the dismissal of Lieutenant-General Abdel-Wahab al-Saadi, a popular counterterrorism officer who had notably fought against the Islamic State.
Five weeks on, how the protests started is hardly discussed. Why the protests began does matter but more significant is that the demonstrations have been met with extreme violence.
From the beginning in Baghdad, protesters were targeted with live fire. Hundreds have been shot, with at least 320 killed and thousands wounded. Authorities used tear gas and hot-water cannons against demonstrators. The way in which this violence has been inflicted – and by whom – is extraordinary.
Many protesters have been shot by snipers, whose existence was acknowledged by Iraq’s military but, surreally, the snipers were disavowed by Iraqi authorities as unknowns. This sparked suspicion that the snipers were members of Iraq’s militias, many of which are sponsored by Iran, or perhaps directly drawn from Iranian forces.
Iran’s encroachment in Iraq is unpopular and has been a focus of protesters across the country, including in the holy Shia city of Karbala, where, on November 3, the Iranian Consulate was attacked by demonstrators.
It is widely held that the crackdown on protests is supervised and perhaps ordered by Qassem Soleimani, head of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ al-Quds Force. Soleimani is instrumental in the running of Iran’s network of militias in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.
Shockingly, in Iraq, demonstrators have been killed by tear-gas canisters fired at close range, striking their heads and shattering their skulls. The canisters may provide a clue for the identity of those killing protesters. An Amnesty International investigation suggested that some of the tear-gas grenades were of Iranian origin.
This use of force has not ended the protests but rather emboldened demonstrators. To them, the violence proves Iraq’s leaders are either willing to kill civilians or are beholden to other forces that would do the same.
Saadi’s dismissal and ‘the government’s deadly response to peaceful protests on October 1, convinced a generation that has not yet seen stability or comfort that the status quo must end’, wrote Rasha al-Aqeedi, editor of Irfaa Sawtak and Robert A. Fox, fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
Michael Pregent, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, said: ‘The international media need to put a spotlight on the systematic killing of protesters by a security force co-opted by pro-Tehran militias – militias directly tied to Qassem Soleimani.
‘This is a security force that the [prime minister] cannot order to take on militias because the units have been co-opted by the Badr Corps, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah’, all Iranian-sponsored organisations, Pregent said.
‘The prime minister is powerless to stop them and, worse, is like-minded in the application of force against the protesters’, he said.
Al-Aqeedi noted something protesters fear: that ‘the ruling class doesn’t consider the people to be human beings’. More protesters are killed every day.
Many say the death toll is proof of the Iranian hold over the Iraqi state and its willingness to spill Iraqi blood to make clear that control.
‘Soleimani can kill as many Iraqis as he wants to send that message – only a media spotlight on the brutality of this killing campaign can stop what’s happening in Iraq. The world should care,’ Pregent said.
International media have reported Iraq’s protests and the violence inflicted on those who took to the streets but this has largely failed to capture the attention of US and European publics.
Internet speeds across Iraq have been throttled partly to prevent protesters using the internet to organise but also, many suspect, to prevent video and testimony depicting the violence of the state and militias to leave the country and attract global outrage.
‘Iraq cannot become another Syria, where you can kill as many as you can. This is an opportunity for the world to make amends for ignoring the beginnings of the Syria killing campaign – and get Iraq right,’ Pregent said.
The violent response unleashed by authorities has not diminished the protests. Demonstrators are resigned but also hopeful. Video exists and has achieved wide circulation of protesters playing football amid gunfire and fighting. Others have taken to singing and dancing in city squares, where force cannot dislodge those willing to demonstrate.
‘In the immediate future, the biggest fear is the slow crackdown that can be carried out by waves of arrests and assassinations’, al-Aqeedi said. “One can look at how the Islamic Revolution treated its dissidents.
‘Despite how it ends and a violent scenario is certainly a possibility, the changes brought about by this uprising will not be reversed. There will be a next time – and a time after that – until their demands are fully met.’
This piece was originally published in The Arab Weekly.