Thabit Abdullah is a professor of Middle East history at York University, and the author of A Short History of Iraq and Dictatorship, Imperialism and Chaos: Iraq Since 1989.
In the midst of all the noise surrounding the death of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, a significant piece of the picture has been ignored: the emergence of a powerful Iraqi freedom movement that significantly challenged Iranian hegemony. U.S. President Donald Trump’s foolhardy killing of Gen. Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an Iraqi pro-Iranian militia leader, has presented Iran with a golden opportunity to destroy this movement, something it has been unable to accomplish for the past three months.
Iraq, as is well known, has suffered from a litany of disasters that transformed it from one of the wealthiest, most promising countries of the developing world into one of the most dysfunctional. In 1963, a CIA-backed coup inaugurated 40 years of brutal authoritarian rule capped by Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. Between 1980 and 2003, the country witnessed three destructive wars and 13 years of suffocating sanctions. The U.S. invasion of 2003 not only completed the physical destruction but, perhaps more important, eliminated Iraq’s institutions of governance. In their place, the United States set up a patchwork of sectarian-based fiefdoms, often at war with each other. The fragmentation of the country opened the doors for Iranian political and economic hegemony.
Seemingly out of nowhere, a democratic movement emerged from the rubble intent on putting the country back together. On Oct. 1 of last year, a series of demonstrations broke out in Baghdad’s main Tahrir (Liberation) Square with demands for better jobs and services. Soon the demands became political, calling for the wholesale overhaul of the governing structures.
The protesters have four main goals: first, an end to widespread corruption that siphoned off an estimated US$60-billion to the handful of thugs at the helm of the governing establishment. Second, they have demanded deep democratic reforms that would replace the current sectarian quota-based system.
Third, they emphasize the paramountcy of patriotism and the need to protect the country’s sovereignty. They promoted the highly successful “Buy Iraqi” campaign that benefited domestic private enterprises at the expense mainly of Iranian imports. They also strongly condemned the U.S.-Iranian conflict on Iraqi land. One protester told me that “the U.S. and Iran are two sides of the same coin,” both undermining Iraqi sovereignty.
Lastly, the protesters have called for a new “civil state,” meaning a state that treats all citizens equally regardless of religion, ethnicity or ideological affiliation. It also means the complete and unambiguous separation between religion and the state, a reform that is practically unheard of in the rest of the Arab World.
In just three months, the protesters have suffered about 500 killed, 25,000 wounded and thousands arrested or disappeared. The state, with Iranian backing in the form of militias and assassination squads, have been trying for the past three months to crush the uprising. Despite the state’s violence and use of sectarian language, the protesters have steadfastly embraced non-violence and secular symbols. The most prominent banner raised reads “We Want a Country.” As one protest leader told me: “No one is calling for a Shi’i or a Sunni country, but a country for all Iraqis.”
The Globe and Mail is not identifying the protesters because doing so could put their safety at risk.
A student strike succeeded in shutting down practically all universities and schools. Women have emerged from the stranglehold of religious patriarchy to play leading roles in the organization and execution of protest activities. Artists and musicians began to produce works celebrating their newly discovered sense of freedom. Non-Muslim Iraqis (Christians, Yazidis and Mandaeans) participated at all levels, enthusiastically displaying their religious symbols without fear. And over all, the movement had a colourful, celebratory atmosphere more akin to the Occupy Wall Street or Save the Earth demonstrations in the West, rather than the traditional violent protests that periodically rock the Middle East.
All this greatly alarmed the mullahs in Tehran and their lackeys in Iraq. The protest movement was making impressive tangible gains before Mr. Trump decided to hand the country back to the Iranian regime or, worse still, allow it to explode in a new civil war. Under pressure from the popular movement, the corrupt Prime Minister, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, resigned, a new electoral commission was set up along non-sectarian lines and a new, more democratic election law was being set up. There were negotiations for an interim government that would lead the country to new elections that promised much.
The U.S. drone strike last week destroyed all this in a matter of minutes. Iraq is now on the verge of once again becoming a killing field for militias. The protesters have done their best to condemn the U.S. strike as an attack on Iraqi sovereignty while refusing to take a pro-Iranian position. But this appears to be untenable. The sharp polarization has forced people to take sides. It appears only a matter of time before the protesters are cut down with impunity. Mr. Trump has, for purely internal political consumption, unleashed a hornet’s nest in Iraq and destroyed one of the most promising freedom movements the country has ever seen.
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