Iraqi mourners carry a coffin, draped in a national flag, of a tuktuk (motorised rickshaw) driver who ferried injured protesters and who was later killed in Baghdad during clashes between anti-government protesters and security forces, during a funerary procession in the central holy Shiite shrine city of Najaf on November 28, 2019. Photo: Haidar Hamdani / AFP

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi over the weekend resigned under the pressure of popular protests, electrifying demonstrators and setting the stage for further escalation, including against the country’s all-important oil sector.

“The resignation empowers us. It is the first domino to fall, which will lead to the fall of the remaining political elite who stand in the way of us achieving our demands,” one of the protest leaders told Asia Times on condition of anonymity, over security fears.

In the wake of the Friday night resignation, young protesters stood where others had died just days and weeks before them. They lit candles and shed tears for their comrades, killed in the hundreds by security forces and armed foot-soldiers of Iraq’s political factions.

More than 400 protesters have been killed and 20,000 wounded since nationwide demonstrations broke out on October 25.

The scale of the deadly repression, including tear gas canisters shot directly to the heads of young protesters, led Iraq’s highest Shiite religious authority in the holy city of Najaf to call for the resignation of Abdel Mahdi, a watershed event in the protest movement. 

Should ruling authorities continue to resist major changes sought by the street, demonstrators are expected to take aim at Iraq’s most critical export: oil.

“We are coordinating among provinces to take escalating measures, including halting port and oil field operations, as well as cutting main roads between provinces,” the same protest leader told Asia Times. 

This will hurt the ruling political parties a lot.”

Protesters have already attempted to halt the port and oil field operations in the southern, Shiite-majority province of Basra, Iraq’s gateway to the Persian Gulf. They were repelled, however, with extreme violence.

Iraq’s economy is almost entirely dependent on oil exports.

Iranian consulate torched

Iraqi protesters on Wednesday torched the Iranian consulate in the Shiite holy city of Najaf to the ground, angered by accusations by Iranian officials that their movement was being carried out on behalf of foreign powers.

Protesters in Shiite-majority Dhi Qar, meanwhile, took control of several buildings of security agencies.

Security forces responded with live ammunition against protesters, killing more than 50 and leaving hospitals unable to receive all of the wounded.

The deaths further angered the Iraqi street, mobilizing demonstrations in other provinces, including those with a Sunni majority that had not participated until now.

In Najaf, demonstrators believe the suppression was carried out by the Badr militia, which is led by Hadi al-Amiri. Amiri leads a parliamentary bloc called Fateh (the conquest), which holds 47 of the parliament’s 329 seats.

Fingers have also been pointed at the Ashura Brigades, loyal to the young cleric Ammar al-Hakim. Hakim leads a parliamentary bloc called Tayyar al-Hekma (the current of wisdom), which has 19 parliamentary seats.

Both blocs denied any responsibility for the bloody events that took place in Najaf and Dhi Qar.

United Nations Representative in Iraq Jeanine Hennis condemned the violence in both cities and tweeted: “The increasing numbers of deaths and injuries cannot be tolerated. The presence of spoilers, derailing peaceful protests, places Iraq on a dangerous trajectory.”

The Secretary-General of the UN,  António Guterres, also said that he was “deeply concerned over reports of the continued use of live ammunition against demonstrators in Iraq, which has led to a rising number of deaths and injuries.” 

No government apology

Southern Iraq appeared to be heading towards an armed conflict between the demonstrators and the security forces before the resignation of Adel Mahdi. 

The Shiite religious authorities in Najaf were able to thwart such a development by calling for the parliament to dismiss the government.

Abdel Mahdi announced his intent to resign before the parliament could move to dismiss him, in compliance with the Shiite religious authorities. But what Abdel Mahdi failed to mention in his speech was his government’s responsibility in the death of hundreds of demonstrators and the injury of thousands.

Since the first wave of demonstrations erupted in the beginning of October,  protesters have been demanding that the highest Shiite religious authority in Iraq, Ali al-Sistani, who holds great influence with the country’s politicians, to intervene and push the political players to impose reforms.

Sistani, however, continued to speak through emissaries in Karbala and Najaf, and his instructions were not anywhere near the protesters’ hopes and demands. This approach prompted the younger protesters to voice rare criticism of the revered cleric for not intervening directly to oust the government and lead a comprehensive reform.

Sistani’s call for the resignation of the government on Friday, however, won him back the approval of the Shiites who were critical.

In the midst of the bloody events, the Supreme Judicial Council of Iraq directly labeled the repression of demonstrators as a “crime,” further demanding that the victims or their families approach police investigators in Najaf and Dhi Qar to offer testimonies of the crimes committed against them during the protests.

The judicial authority then asserted in a statement distributed to media outlets that the aggressors must be held accountable for attacking peaceful protesters.

Down with the next PM

For the protesters, the resignation of Abdel Mahdi is not enough.

What they are seeking is comprehensive change to a political system that has seen widespread corruption and the absence of basic services, from electricity to drinking water, as well as the collapse of the medical and educational sectors and rampant unemployment among the youth.

They want major amendments to the 2005 constitution, as well as the prohibition of political parties that have held power since 2003 — the year of the US invasion.

They are also pushing to pass an election law allowing for smaller parties and independent candidates to win seats in the parliament.

Following Adel Mahdi’s resignation, Tahrir Square saw demonstrators, including student groups, discussing the need to prolong demonstrations and sit-ins in Baghdad and other provinces until all of their demands are met, including putting the former prime minister on trial for the killing of unarmed protesters. 

The prime minister’s resignation has nevertheless given the people in the streets an immense dose of hope that their demands can be met.

The Sunni provinces, only recently freed from Islamic State, have even been cautiously moving toward joining the protest movement.

The ruling political parties, on the other hand, have not been able to take any serious steps to quell the protests, which are unprecedented in their size and cross-sectarian solidarity — on a scale not seen since the US occupation in 2003.

Several political sources told Asia Times that the call by Sistani for the resignation of Abdel Mahdi and his government came as a surprise, and that the political blocs have not prepared an alternative candidate.

According to the Iraqi constitution, the resignation of the premier shifts governing power to the president, who must then form an interim government or assign the largest parliamentary bloc with this task.

The protesters, however, are rejecting this mandate, instead calling for elections to be held under a new and more just election law. 

Already, protesters have launched the slogan: “Down with the next prime minister,” setting the stage for a new prolonged standoff.

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