[Beginning on 1 October 2019, mass demonstrations have taken over cities and towns across central and southern Iraq. Protesters are calling for an end to the political system established in 2003. Based on ethnic and religious apportionment of government positions and ministries, this system has led to staggering levels of corruption which in turn have contributed to intolerable living standards—including high unemployment, inadequate electricity, and contamination of drinking water. The grievances are numerous and run deep, all of which are legitimate. What follows are some collated news and dynamics to keep in mind as events continue to unfold. They are flashpoints from which to consider a deeper, more exhaustive analysis. The order of entries is reverse-chronological, meaning the most recent update is at the top.]
3:30am Baghdad Time, Saturday 30 November
On Friday 29 November, nearly two months after Iraqis in the center and south of the country took to the streets in a popular revolution against their sixteen-year-old political system, Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mehdi said he will resign as head of the Iraqi government. When news broke of Abdul Mehdi's statement, protesters declared victory over a corrupt political elite while simultaneously insisting that his fall was only the first goal in a list of popular demands to end a political system that entrenches ethnic and religious divides and facilitates rampant corruption.
Abdel Mehdi's decision came after Iraq's lead Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, withdrew support for his government. Abdel Mehdi, who demonstrators call a criminal and a murderer for permitting and/or ordering the massacre of hundreds of peaceful protesters, angered protesters further with his statement by citing Sistani's withdrawal of support as the reason for his resignation. In other words, it was not the millions of Iraqis in the streets over the last two months that prompted him to finally resign; rather, it was the clerical establishment withdrawal of support, itself facing increasing criticism in recent days for remaining relatively quiet as Iraqis in Nasriya and Najaf were being killed and injured by security forces and militias.
As US-based consumers celebrated Black Friday, Iraqis on social media insisted they were living a "Black Friday" of their own: The ongoing massacres of protesters. "100% Black Friday discount on Iraqi souls," read one viral social media post. Activists were referring to the killing of protesters in Nasriya and Najaf. In Nasriya, security forces and militias killed at least sixty-five protesters in the last forty-eight hours, including forty-seven in one day according to journalists and activists.
Particularly ironic is the fact that Abdel Mehdi is originally from Nasriya. His resignation comes amidst an outcry from families there who are burying their loved ones after his government authorized a brutal, violent crackdown. There are calls today for Abdel Mehdi to be arrested and tried for crimes against the Iraqi people.
Countless videos and images from southern Iraqi cities continue to be shared online that show killed and injured protesters. In one evocative video from Nasriya, a mother whose son was martyred shouts rhetorically towards the "sons of Ramadi," a city in predominantly Sunni Anbar province. She asks where they are and where their support is for the Iraqis protesting and being killed in the south. "Where are the sons of Ramadi to stand with us?" she demands to know. "When things were a mess for you, didn't we stand with you?" Her reference here is to when cities in Anbar, like Ramadi and Fallujah, were under Da'ish occupation. Men from the southern provinces answered a call from the marja'iya to fight and expel Da'ish and recapture these cities, in the process creating the Popular Mobilization Forces (al-hashd al-sha’abi).
Most residents and activists in these western cities do support the revolution taking place in the center and south of the country. Some of them show support by, for example, travelling to Baghdad to participate in the protests in Tahrir Square. But these residents also remain reluctant to take to the streets in their own cities because of threats of violence towards them. Security forces have often unjustly labelled protesters in predominantly-Sunni towns and cities in formerly-held Da'ish territories "remnants of Da'ish," using such labels as a pretence to attack, arrest, kidnap and kill protesters in these areas.
This woman's call—her nakhwa, or appeal to Ramadi's tribal sense of pride or honor—captures how the political geography of these protests continues to matter, even through rhetoric and discourse, and further indicates the ways in which revolutionaries of all ages are reclaiming their national identity. We see similar dynamics in Lebanon, through the ways in which protesters in different cities call out to their fellow revolutionaries (e.g., how Tripoli calls out to Nabatieh, how Beirut calls out to Sour). Meanwhile, tribal-political leaders from Ramadi are already responding to this woman's nakhwa: "It's done!" (ibsheree) asserted one sheikh (and politician) from Ramadi as he directly addressed the woman, raising expectations that protests will persist and even spread to other parts of the country. (Note: I struggle for an appropriate, contextual translation of ibsheree which might also be translated here as "be optimistic" or even "stay tuned.")
