Iraq's uprising an open crisis with no known path forward
Iraq has been plunged into a new cycle of instability that potentially could be the most dangerous this conflict-scarred nation has faced, barely two years after declaring victory over the Islamic State group in a war that left much of the country in ruins and displaced tens of thousands.
The latest bloody confrontations have killed more than 100 people in less than seven days. But this time, the clashes do not pit security forces against Islamic extremists, the country's Sunnis against Shias, or insurgents against occupation forces.
It's still unclear why the government chose to exercise such a heavy-handed response to a few hundred unarmed demonstrators who first congregated last week on social media to hold a protest. But analysts say the violence has pushed Iraq toward a dangerous trajectory from which it might be difficult to pull back.
Liberating Mosul from "Islamic State"
What has happened in Mosul since the operation to retake the city from the so-called "Islamic State" started in October? Photo essay by Nadine Berghausen
Iraqi army discovers a mass grave: while Iraqi troops advanced further into territory held by the so called “Islamic State” in their campaign to recapture Mosul, they found a mass grave which holds about 100 bodies, many of them decapitated. AP footage shows bones and decomposed bodies dug out of the ground by a bulldozer. This Iraqi federal police officer holds a stuffed animal he found on the site
Evidence of brutality: the grave, found near the town of Hammam al-Alil near Mosul, proves to be a dark testimony to the Islamic State′s brutality. IS militants have carried out a series of massacres since seizing large areas of southern and central Iraq in 2014. This photo shows a member of the Iraqi security forces inspecting a building that was used as a prison by Islamic State militants in Hammam al-Alil
Freed from terror: these displaced Iraqi men from the Hammam al-Alil area celebrate their liberation as they return to their homes after the recapture of their village from Islamic State by Iraqi forces
Oil fields on fire: oil wells have been set ablaze by IS in an apparent response to the ongoing military offensive to drive the extremist group out of its stronghold. A military commander said more than 5,000 civilians have been evacuated from eastern parts of Mosul and taken to camps. The surprise attack showed that even while under siege, the group could still sow chaos in parts of Iraq far from its base in Mosul
What is the fight for Mosul all about? Smoke rises during clashes between peshmerga forces and IS militants in the town of Bashiqa, east of Mosul. Initially used by IS to establish their caliphate and henceforth the key source of prestige and resources, Mosul is also the base for IS′ chemical weapons operation. The ancient Assyrian city has also been a vital source of tax revenue and forced labour
The role of the Iraqi army and its allies: Iraqi special forces take cover as their unit comes under fire from an Islamic State sniper. Together with Kurdish peshmerga and Shia militias, Iraqi forces intensified fighting and moved into more densely populated areas of the city without air support from the US-led coalition due to the high risk of civilian casualties
Kurdish peshmerga: meanwhile, Kurdish peshmerga forces decided to focus on other strongholds of resistance in northern Iraq and on the Kurdish-controlled city of Kirkuk, where IS initiated a campaign of violence in response to the advances of the Iraqi army towards Mosul
Fleeing from the fighting: the United Nations says over 34,000 people have been displaced from Mosul since the operation began on 17 October, with about three quarters settled in camps and the rest in host communities
As the spontaneous protests - with no apparent political leadership emerging - continued to clash with security forces in Iraq cities and towns, the government appeared unapologetic and failed to offer solutions to entrenched problems, raising fears that yet another Arab nation will be mired in a long-term crisis without a path forward.
"The use of force coupled with cosmetic concessions will work to temporarily ease pressure, but will not end the crisis," wrote Ayham Kamel, Middle East and North Africa head at Eurasia Group. "This cycle of protests could be contained, but the political system will continue to lose legitimacy."
In their demands for better services and an end to corruption, the protesters are no different from those who rioted in the southern city of Basra over chronic power cuts and water pollution last summer. Or in 2016, when angry demonstrators scaled the walls in Baghdad's highly secured Green Zone and stormed Iraq's parliament, shouting "thieves!"
But unlike in 2016 when the protests were led by populist Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, today's protests have not been co-opted by any political party. Most are young men in their twenties. They do not have a clear list of demands or a program, nor do they have a spokesman to speak on their behalf. Some are teenagers or fresh university graduates unable to find jobs in a corruption-plagued country that sits on some of the world's biggest oil reserves.
Their movement - if it can be called that - has no clear contours, nor any quick solutions. The protesters say they are fed up with the entire post-2003 political class which profiteers on kickbacks, nepotism and corruption while ordinary Iraqis drink polluted water and endure massive unemployment.
