Iraqi protesters take cover during a demonstration against state corruption, failing public services, and unemployment, in the Iraqi capital Baghdad's central Khellani Square on October 4, 2019. Photo: Ahmad al-Rubaye / AFP

Hundreds of Iraqi youth took to the streets of Baghdad and cities across the south on Thursday night, staking out squares for planned nationwide weekend demonstrations calling for an overhaul of the country’s political system. 

“The people want the fall of the regime,” demonstrators were heard chanting as they marched through Baghdad, part of a protest movement targeting corruption, failing public services, and rising unemployment.

The slogan “Victory or martyrdom” was circulated on social media ahead of the protests, underscoring the risks they are undertaking. 

A violent crackdown on peaceful demonstrations earlier this month, which saw snipers targeting protesters in the head, took the lives of more than one hundred people and wounded thousands of others. 

In the wake of the massacres, the government formed an investigative committee to determine who gave the order to use force against the protesters – with the promise of putting those responsible on trial.

The results of the investigation angered people further, however, as they held protesters responsible for contributing to the insecurity.

The committee also acquitted authorities from carrying out systematic repression against the protesters.

The government meanwhile embarked on an arrest campaign of civil activists who have not yet been released. Their whereabouts remain unclear.

Several Iraqi journalists fled to the Kurdistan region in the north after they received threats from unknown parties.

Zero accountability

The Iraqi government announced earlier this month an emergency plan that aims to create jobs for the unemployed and open up lending to small and medium enterprises in an attempt to calm the streets. 

It appears the attempt failed, as the repressed anger of Baghdad spilled into the streets Thursday night.

Iraqis are divided, however, on whether to bring down the political system that was formed under the supervision of the United States in 2003 or to seek deep reforms within the existing political structure.

Those who call for bringing down the political process believe the situation hit a dead end and can no longer be reformed. On this basis, they demand a radical change that entails forming a new political structure banning political parties that have played a political role in the past 15 years.

Others demand holding accountable those who have been corrupt, amending the constitution, and drafting a new election bill that guarantees small parties’ access to the parliament, and holding early elections under the supervision of the United Nations and other international institutions.

Most of the protesters have been young people between 16 to 35 years old in a country where youth represent more than half of the population.

The political elite in Iraq fear a rise in anger against the ruling class in the country amid the calls for protests. Several politicians in the country have accused the protesters of seeking to bring down the democratic process in Iraq and following US, Israeli or Saudi agendas to destabilize the country.

The Sadr factor

When the young cleric Muqtada al-Sadr endorsed the protests, the young protesters were divided.

Sadr is one of the most controversial politicians in Iraq for being both part of the government and the opposition at the same time.

The cleric has more than 50 representatives in the parliament and dozens of leading public servants in state institutions, yet he accuses the government and parliament of delinquency.

Following the crackdown on protests earlier this month, Sadr called on his representatives to boycott the parliament, a step seen at the time by protesters as insufficient.

But the popular cleric adopted a rhetoric in favor of the young angry protesters and acknowledged their right to protest.

On October 19, Sadr issued a statement in support of the protests that read: “All of the politicians and the government live in a state of fear and hysteria from the popular uprising.” The political class in Iraq is trying to fix the situation, he added, but “it is too late.” 

Sadr achieved major political gains when his followers took part in 2015 protests in Iraq. At the time, he was accused of taking advantage of the protest wave for political purposes.

Today, the same scenario is replayed, with the protesters weary of how Sadr might use their movement for his own political gain, and then leave their demands unmet.

In all cases, with or without Sadr’s participation, the current movement is gaining momentum and the calls for protests are attracting attention on social media and in the streets. 

‘Give me victory’

The Iraqi government, in an effort to regain trust after the crackdown earlier this month, has formed a new law enforcement force made up of several security institutions with the stated purpose of protecting gatherings. 

A source told Asia Times on condition of anonymity that even this new force was meant for crowd control, and would be called upon to repress the demonstrations if necessary. Protest organizers say they have already faced threats from militias. 

It is here where the participation of Sadr supporters could mitigate a possible crackdown, as the authorities fear of the cleric’s social and military force.

But the young protesters say they do not depend on any political force to support them.

The slogans spread on social media seem more radical than those used in 2015 and 2018, which reflect the size of the challenge faced by the protesters in the streets.

One example is a chant: “Victory or death.”

Another slogan heard in the protests earlier this month was, “Iran go outside, Iraq will remain free” — a sign of rising frustration with Iraq’s powerful neighbor and its influence on domestic parties and politics, and reports Iran-backed militias were behind the deadly crackdown earlier this month. 

While several measures to be taken by political parties, including calling for a government resignation were circulated, young protesters found them to be insufficient.

Political parties would likely have to offer significant compromises to the street to avoid the unknown. These compromises would include holding the corrupt accountable and early elections after passing a new election law.

Yet the political parties do not seem willing to offer those compromises, indicating an increasing likelihood of confrontations between the authorities and the protesters in the days to come.

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