Also on Friday, Iraq's national soccer team defeated the United Arab Emirates 2-0 in the Gulf Cup tournament. After the match ended, the Iraqi team eschewed celebration and instead read the Fatiha prayer for the fallen martyrs of the revolution. Iraq's goalkeeper, Mohammed Hamid, a "son of Ramadi," also directly responded to the woman's call insisting that he and his teammates stand with the people of Nasriya, hope to win the tournament for all of Iraq, and if they do promise to visit the residents of Nasriya with the victory cup.
Finally, a relevant aside. When Iraqis in the south of the country last rose up in such big numbers, in 1991 after the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein used the word goga'e (goga'eyeen) to refer to the protesters. Formal Arabic, the word translates as "demagogues" (though here "thugs" or "trouble makers" might be more appropriate). On its face, it is not a particularly insulting word; it was made so and embued with pejorative connotations when used by Saddam Hussein as he violently crushed the southern uprising. In recent days, the word has been recycled as an insult against Iraq's contemporary revolutionaries. However, this time the word is being used by some Shia political elites and their media channels to refer to the revolutionaries. This sort of terminology is striking because of who made it so infamous (i.e., Saddam Hussein against Iraq's Shia in the south) and how Shia political-religious actors have appropriated it and used it against the same Iraqis subjected to it more than a generation ago by a supposedly very different government.
Other news channels backed by political parties have referred to protesters and revolutionaries with other euphemisms, such as those "acting outside the law." Given the extent to which the purported guarantors of law and security in Iraq are responsible for killing hundreds of peaceful protestors, such a characterisation would be funny if it wasn't so morbidly sad.
11:45pm Baghdad Time, Wednesday 27 November
I find it strange that some Iraq watchers—analysts and academics—are surprised by the resilience and steadfastness of Iraq’s young revolutionaries and the revolution they have built. For years, we have heard from academics, along with IGO and NGO researchers, about the “youth bulge” in Iraq, the high unemployment rates, the lack of basic services and infrastructure, and the miserable futures young Iraqis are being confronted with. So these youth take to the streets, as they have for years. They engage in sit ins, they strike, and they demand the fall of the system. They persist in the face of horrifying violence—the videos and images of which are gag-inducing. The revolution is a raw re-creation of political imagination. That is not meant to be a romantic statement. Though I do not begrudge those who read it as such. Rather, I am curious: What the hell else did you expect? How is any of this surprising? And, how do you not name this a revolution? Why are you even debating whether it is? The disciplined narrow-mindedness, the myopia; good God.
Briefly what we have been seeing just in the last week:
Young students, with the support of public school teachers, are collectively the lead reason this revolution thrives today. Students as young as tens years old, teenagers, and young adults in college and university; they have taken it upon themselves to revolt. They all know what they need to do; they require no guidance, they even reject it. They are still in the streets. The youngest revolutionaries defy demands to stay in school in order to go to the squares. They hop on mini-buses and drivers take them for free if they have no fares. “The consciousness,” a friend seeing and experiencing this all told me, “I don’t know how they have it. But they do.”
The Iraqi Teachers Union oscillates between continuing to call on public school teachers to strike and calling for an end to that strike. It currently continues. Even when it says it is ending the strike, teachers go to school knowing their students will not be there. The teachers have tea or coffee and then go home. They attend work to ensure the government does not use their absence to stop paying them. The teachers remain with the revolution and have been instrumental in its persistence.
Three days ago in Baghdad, thousands of students marched to and protested in front of the Ministry of Education. Students have also been protesting in front of local education departments around Baghdad, such as in Dora in the south of the city. The state of public schools and education in Iraq has been deteriorating for years. Political-economic elites and their parties have benefited from the privatization of education at all levels.
An important aside: As foreign researchers on Iraq seek increased and better access to the country, which they now see as opening up for more on-the-ground research (including academics in all disciplines), a big ethical question revolves around what partnerships with local Iraqi academics and their institutions do and will actually look like. More to the point, what will your/our political commitments and engagements be as you/we build careers off of this oft-exploited country that is experiencing a revolution led by students and teachers protesting, in part, the gutting of public education? Hardly any of you/us have adequately considered these questions, let alone answered them. We have to.
Today, the entrance gates at the University of Kufa are closed and locked “by order of the students.”
