This article was originally written for socialistworld.net, the website of the Committee for a Workers’ International.
Following two months of a sweeping revolt across the south of Iraq, and the capital, Baghdad, Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi announced his resignation, after just over a year in office. His removal is seen by this courageous protest movement as just a start to what is necessary. The protests began with small forces but became a major uprising, with occupations of Tahrir Square and roads and bridges in Baghdad, and attempts to storm the government zone.
In particular, it has been the terrible shootings of unarmed protesters by the state security forces and linked militias that has led to escalating fury and increased numbers turning out to demonstrate. Over 400 have been killed and around 15,000 injured since 1 October. The deadly repression has included targeted shots by snipers, and untargeted, indiscriminate firing of automatic weapons into crowds, as happened in the city of Nasiriyah last week, where over 40 were killed. Deaths have also been caused by the firing of heavy tear gas canisters and rubber bullets.
The consequent rage has led to daily and nightly battles, which reporters from the Guardian newspaper (UK), Martin Chulov and Nadia al-Faour, described as taking on “a revolutionary zeal that the country’s well-armed military was struggling to contain even as it deployed overwhelming force” (30.11.19). The level of anger has been reflected in many incidences of buildings being set alight across southern Iraq.
The Iraqi people have suffered decades of repression or conflict in various forms: the authoritarian dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, the brutal invasion by US-led forces in 2003, the inevitable insurgency against that occupation, terrible sectarian bloodshed, appalling terrorist acts, and the conquests of Isis and counter-battles to retake that ground.
Now, a mood of resistance against hardship and destruction is growing, with the state forces finding it very difficult to quell the protest movement through use of force. The prolonged period of turmoil, insecurity and dire poverty for the majority has led to a hardening of opposition to the authorities in the face of the massacres and a feeling of having little to lose.
Inequality and poverty
Iraq is the Opec cartel’s second largest oil producer but Iraqi workers have watched the ruling layer enriching itself from the hundreds of billions of dollars of oil income while towns and cities have crumbling infrastructure and virtually non-existent services. People lack clean water, regular electricity, access to health care and much else. A quarter of young people are unemployed.
The mood is reflected in the words of a Baghdad resident quoted in the UK Times: “How is it that we are one of the richest countries and our people are broke? How is it that we still don’t have access to water … We have high unemployment, corruption, no services and they still have the guts to fire at us when we protest? (30.11.19)
The protest movement, as in a number of other countries, has been largely spontaneous and leaderless, using social media and word of mouth. Women have involved themselves in it, as have school and university students, in what is overall an uprising “led by a large disenfranchised working class and joined by some of the country’s middle classes” to the use the words of the two Guardian journalists mentioned above. Importantly, strike action by sections of workers has also been taken, at schools and law courts in Baghdad, for instance.
It is not the first protest wave in recent years. Buildings in the government ‘Green Zone’ in Baghdad were invaded by demonstrators in 2016. In 2018, local government offices and other buildings were set alight in protests across the country against lack of electricity and water.
Search for ideas and unity
There has inevitably been much discussion among protesters over what demands to put forward, with gatherings issuing calls that have included the dissolving of parliament and new elections, overhauling the political system and putting government officials on trial. The early stage and limitations of the calls being made were noted by journalist Patrick Cockburn when he wrote: “The protesters in the streets – the radicalism of whose demands and their vagueness about how they might be achieved resembles French students during the 1968 events in France – are not able to say what they would put in place of the present corrupt and dysfunctional government.” (12.11.19)
For the tremendous courage and determination of the protesters to lead to fundamental change it will take the building of working-class based organisations that can democratically discuss and debate the socialist policies that are necessary and a strategy for the struggles to implement them. A non-sectarian approach will be essential to achieve strength in workers’ unity; and significantly, the present movement shows moves in that direction. It is not as overt as in the recent mass demonstrations in Lebanon, where a conscious rejection of ethnic and religious division has been strongly voiced. In Iraq, the revolt at this stage is largely in the Shia-dominated areas geographically but it is aimed against a Shia-dominated government and ruling elite, which inevitably elevates the issue of class interests over religious, national or ethnic interests.
Even in the darkest days of Iraq’s civil war, the CWI always had the perspective that the working class would at a later stage re-unite and move to challenge its capitalist enemy. For example, Peter Taaffe wrote in Socialism Today in December 2006:
“Inevitably on the basis of capitalism, the elites in each ‘community’ seek advantages for themselves, a greater share of power and wealth, to the disadvantage of other ethnic or religious groups. For this reason, we have consistently advocated that alongside the demand for an immediate withdrawal of troops should go the call for class unity across sectarian divisions. This was accompanied by a warning that a bloody sectarian civil war was possible if that was not done. Unfortunately, a near civil war now exists on the ground … But they [the Iraqi workers and poor] may appear to be scattered and atomised at the present time but that will change. Only a socialist, democratic confederation of the Shia, Kurds and Sunnis, the Turcomen and others, can open up a new road for the Iraqi people.”