And most strikingly, the protests are predominantly Shia demonstrations against a Shia-led government.
Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi has promised to address protesters' demands. But the 77-year-old premier began his tenure last year facing a raft of accumulated challenges, including high unemployment, widespread corruption, dilapidated public services and poor security and he has told protesters there is no "magic solution for all that."
The crisis erupted on 1 October after protesters who had organised on social media staged a demonstration calling for their rights. They were met with water cannons, tear gas and bullets. The demonstrations were partially triggered by anger over the abrupt removal of a top Shia military commander who led battles against Islamic State militants and was largely seen as a non-corrupt, respected general. But the protesters carried a long list of grievances.
The protests come at a critical moment for Iraq, which had been caught in the middle of escalating tensions between the United States and the regional Shia power Iran - both allies of the Baghdad government. Iraq's weak prime minister has struggled to remain neutral amid those tensions.
Adding to the nervousness, mysterious airstrikes blamed on Israel had for weeks targeted military bases and ammunitions depot in Iraq belonging to Iran-backed militias, which vowed revenge against Americans troops stationed here.
The protests, when they started, quickly spread from Baghdad to the Shia heartland in the south, including the flashpoint city of Basra. The government imposed a round-the-clock curfew and shut down the Internet for days, in a desperate attempt to quell the protests.
Interior Ministry spokesman Major General Saad Maan said on Sunday that at least 104 people have been killed and more than 6,000 wounded in the unrest. He said eight members of the security forces were among those killed and 51 public buildings and eight political party headquarters had been torched by protesters.
The massive crackdown appears to have succeeded in whittling down the number of protesters for now, although sporadic clashes between demonstrators and security forces continue on a smaller scale, including an hours-long gun battle Monday night near the volatile Baghdad neighbourhood of Sadr City.
Violence erupts during protests in Iraq
Iraqis ushered in October with anti-government protests in Baghdad. These quickly deteriorated into violent confrontations resulting in hundreds of injuries and dozens of deaths. Unease remains in several cities. By Cristina Burack
Days of violence: despite promises of reform by the government, protests against corruption and mismanagement in Iraq continue. Once again on Friday people gathered in central locations in the capital Baghdad, as well as in the south of the country
Protests without end: following days of violent protests, a curfew was supposed to provide peace and quiet - after all, at least 100 people have died and some 1,600 have been injured. However, many demonstrators ignored the curfew and spent the night outside to protest further
Protests without a party: these are by no means the first protests against the difficult living conditions in Iraq. In some places, there are only four hours of electricity a day, and according to the World Bank, youth unemployment stands at 25 percent. Iraq's most senior Shia cleric Ali al-Sistani called for "serious reforms" before it was too late
Lockdown: there is already talk of the first protests "without flag, without posters and without party slogan". They were, however, obviously fanned by the dismissal of a popular general, Abdel-Wahab al-Saadi. In Baghdad, the demonstrators tried to enter the so-called Green Zone. Numerous government buildings and embassies are located in the high-security district
Allegations of police violence: security forces have been using tear gas against demonstrators since the beginning of the protests. The UN Human Rights Office in Geneva also fears that police officers have been using live ammunition and rubber bullets. Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi came under fire when he praised the security forces and blamed the unspecified "attackers" for the violence
The country's president, Barham Saleh (photo, March 2019), reiterated his condemnation of the violence and called for "restraint and respect for the law". "Peaceful protest is a constitutional right granted to citizens," Saleh stressed. The Human Rights Committee of the Iraqi Parliament criticised the "repression" of the protests
But among Iraqis and country observers, there is consensus that a dam has been broken and that with so many killed, the protest movement is likely to return and become better organised next time - whenever that may be.
In a country awash with weapons, there are concerns the violence would lead some protesters to arm themselves, similar to what happened in Syria. There is also worry that some of the hard-line militias loyal to Iran could enter the fray and exploit the chaos.
Muqtada al-Sadr, Iraq's influential cleric who has a popular Shia support base and the largest number of seats in parliament, has called on the government to resign because of the large number of people killed. He also suspended his bloc's participation in the government until it comes up with a reform program.
If al-Sadr joins the protest movement, it will give it much more momentum and potentially lead to even more violence.
Ali Al-Ghoraifi, an Iraqi blogger, said the government may have succeeded in putting a lid on the situation for the time being.
"But it will be like a coal ready to ignite at any time and place," he wrote in a post. "And when it does, it will burn everyone." (AP)