For weeks, protesters have emphasized the peaceful nature of the protests, with particular emphasis on Najaf which activists insist is experiencing a level of peaceful demonstration not seen before. (Sit-ins in Najaf have been packed with teachers this week.) Attempts to tar revolutionaries with accusations of violence are escalating. The Iranian consulate in Najaf is burning tonight. Any suggestion such acts are somehow on equal footing with the kidnapping, torture, and murder of protesters across the country by marauding militias backed by politicians is perverse.
One of the discussions at protests in Basra last week centred around needed constitutional amendments. Iraq’s constitution was written by a coterie of Iraqi elites and US government officials and ratified in late 2005. So successful was that constitutional bargain that civil war broke out in the country less than four months later. So many sins; so much of the short and long history matters.
The kidnapping and killing of activists continues. A number of prominent and remarkable activists have had to flee their homes, cities and sometimes the country under threat to them and their families.
Harrowing battles have been occurring between protesters and security forces. By battles I mean security forces attacking protesters. Some of the most significant have been along Baghdad’s historic Rashid Street (which has been neglected by state institutions for years). Protesters pushed security forces back along this street as it leads directly into Tahrir Square. One of the big stories out of Beirut and Lebanon's revolution generally is the re-appropriation of public spaces. Baghdad and Iraq are no different – but the way this is happening is. This difference is in large part related to the levels of violence directed at protesters, which has been far worse in Iraq. Protesters in Baghdad, for example, aim to capture streets and squares around Tahrir in order to protect the revolution. At times, they even creatively turn security practices on their head by setting up entry checkpoints to Tahrir to ensure those entering are not carrying weapons.
Meanwhile, protesters have been accused of lighting fire to buildings along Rashid Street, though they insist it is the security forces that are doing this. Protesters also point to images of security forces using Molotov cocktails against them. Video out today also confirms that during a brief lull in confrontations, anti-riot police took a break from attacking protesters to actually speak with them. This lasted a half hour before demonstrators were again attacked near Ahrar bridge, with some arrested and at least one killed.
These street struggles are also over control of the bridges that cross over the Tigris i.e. Jamhouriya, Sinak, Ahrar. The battles have been lethal with numerous protesters martyred. Security forces have tried to block access to these bridges and the squares to which they lead. At Khulani Square – just north of Tahrir – large numbers of protesters tore down the concrete walls blocking access to it. The riot police and military pulled back. The protesters took control of a garage on the corner of the square and named it after the martyrs who were killed. Protesters in these struggles have been shot in the eyes and head by Iraqi security forces.
Some videos sent by activists in Nasriya show no picture. Instead, they record the sounds of live bullets being shot at demonstrators. The accompanying message: “Have you heard the sound of suppression? If you haven’t, listen closely.”
The blocking of roads and bridges by protesters is escalating. We seet it in Basra, Najaf, Karbala, Hilla, Nasriya, al-Ukeka (south of Nasriya), and Rumaitha (north of Samawa). Notably, the roads and highways between these cities are being cut.
At least six people were killed and fifteen injured in three bomb attacks in neighbourhoods around Baghdad yesterday. Residents insist such tactics are being deployed by those trying to end the revolution—militias and elites. Most Baghdadis insist many of the car bombs that plagued Baghdad for years were often not carried out by terrorists but by political elites. Some suggest yesterday’s bombs came from Da’ish sympathisers; to most Baghdadis, yesterday’s attacks bore the hallmarks of a different and no less sinister set of actors.
The martyrs of the revolution rest in power: Sitting in front of the Maysan governorate building is a mock cemetery with the names of protesters killed by security forces. And in Basra, protesters cut access to Um Qasr Port, Khor al-Zubair and a number of local squares by placing in the middle of the roads coffins painted entirely with the Iraqi flag and on which are displayed the photos of dead revolutionaries.
10pm Baghdad Time, Friday 1 November
There were five consecutive days of student strikes, sit-in, marches, and demonstrations across central and southern Iraq this week. Any question of whether this is a grassroots, youth-led revolution was put to rest with the unprecedented levels of student activism across these areas.
12:45am Baghdad Time, Tuesday 29 October 2019
The killing of protesters continues in Iraq tonight.
Out of Karbala, Reuters is reporting one killed and fifty-three injured as police dispersed thousands of protesters. But activists on the ground are reporting two killed at the hands of local militias. Anti-riot police shot tear gas at protesters. Local militias shot live bullets at protesters. Indications are that Iraqi federal police and military were unable or unwilling to intervene.
