Under curfew and a virtual internet blackout, Iraq has been a country in turmoil over the past few days. Details from within Iraq have been rather sketchy, as the ongoing and widening revolt against the government of a country that seems to be at a crucial turning point, gains more momentum. With over 100 civilians killed and several hundreds, some claim up to 4000, wounded by the heavy-handed response to the demonstrations that appear to be spreading like wildfires, the outcome of the rebellion of Iraqi masses marching against social grievances, corruption and squandering the national wealth of one of the richest Arab nations, remains an unsolved mystery.
Hunger, or Something Bigger behind the Revolt?
The post-Saddam era in Iraq has been marred by unprecedented levels of corruption at the highest levels, and massive economic hardships for ordinary Iraqis. This was aggravated by years of a costly military campaign against ISIS, after the terrorist organization took control of large sways of Iraq’s territories including the country’s second-largest city, Mosul in June 2014, with catastrophic consequences. Many senior government officials and lawmakers have been accused of siphoning off public money, forming their own mafia-type militias, accepting hefty bribes, and unfairly awarding contracts in state institutions among various forms of official corruption.
Blame for the unrest which started on the eve of the Shi’ite pilgrimage to Al Najaf Al Shareef, which in recent years has drawn some 20 million worshipers,10 times bigger than that of Sunni Muslims to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, was put by a senior Iranian cleric on the US and Israel, claiming they wanted to severely undermine the pilgrimage to the Shiites’ holiest site. Whereas, a prominent follower of Iraq’s influential Shiite leader, Muqtada Al Sadr laid the blame on the current unrest as a ‘ Revolution of Hunger’. Every year, pilgrims march for days on foot across southern Iraq in the world’s biggest annual gathering.
Riots and disorder have already affected the numbers of pilgrims this year, with some countries advising their citizens to stay away. The protests could easily grow much bigger and more effective should it receive the official support of Al Sadr, who leads the largest opposition bloc in parliament, enjoys strong ties with Saudi Arabia, and has long denounced corruption of Iraq’s elite. His faction’s MPs are boycotting the parliament’s session called to find a way out of the current crisis.
On his part, the Speaker of Iraq’s parliament has labelled the protests a “revolution” against corruption, urging protesters for calm and proposing reforms such as better state housing support for poor people and ensuring Iraqi graduates are included on lucrative foreign projects for the development of Iraq’s energy sector.
So far, Muqtada has not called upon his many million followers to join the protesters on the streets, a blessing in disguise for Adel Abdul Mahdi’s bewildered government. Mahdi pledged reforms but said there was no “magic solution” to Iraq’s problems. He insisted politicians were aware of the suffering of the masses: “We do not live in ivory towers – we walk among you in the streets of Baghdad,” Mahdi reiterated. Meanwhile, Muqtada Al Sadr has asked the Iraqi government to step down and for new elections to be held soon. A statement issued by his office called for people to “Respect the blood of Iraq through the resignation of the government, and the preparation for early elections to be overseen by international monitors.”
Violence Strikes at Heartland of Iraqi Shi’ites
The current unrest which was sparked off in the mainly Shi’ite south, but quickly spread out to other parts of the country, was the worst since the popular uprising against ISIS some two years ago. Last Friday witnessed the highest number of casualties, with the toll over three days only, was 65 killed and 192 wounded across Iraq as the revolt intensified.
Iraq’s most influential cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, whom I happened to interview twice, although he generally prefers to stay away from everyday politics, expressed his sorrow and sadness at the loss of innocent lives over the past few days, blaming the Iraqi government in a letter read out by his representative: “It is sorrowful that there have been so many deaths, casualties and destruction…The government and political sides have not answered the demands of the people to fight corruption or achieved anything on the ground…Parliament holds the biggest responsibility for what is happening,” maintained Sistani in his letter.
Close to the Brink of the Abyss
Escalating violence and widening demonstrations have caused the Iraqi government to impose curfews win several cities. Authorities blocked roads into the capital from the north and northeast sent reinforcements to Baghdad’s densely populated eastern suburbs and military convoys were dispatched to Nasiriya. Building up popular resentment, mounting economic pressure, official corruption- widely believed to be behind the current revolt- along with conflicting national, regional and international interests in Iraq – mainly those of Iran, Saudi Arabia and the US- could easily push the post-Saddam settlement in Iraq to the brink of the abyss.
Nothing threatens the civil peace, stability and security of a nation more than violent and widespread popular revolts. Iraq, with a history of wars, famine, destruction and tyranny, seems extremely vulnerable at this turning point in its modern times. Unless an urgent solution is worked out, the unrest is set to spread out of control, inflicting more destruction and bloodshed for the people of Iraq who have had more than enough of all of that and more, over the past few decades. Could it be the above-mentioned reasons, or a new silent US-Iran proxy war behind the current uprising, Iraqis themselves are poised to foot the pricey bill.