Angry Iraqis Demand New Government
After 15 years of corruption, Iraqi protesters have finally reached a breaking point. Some even want military rule.
BAGHDAD—Baghdad’s demonstrations began on Oct. 1 with an intensity and a brutality that surprised even veteran protesters. Thousands of people came out on the first day only to be met with tear gas, water cannons, and bullets. By the second, third, and fourth days of protests, Iraqi armed forces were shooting point-blank at protesters’ heads. The government cut the internet, and there were reports of snipers targeting protesters. As of the last count, the armed forces had killed more than 100 people and injured thousands since the protests started.
Today, the newly reerected roadblocks in the streets and pall of yellow tear gas hanging over Baghdad represent years of frustration bubbling over into leaderless, often spontaneous demonstrations. Many of the protesters are young people between the ages of 13 and 30 who grew up in the post-2003 era and whose entire lives have been defined by a government plagued by corruption and inefficiency. Oct. 1 marked almost a year since Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi took office, and protesters say they still lack the basic services.
A number of demonstrators told Foreign Policy that they are so fed up with the Green Zone-protected Iraqi parliament—one installed in the heavily fortified former U.S. occupation zone under largely American rules—that they are ready for a military ruler again.
“We want to overthrow the Green Zone. The corrupt, the parliamentarians, the prime minister—they’re all in the Green Zone,” said Abdullah, a 25-year-old protester who stood with a group of friends on the street shortly after fleeing a protest where they were shot at with live bullets. One of his friends had a bullet wound bandaged up on his foot. They were determined to return to the protests and remain on the streets, he said.
“We hope to overthrow the corrupt and create a different type of government, something presidential or a dictatorship,” said Abdullah, who asked that only his first named be used.
Ali Abdul Karim, an 18-year-old protester, also said he would prefer a military leader to the current multiparty parliamentary system. He pointed to a general named Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi as a leader who he believes is fit to take the reins in Iraq. “He freed Mosul,” he said. “He’s a true nationalist and does not have a relationship with Iran or America.”
“We want anything,” Abdullah said. From behind him, another protester added, “Even the Jews.” Abdullah agreed, saying, “Even if the Indians came to rule us, it would be better. Someone from another country, we don’t want someone from Iraq. The Iraqis are tired. The majority of them are shadowy and corrupt. … The most they do is cooperate with Iranians. So we hope for a change. We want to change all of them, the parliament, the prime minister.”
At the same time, however, many protesters fear that the violent crackdown shows that the Iraqi government is taking a path to greater authoritarianism than in the past. In the first days, Baghdad transformed from relative calm to a city filled with legions of armed forces, its central streets echoing with the sounds of bullets. In the days following the initial crackdown, the armed forces attacked media offices and raided the homes of activists.
Around a year into Abdul-Mahdi’s tenure, many people believe the Iraqi government no longer has an excuse for its dysfunction. Iraqis complain that there have been no new roads built since the Saddam Hussein era. Young graduates with degrees in engineering work thankless jobs selling water on the street or fruit at a kiosk. Corruption is endemic within the government. Years of neglect have taken their toll on the generation that grew up after the fall of Saddam in 2003.
One of the few and oft-vaunted achievements of Abdul-Mahdi’s government was the dismantling of the T-Walls, or concrete blast walls, and checkpoints that had characterized Baghdad for years after the U.S. invasion. A few days into the protests, trucks carrying loads of the recently removed T-Walls were back, and streets were again blocked off to civilians. Abdul-Mahdi’s small victory was reversed in days, as various armed factions fired ruthlessly on the protesters asking for jobs, services, and education.
“After 2003 until now. Problem after problem. Case after case,” Ali al-Mikdam, a young protester and activist, told Foreign Policy. “It’s collecting, and after this, inside of every single person in Iraq, there is an explosion, and this explosion came on October the 1st.”