In Baghdad, Reuters reports security forces killed three protesters via tear gas canisters hitting their heads. One of the three killed is local activist Safaa al-Saray. A video posted on Twitter by the Iraqi Observatory for Human Rights captures one such incident of such a practice by security forces.
From Nasriyah, two protesters killed in al-Shatra.
This brings the unofficial number of demonstrators killed in Iraq during the last ninety-six hours to at least eighty-one.
Reuters reports that since 1 October 2019, when demonstrations began, 235 people have been killed. It is not clear whether this number counts the news just out of Nasriyah. Expect it to rise tomorrow.
The government is again slowing internet service. Information is still trickling out. But the videos that have come out are, again, horrific.
4:45pm Baghdad Time, Monday 28 October 2019
The mobilization of Iraqi youth during this revolution is breathtaking. For the second day in a row, students at universities and colleges across central and south Iraq are striking, marching, and demanding the fall of the system. High school students have joined them on the streets. In elementary schools, many teachers and principals have embraced the revolution and encouraged kids to back the protests in morning assemblies. "Those protesters in Tahrir Square have gone out there for you, for your rights," one principal told his students yesterday. "Today, we sing the national anthem for them, not for anybody else. So sing with all of your heart."
Students are calling for more civil disobedience. Iraqi unions are slowly coming out in support. A few hours ago the Iraq Teacher's Union called for a full teachers’ strike across Iraq for the rest of the week. They added: "If the demands of the people are not met, we will strike for a year." The Iraqi Bar Association released a statement insisting that civil disobedience is legal and that the government cannot punish its employees or any students for exercising that right.
Political elites recognize the existential threat these mobilizations pose to their interests. Some ministries have barred their employees from protesting with threats of suspension or sacking. Anti-riot police have been instructed not to deal with protesters in a peaceful manner. Anti-riot police were also perversely informed that if they attempt to peacefully disperse protesters (instead of using violence), they could be subject to punishment themselves, including up to fifteen years in prison.
Students in the streets are being met with more tear gas. So much tear gas has filled the air that activists are now finding and photographing dead birds on Baghdad's streets. They are sending these images out while emphasizing the sanctity of their environmental rights. These photos are fitting symbolism of the environmental destruction that elites have facilitated in their use of violence to maintain and benefit from the status quo.
Notably, people in Anbar and Salah al-Din provinces —once controlled by Da'ish—are not protesting in the streets. Residents fear security forces will label them as remnants of Da‘ish as a pretense for violent repression. Youth from these places have instead shown their support for the protests by sending photos of themselves holding up signs of encouragement for their fellow citizens. But security forces in Anbar are now raiding the homes of activists there and arresting them for supporting the protests via social media.
The political geography of the revolution matters and demands more attention than I can give in a terse post. Yet it is worth noting that the spatial spread of these protests has to be the death knell for analysts who peddle in flaccid, vapid, yet sinister, identarian projections onto this country. In the words of the Fresh Prince told to an underwhelming party clown: "You suck."
11:30pm Baghdad Time, Saturday 26 October
On Friday 25 October, demonstrators returned to the streets in planned and anticipated protests. Despite assurances from Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi that demonstrators would be permitted to protest peacefully, state forces and parastatal armed groups responded with brutality.
Iraq’s High Commission for Human Rights says that sixty-three demonstrators have been killed over the last two days. 2,592 have also been injured (combining demonstrators and security forces). This is in addition to the more than 150 people killed during 1–9 October protests, as documented by the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI).
Most of this killing has come at the hands of parastatal armed groups once known as militias. The massive scale of protests and their geographic scope has threatened both the political class and armed groups affiliated and allied with it.
In Baghdad, demonstrators tried to march into the Green Zone on Friday 25 October. Opened to the public last spring, the area had been established as a fortified and securitized command zone during the occupation of the country by US- and UK-led forces in 2003. The area hosts several key government buildings, including the offices of prime ministry. As protesters marched, they were tear-gassed and shot at. It is unclear who was firing live ammunition at them. The shooters were clad in black and wearing balaclavas. These uniforms did not have any Iraqi state security logo. Activists speculate these forces were tied to specific militias or special forces that report to the prime minister's office.
Police and military personnel in Baghdad and other cities were ordered to only carry batons during the protests on Friday. This order appeared intended to minimize casualties and protect demonstrators in the wake of weeks of anti-protester violence. Even if that goal was achieved, this tactic also perversely shows the power of parastatal armed groups who did most of the killing on Friday. Photos from Baghdad show federal police using their shields to protect demonstrators from bullets as they were marching on the Green Zone. This itself is a stunning development, in part because the Ministry of Interior, under which police fall, has for years faced an array of accusations including corruption and carrying out extrajudicial violence, including torturing detainees in secret prisons.