Part of the basis for a less sectarian climate now is due to the events of the last few years. For instance, in a report on Isis, the International Crisis Group wrote: “Iraq has changed in ways that might prevent Isis from returning in force. The nationwide sectarian polarisation from which Isis benefited has faded. Additionally, now that many Sunni Arabs have experienced the dual trauma of Isis’s draconian control and the military campaign to recapture their home areas from Isis, most want nothing more to do with the group. The Iraqi security forces, for their part, have curbed their excesses and forged a more functional relationship with Sunni Arabs.” (11.10.19)
Those words were written just as the Iraqi security forces were turning to new ‘excesses’ against the current Shia-based uprising, but they illustrate some recent developments.
The underlying reason for the present state brutality was touched on by Cockburn when he commented: “The protests are the biggest threat to the power of the Iraqi political establishment since Isis was advancing on Baghdad in 2014. In many respects, the danger to the status quo is greater now because Isis was an existential threat to the Shia majority who had no choice but to support their ruling elite, however predatory and incompetent they had proved in office”.
Now that the Isis threat is much reduced, Shia workers – who pre-2003 were heavily repressed by Saddam Hussein’s Sunni Arab Baathist regime – can turn towards challenging their new ruling class oppressors.
Weak, fragile government
Realising the threat the protest movement could become to their power and privileges, the Shia leaders have tried resorting to promises of reforms and have been divided over the use of bloodshed and the other forms of repression used – kidnappings, beatings, detentions, curfews, media and internet shutdowns, etc.
Many of the Shia parliamentarians have felt compelled to call for measures to respond to some of the demands of the protesters. Early in October, Abdul-Mahdi declared a 13-point plan of measures, including improving housing for the poor, training for unemployed youth, and some subsidies.
Also in October a government inquiry into the killings said that excessive force had been used and the government even declared the dead protesters to be ‘martyrs’, so granting their families certain benefits. But none of this was anywhere near enough. The same Abdul-Mahdi had promised in his election manifesto, last year, to deliver more jobs, lower-cost housing, anti-corruption steps, yet abysmally failed to deliver on his programme.
Eventually, realising that the movement was not going to subside without more concessions, the top religious Shia leader, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, stepped in to push for the removal of Abdul-Mahdi as prime minister. Before that, Al-Sistani had already tried calling for an end to “excessive force”, criticised the failure to end corruption and said the protesters’ demands for improved public services should be met.
But the greatly fragmented and corrupt coalition government will do none of this. A coalition led by Muqtada al-Sadr won the largest number of seats in the May 2018 national election but not enough to form a government on its own. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Al-Sadr has pursued a populist course full of twists and turns, aimed mainly at a Shia base. Initially, he led a military confrontation against US forces, but later worked with them against Isis. He has veered between blowing warm and cold towards Iran, and inside Iraq has shifted from encouraging sectarian civil war against Sunnis, to a less sectarian position.
Iraq’s 2018 election result was not the best one for the Iranian regime because its main supporting bloc came second. The Iranian elite’s regional influence had been boosted considerably by the result of the US-led invasion of Iraq, as it elevated Iraqi Shias – co-religionists adopted as allies by Iran – into dominating positions.
The protests taking place now in Iraq are seen as a major threat by Iran’s ruling class because it does not want to see the removal of Iraqi politicians it is able to influence, like Abdul Mahdi, or to see its economic interests in Iraq damaged. And crucially, Iran’s ruling theocracy fears that Iranian workers will be inspired to protest too, as has already happened (see https://www.socialistworld.net/2019/11/22/fuel-rise-sparks-nationwide-anger-across-iran/).
These factors explain the many media reports indicating the direct involvement of Iranian forces in the shootings of protesters in Iraq. As well as pro-Iranian paramilitary brigades in the umbrella Popular Mobilisation Forces (Hashd al-Shaabi) being involved in firing into crowds and targeting protest leaders, Patrick Cockburn reports in the Independent (London) newspaper that they “sent their black-clad militants into television stations publicising the protests to wreck their equipment and studios. They assaulted injured demonstrators in hospitals and abducted and threatened journalists, doctors and anybody else backing the demonstrations” (10.11.19).
