Iraqi protesters have given Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi an ultimatum: he has until October 25 to prosecute those who have killed around 600 and wounded 30,000 protesters over the last year. Al-Kadhimi should start to put the killers on trial before the situation deteriorates and restore confidence that Iraq is on the right track.
News is leaking that pro-Iran militias in Iraq are gearing up again to target either the protesters, Baghdad’s Green Zone – home to the US embassy and other diplomatic missions as well as key governmental and legislative bodies that represent the heart of the Iraqi state – or both amid the preparations for the next wave of protests. If this happens, more disorder is expected and al-Kadhimi could lose control of the situation on the ground. This is despite the fact that over the last few days pro-Iran militias announced they would suspend their attacks against the Green Zone and the US in Iraq if the US withdraws its troops.
The protests known as the October Revolution began on October 1, 2019 have witnessed Iraqis rallying for a range of causes, from calls to end corruption to a change in the political system and an end to foreign interference in the country. Without addressing these issues, protests will persist and the country will descend further into chaos.
Since the rise of tensions between the US and Iran, the protesters have been further suppressed by pro-Iran militias, reflecting Iran and its militias’ fear that their foothold is slipping.
While Iraq’s top Shia cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani supported the protesters last year, Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and pro-Iran militias leaders have denounced them. Pro-Iran militias have been targeting, killing, and kidnapping protesters. This puts the protesters against pro-Iran factions and Iran’s attempt to control Iraq.
Unsuccessfully, pro-Iran militias tried to co-opt the protesters for their own ends. The protests have been littered with sentiments against foreign interference including anti-Iranian slogans and they are filled with Iraqi nationalist mottos, songs, and the rise of women’s voices. This demonstrates that Iran and pro-Iran militias have limitations in Iraq and a new generation is emerging that deprecates traditional sectarian parties.
But if the fragmented and disorganized protest movement is to succeed, it needs to organize, set a clear plan, form a list of demands and decry those who attack public buildings. This is not only to achieve its goals, but also to counter accusations from political parties and pro-Iran militias that the movement will produce chaos.
A recent incident in the Shia shrine city of Karbala, where protesters were beaten by guards that protect the shrines because they chanted anti-establishment slogans and commemorated protesters who had been killed, has given an opportunity to pro-Iran militias and the Shia politician and cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to accuse the protesters of being pro-Ba’athist and extremists. The protesters should continue to express their demands, but they should also take into account that demonstrations around the Shrines could be viewed as inappropriate by some Shia entities.
In an interview al-Kadhimi said that October (referring to the October protests) is a turning point in Iraq’s history because the people feel that Iraq is in danger.
On one hand, al-Kadhimi’s position is a blessing because he is not affiliated to a political party— he had been heading the Iraqi National Intelligence Service – which gives him the agility to pursue the protesters’ demands. On the other hand, al-Kadhimi cannot deliver on many of the protesters’ promises, as he does not have control over the pro-Iran militias or other political parties that may obstruct the prosecution of the killers and block tangible reform.
Al-Kadhimi’s attempt to appease both protesters and political factions, including those who are associated with the killings, could undermine his position.
Over the last week, the federal government began a drill and mobilized some of the heavy weaponry in the Green Zone to protect it in case the situation slips out of control. Al-Kadhimi needs the international community and organizations such as the United Nations that can provide him with an edge to charge the killers as it will show that the Iraqi state is able to protect the Green Zone, including the international organizations, as well as deliver justice for the killings.
Although al-Kadhimi met with some of the protesters on the streets, some criticism of him is emerging among protesters, accusing him of being slow to fulfil his promises. To prevent a further loss of faith, Al-Kadhimi should move to put the killers on trial as the first step for reform, and to show the protesters that there is hope in Iraq. Time is ticking.
Dr. Zana Gulmohamad completed a Ph.D. in international politics from the University of Sheffield, UK, where he was a teaching associate for six years. He has written extensively on Iraq and the wider Middle East, including a book chapter “The evolution of Iraq’s Hashd al-Sha’bi (Popular Mobilization Forces)” with Palgrave Macmillan and a book “The making of foreign policy in Iraq: Political factions and ruling elites” with I.B. Tauris. Gulmohamad has worked as a consultant with various organizations, including National Security Innovations, which is based in Boston.
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