Demonstrators also targeted militias’ headquarters across the south of Iraq. These include the headquarters of the military and civilian wings of different militias. For example, protesters in the cities of ‘Amara and Diwaniyah stormed and/or burned the headquarters of the Badr and Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq organizations, respectively. The offices of Sayyidd al-Shuhada' militia in Naseriyah was also set on fire—a significant development given how strong the group is in that area.
Demonstrators also targeted more traditional political parties and the government buildings they control—though the lines between party, parastatal armed actor, and state institution are blurry. In Diwaniyah, demonstrators stormed and burned the Dawa Party headquarters (to which two former Iraqi prime ministers belong). Demonstrators also burned the al-Hikma Party headquarters (led by Ammar al-Hakim) in Samawa. Provincial governorate buildings were also stormed and/or set on fire in the south, including in Dhi Qar, Qadisiya, and Wasit provinces.
In addition to the shooting and killing of protestors, security forces attacked protesters with huge amounts of tear gas. Hundreds of people were rushed to hospitals. In Baghdad, tear gas released from inside the Green Zone blew/carried into neighboring areas due to the sheer volume of canisters deployed.
Muqtada al-Sadr (leader of the Sadrist movement) sided with the protestors in the days leading up to 25 October. He initially stated that if protestors were attacked on that Friday, he would send his forces (Saraya al-Salam) out to defend them. But his position changed in the afternoon as attacks on demonstrators escalated. By the evening, even his supporters participating in demonstrations had pulled out. One protestor filmed the tear-gassing while shouting, "Where are you, Muqtada?" Sadr’s decision not to deploy his forces to defend protestors might be explained by a fear of provoking a war between his militia and others attacking protesters.
Also on Friday, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani released a direct and unequivocal statement supporting the demonstrators. He gave no support to political elites; called for the drafting of a new electoral law; and insisted that the relationship between demonstrators and state security forces must be strong.
The videos and photographs of those killed and injured are horrific. Images include a journalist who had his nose blown off when a stun grenade went off in front of him while in Baghdad's Tahrir Square. Out from Basra late last night is a video of a police truck ramming protesters into a barricade at high speed.
Other images show how demonstrators are using “tuk tuks” as ambulances. These motorized bike-wagons are used by low-income citizens for transporting goods in Baghdad and other urban centers. The bike-wagons are now being used to ferry wounded and killed protestors to hospitals. These images simultaneously evoke the economic grievances that ground these demonstrations, and the utter failures of state services to care for people—both when they're living and when they're dying.
Curfews and restrictions on movements were in place Friday night in the cities and across the provinces in the south. They were an attempt to re-establish "control." Electricity to Tahrir Square in Baghdad, the heart of the city's protests, was turned off during the night yesterday and again tonight to aid in forcefully evicting protestors from the square.
Notably, other Iraqi provinces like Anbar and Salah al-Din have seen little protest activity. These provinces were once held by Da‘ish. Residents state unequivocally that they support the protests but fear that if they demonstrate they will be intentionally tarred as Da‘ish supporters by state and parastatal forces in order to justify violent repression. Youth in Anbar have sent out photographs expressing solidarity with activists in other parts of the country. In the photos, activists hold up signs that show the number of killed and injured so far during the protests.
In Basra, demonstrators are taking live fire and heavy tear gas as they are being chased in residential neighborhoods. In Baghdad earlier tonight, at least 10 civilian cars without license plates and carrying armed men were seen entering Baghdad city limits. Activists also report seeing similar activity along the airport road heading towards Jadriyah Bridge. The bridge is a major connector over the Tigris River; Jadriyah, on the river’s eastern bank, is home to a number of parastatal armed groups. Neighboring Jadriyah is Karada district, where anti-terrorism forces have been deployed near the entrance to M’alaq Bridge.
Also tonight, Saturday 26 October, video from demonstrators in Nasriyah show heavy violence there, with protestors bleeding out from gunshot wounds as they are carried away. In Najaf thousands of demonstrators are currently protesting in front of the Najaf Provincial Council building. And right now in ‘Amara, hanging on the Misan Governorate building as protesters continue to demonstrate is a large banner that reads: “Closed by order of the people.”