In the same article, Cockburn states categorically: “It is the Iranian leadership, and more especially General Qasem Soleimani, the commander of Revolutionary Guard’s al-Quds force and supremo of Iranian regional policy, who is orchestrating the campaign to smash the protests by sustained use of violence”. In another article, Cockburn wrote: “Soleimani had flown into Baghdad airport on 2nd October, taken a helicopter to the Green Zone and chaired a security meeting – taking the place of the usual chair, Iraq’s PM. There could be no plainer demonstration of Iranian power over Iraqi policy” (London Review of Books, 21.11.19).
The Popular Mobilisation Forces are closely linked with Iraq’s regular military, with many of the fighters paid by the Iraqi government. Their chairperson is Faleh al-Fayyad, the government’s national security adviser.
It is also the case that in Lebanon the pro-Iran Hezbollah has clearly been encouraged by Iran to use force against anti-government demonstrations there and have done so.
The propaganda of Iran’s spokespeople is to blame the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia, among other ‘enemy’ regimes, for the revolts in Iraq, Lebanon and Iran. For instance, the Iranian ambassador to Iraq called the protesters in Najaf: “Foreign mercenaries who are encouraged by TV channels of enemies” (Times (London), 29.11.19). A Baghdad protester was quoted by the same newspaper three days later responding to such allegations: “If you are Shia, they can’t call you Isis like they call Sunnis who protest, so they try to say that the protests belong to the foreign embassies instead” (Times, 2.12.19).
Not surprisingly, anger towards the Iranian regime has grown among workers and youth in Baghdad and across southern Iraqi cities, with “Iran out!” chanted on demonstrations. The Iranian consulates in Karbala and Najaf have been burnt down.
In the Western capitalist media it is this anger against Iran that is stressed, but reports in the Middle East point out that hostility is also directed at the US, which still has around 5,000 troops based in Iraq.
A Reuters’report by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, in Baghdad, said: “Iraqis blame a political elite they say is subservient to one or other of Iraq’s two main allies, the United States and Iran. Many suspect these powers use Iraq as a proxy to pursue their struggle for regional influence, without concern for the needs of ordinary people.” (27.10.19)
No to imperialist interventions
Which outside powers are blamed the most is partly generational. The older generation still outraged by the US-led invasion, occupation and continued presence in Iraq. While the youth – who have become politically aware in the post-invasion period – are focussing on Iran’s recent and present interventions.
Of course, those two are not the only outside powers intervening in Iraq. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, appeared in Baghdad for meetings early in October. Israel launched drone attacks on some Popular Mobilisation Forces’ weapons depots in Iraq, in August. The International Criminal Court has said it may investigate the British military over the allegations of war crimes committed in Iraq. And so the list goes on.
It is understandable, therefore, that nationalist chants are common among the protesters, with many wrapped in the Iraqi flag. Opposing all foreign intervention – including under the flag of the United Nations – must be a vital part of the movement, adopting the standpoint that the Iraqi people will decide their own future and that Iraq will not become a proxy battle ground for foreign capitalist interests. The Iraqi people have already shown, more than once, that when they move into action they can counter foreign capitalist interventions and meddling – against the US-led occupation and now against the Iranian regime’s acts too.
But the question is then raised: What kind of Iraq will serve the interests of working class and middle class Iraqi people, and from all backgrounds: Shia, Sunni, Kurdish and others? Certainly not one in which power continues to be held by capitalists and their representatives, who are fighting over influence, resources, markets and national positions.
Among the protesters it is not uncommon to hear the demand for an election committee, and even a parliament, made up of technocrats rather than political party representatives. This is in recoil from the existing corrupt political parties and leaders – the “1,000 Saddams” as the CWI warned of at the time of the Blair-Bush invasion – none of whom adopt the only way of delivering fundamental change. This would be through socialist policies of public ownership of the oil industry and other key sectors of the economy, under working-class control and management, and a with a socialist economic and social plan. It is the Iraqi working class that most needs such a programme and that faces the urgent task of building democratically-run organisations in its own interests to deliver it.
To begin to do this, neighbourhood assemblies – like those being formed in the mass movement in Chile – should be organised, on a non-sectarian basis, to democratically debate and decide the next tasks. These bodies, which should also be organised in workplaces and colleges, would need to elect delegates to local committees which can play a leading role in taking forward the struggle and in organising vitally-needed defence for the participants.
By linking these committees together, the basis would be laid for a mass movement capable of bringing about an elected constituent assembly to formulate a new constitution. These moves would be part of preparing the way for the election of a government of, and for, workers, the poor and young people – the overwhelming majority in society – which could sweep away capitalism and organise society on a socialist basis.