The influential Shia cleric and politician Muqtada Sadr, who has repeatedly shown that he can mobilise the poorer members of the Shia community in particular to take to the streets, has so far not directly backed the protests, but called for a boycott of parliament until the government presents reform plans accepted by the people.

Not least, the protests are taking place at a time when many Iraqis fear that a conflict between the United States and Iran could play out in Iraq. The Iraqis say: "When two elephants fight, the grass suffers". They have no desire to be trampled underfoot.

Iraqi Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr (photo: AFP/Getty Images)
A shot across the bows to the rulers in Baghdad: "to avoid further bloodshed" the government must resign, Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr wrote in a published letter. There must be early elections under UN supervision. Sadr's faction is the strongest in Baghdad's parliament with 54 deputies. His appeal to the government to resign should give the demonstrators a boost and fuel debate in parliament

The demonstrations in Iraq can also be seen as part of a new protest movement primarily involving young people in the Arab world, a movement also triggered by social and economic factors, whether it be in Algeria, Sudan or, as in the past few weeks, in Egypt.

Against the U.S. and along sectarian lines

In Iraq, there has never been anything like the Arab Spring or an Arabellion as experienced by other Arab nations from 2011. Iraq has never recovered from the rule of Saddam Hussein, the ensuing U.S. invasion and occupation, the civil war and later the war against IS. In all this time, the Iraqis never got a moment to take stock and attend to their economic and social problems.

The U.S. occupation’s perpetual argument that it intended to bring democracy and reforms to the nation, with all the disasters that followed, would have been discredited by any kind of domestic reform movement. The Iraqis were busy fighting against the U.S. occupation and later along sectarian lines against each other.

The irony of the situation is that these latest bloody protests are a sign of normalisation in Iraqi politics. With the end of the war against IS, Iraqis are once again able to reflect on their social and economic problems. Sectarian conflicts between Shias and Sunnis that defined the nation for decades are taking a back seat.

Instead of trying to win back sovereignty against the U.S. occupation and allowing themselves to be incited along sectarian lines, they are now demanding two things above all from their political leaders: their social rights and a functioning state.

Karim El-Gawhary

© 2019

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

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