The Death of Qassem Soleimani and the Survival of Iraq’s Protests

So surprising was the death of Qassem Soleimani, former leader of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps—Quds Force (IRGC—QF), that it was fair to suspect – at least initially – that he was killed by mistake. Perhaps America had meant to kill his travelling companion, the leader of Kataib Hezbollah Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, instead, with Soleimani merely (in that odd euphemism) collateral damage.

That would have been a fitting fate for someone whose military career caused the deaths of so many – thousands of them civilians: hardly priority targets for most soldiers fighting most wars. But not for Soleimani and his subordinates, like the late al-Muhandis.

It is blackly comic too that, in its first act of retaliation for Soleimani’s death, Iran decided to bomb Iraqi airbases which housed foreign troops, killing no foreigners, wounding a number, but critically hurting a number of Iraqis – all before toning down its language.

With the ritual spilling of some Iraqi blood, Soleimani was avenged, or so the Iran state wishes to suggest. That would be a quite fitting memorial, given how much Iraqi blood Soleimani was busily engaged in spilling at the time of his death.

The shooting down of a civilian airliner, with Canadians and Ukrainians and Iranians aboard, at the loss of all lives, added more tragedy to farce.

Another tragedy was in progress in Iraq while the world briefly devoted itself to Soleimani.

The exact number of protesters who have been killed in demonstrations in Iraq is disputed. But it is over 600, and likely a number more.

Protesters have been shot by snipers, whose affiliation was declared to be unknown by Iraq’s military. Other demonstrators have had their skulls shattered by tear gas canisters fired directly and purposely into their heads. A number of activists and journalists have been assassinated by gangs of men after they left protests, in moments where they were briefly alone and without guard.

These facts have not been changed by Soleimani’s death, and nor have they been addressed. It is worth noting once again why so many Iraqis are on the streets, what they want – and why they are right to feel aggrieved that no one else seems, even slightly, to care.

The protesters are driven by distaste of an elaborately corrupt political system on which their votes and voices have no purchase. They see the results of its dysfunction all around – in the slow rebuilding of the country after the campaign against the Islamic State, in the failure of government after government to provide services, and in the continued presence of militia rule and the mob violence it can approximate.

Across Iraq, rivers are polluted and towns unrebuilt where they were destroyed. The currency is weak and unemployment is high, with poverty even more pronounced.

Stasis dominates in cities and towns across the country, and the vaunted defeat of ISIS has not led to or guaranteed peace.

That documents recently showed the effective capture of the Iraqi state by Iranian operations only serves to make the point: Iraq’s government is so crooked, and so ineffective, that its suborning to Iranian interests not only didn’t make international news; it barely represented a change from the assumed norm. A bureaucracy not assumed to be run by its enemies – as Robert Conquest jestingly described – but actually run by its enemies, with no difference in effect.

Iraq’s political system has reacted to these protests not with accommodation, but with force. And when that did not stop the demonstrators, factions within the political system attempted to co-opt and hollow out their goals.

Muqtada al-Sadr, a Shia cleric who was troublesome during the occupation and attempted to transform into a parliamentary force in 2018, has done his best to infiltrate and undermine protests.

Variously operating as an Iraqi nationalist and a figure in international Shiism, Sadr has played a double game; he has endorsed protests, then rescinded his endorsement, but not before attempting to reform the demonstrations in his image and under his auspices.

To protesters, he is at best a symbol of the very system they wish to reform or remove; at worst, given all the violence, his efforts are an insidious form of sabotage, an arsonist claiming special privileges as a volunteer fireman.

Some things are clear. Protesters want to reform the political system; they want an end to Iran’s domination of Iraq; and they – disproportionately young – want finally to feel, after almost twenty years of conflict and interludes which resemble it, that they live in a modern society where individuals are able to reap the benefits of peace and stability rather than being prisoners of fortune to its worst circumstances.

When Soleimani died, a lot was said and emoted about his importance. To the Iranian people most of all – although, as a great deal of reporting has shown, he was hardly a figure who enjoyed universal approval and respect. But it was also assumed, a little too hastily, that his death on Iraqi soil would elicit entirely negative reactions from Iraqis. That simply has not happened.

Many demonstrators, entirely reasonably, worried about further conflict where Iraq could serve as a theatre of war for two external forces. But others called Soleimani’s death a ‘victory’, while stating that it was his people and his networks – including Muhandis – which had killed demonstrators and had reduced Iraq’s politics to a sideshow, in which Iranian operatives openly boasted about their control of events.

All talk of a third world war has subsided into an uncomfortable silence. War was never likely, but even the most excitable cannot now maintain the pretence. But while talk of global conflict has fizzled out in a welcome way, discussion of Iraq’s protests and the fates of those on Iraq’s streets has not replaced it.

A momentary global fixation has once again passed. But that is not enough. Soleimani’s death was a surprise and definitely punctuated this period of Iraq’s importance. It did not end it. The least we can do, now his death is confirmed and its fire has partially abated, look straight and squarely at what is going on before our eyes.

This essay was originally published on Medium.

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