Iraq continues to deteriorate as the anti-government protests that have plagued the nation since October threaten to turn into a full-scale uprising. As if this were not enough to contend with, the government is now facing a full-blown political crisis that could potentially unravel the central government at the worst possible moment. On Thursday security forces opened fire on a group of protesters in Nasiriyah killing 24 and wounding over 200. Protesters were also killed in Baghdad, and Najaf. On Friday, Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi announced his resignation, resulting in a cautious optimism among protesters. Mahdi leaving office is a start, but there is still much work to be done.
The protesters in Iraq are seeking a reform of the government, and an end to Iranian influence in Baghdad. The resignation of one man alone will not be enough to satisfy them. Too much blood has been shed in the streets. Too many promises have been left unfulfilled by the leaders in Baghdad. When Mahdi’s resignation is approved by parliament, the search for his successor will begin. This will likely be a long-term process. In the meantime, Mahdi’s cabinet could stay in power as a caretaker government. The protesters may not respond kindly to this scenario if it becomes reality. Their battle against an entrenched and corrupt political class will continue, and as it does, the post-Saddam Iraq constructed by the United States hangs in the balance.
When US troops completed their withdrawal in 2011, the hope was that the new Iraqi government’s foundation would be strong enough to withstand the coming challenges. As it turned out, this wasn’t the case. Without US support the foundation rapidly transformed to quicksand. Corruption, and nepotism swept through the public sector. Sectarianism became endemic. These factors, coupled with the removal of American forces created a vacuum in Iraq that its neighbor to the east swiftly moved to fill. Iranian actions, and influence have helped to bring the Iraqi system to the verge of a permanent breakdown.
The Iraqi parliament will have 15 days to name a new successor. Yet, as I mentioned above, it has historically taken much longer to name a new leader in post-Saddam Iraq. The clock is running though. If a leader who appeals to all major factions cannot be agreed upon, Iraq could be plunged into a full-fledged civil war.
After six days of bloody street protests, Iraq continues its descent into chaos and violence. Government officials today have confirmed that 104 citizens have been killed, and over 6,000 wounded. The wave of protests across Iraq have challenged the already vulnerable government of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi. The government has cracked down on the protests, ordering police, security forces, and soldiers to use lethal force on the protesters. The internet remains suspended in in many urban, and heavily populated areas of the country. The government has taken advantage of the digital shut down it imposed to portray scenes of normalcy through state media. Opposition-supported media outlets broadcast scenes of angry crowds being fired upon by government forces, negating the government’s attempts to control the flow of information. Police have raided a number of TV news stations that have broadcast video of the protests.
Mahdi understands the precarious position his government is in. On Saturday, he announced a 17-point recovery plan, wagering it could calm his people. However, today the crowds appeared again and security forces continue to use tear gas and live ammunition against them. Living conditions, and a high unemployment rate are two primary factors motivating the demonstrators to remain in the streets in defiance of their government. International attention on the situation is growing, despite the government’s best efforts to control the flow of information. There are rumors circulating around Baghdad that Iranian militias are supporting security forces. Claims that some of the government troops have been seen and heard speaking Farsi have been reported by some media outlets. There has been no evidence offered to support the claims though. That does not necessarily mean they’re false, but for the moment Iran’s alleged involvement in the crackdown is unconfirmed.
Protests in Baghdad today have turned bloody as police clashed with anti-government demonstrators. One person has been killed, and 200 wounded, including 40 members of the police and security forces, according to Iraqi officials. Over one thousand citizens took part in demonstrations against unemployment, government corruption, and poor services for the people. They clashed with security forces who used rubber bullets, tear gas, and water cannons to disperse the crowds. There has been no independent confirmation of the numbers provided by the Iraqi government, however, sources outside of the government claim the death toll is now 4, and the internet is down in Baghdad. Demonstrations were also reported to have taken place in other parts of Iraq, including the cities of al-Najaf and Kirkuk.
It was the largest demonstration against the government since Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi came to power late last October. Unemployment has been a major concern among the populace. Youth unemployment is especially high, running at about 25 percent. Many university graduates took part in today’s demonstrations, claiming the government has not done enough to provide jobs. Lack of public services is also a major complaint. Power cuts, and water shortages have become part of daily life in many areas of Iraq. It appears now that Iraqis are putting Mahdi and the government on notice.
Some of the demonstrators were carrying portraits of General Abdulwahab al-Saadi, a popular general credited with leading the fight against the Islamic State. Last week, al-Saadi was fired from his post by the government, and the move likely helped spur today’s demonstrations. Last summer, similar demonstrations took place in Basra.
The government’s heavy-handed response could backfire and end up galvanize the Iraqi people. Don’t be surprise to see larger, more organized demonstrations cropping up in Baghdad as the week goes on. Whether or not Mahdi realizes it, his troubles are just beginning.