Mustafa Habib – Informed Comment https://www.juancole.com Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Wed, 11 Dec 2019 04:17:09 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.7.6 No to Sexism and Ageism! Iraqi Youth Protesters are Changing the Culture https://www.juancole.com/2019/12/protesters-changing-culture.html Wed, 11 Dec 2019 05:02:05 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=187807 Mustafa Habib | Baghdad | –

( Niqash.org ) – Iraq’s ongoing anti-government protests are turning out to be about more than just political demands. They’re also changing the country’s culture around sexism, ageism and other long-held prejudices.

Despite a lack of coordination between all the different groups of Iraqi protesters taking part in anti-government demonstrations around the country, they do all seem to have one thing in common: They are contributing to what appears to be a new era of national unity and tolerance.

And that’s having an impact on the way Iraqis have previously described social groups they considered less worthy of respect – up until now. The culture around prejudices is changing and not just in the southern Iraqi areas where protests are taking place but also in the central and northern areas, where residents are not demonstrating. New attitudes and new descriptions are replacing epithets and ideas that have been around for decades.

There are already posts on Iraqi social media suggesting orgies are taking place in Tahrir Square. Most people do not believe a word.

In particular, attitudes towards Iraqi women are changing. In a country where tribal traditions still hold much – and in some cases, the most – sway, females are subject to customs like arranged marriages and the dowry system, and are expected to behave in a traditionally modest way. In conservative areas, women often may not leave the family home without a chaperone and the man of any house is always in charge.

The fact that increasing numbers of local women, many of them students at schools and universities, are independently taking part in the anti-government demonstrations is impacting these attitudes.

Of course, this isn’t necessarily easy. Often a young woman’s parents may be against her engaging in such politicalized behaviour. “There’s a lot of pressure,” confirms Hawraa Mohammed, a student at Basra university. “But luckily we can often hide our faces behind the masks the protesters use to protect from tear gas, to hide our identity. That’s helped us hide our faces, which means our families and relatives don’t know that it’s us,” she explained to NIQASH.

Mohammed says her father actually found out she had been protesting because the universities declared a general strike, but she didn’t come home from classes. “When I got back, he didn’t speak to me angrily though,” she recalls. “He was quiet and he wasn’t even against my protesting. He was just afraid that I might get hurt.”

In Baghdad, a more open metropolis compared to many of Iraq’s more conservative towns, hundreds of local women have joined in the country’s largest, flagship protest. They do things like helping with protesters who have been wounded, they paint murals, serve food and call out slogans.

What’s particularly interesting is the level of sexual harassment these women are facing – that is, none (or hardly any). There has not been one case of grievous harassment recorded as yet. In fact, many of the young men present are careful not to allow any behaviour of this kind because they want to make sure that the image of the protests remains positive. There are already posts on Iraqi social media being circulated by anonymous users that suggest that there are orgies taking place in Tahrir Square, the site of the demonstration in Baghdad. Most people do not believe a word of these scurrilous rumours though.

Since the protests began – and they started in the deep south – the term has become a source of pride.

Another group that has changed Iraqis’ past opinions of it, are the inhabitants of the southern province of Dhi Qar. Some of the most aggressive protests have happened here, with demonstrators setting political party offices on fire and gaining some measure of control over the provincial capital of Nasiriyah. The government dispatched the military counter-terrorism forces there but, thanks to the latter’s good reputation (after their fighting against the extremist group known as the Islamic State) the situation was defused without further violence. In the meantime, the protesters of Dhi Qar have gained heroic status among their country people.

This is despite the fact that, for decades, the city’s inhabitants have had a bad reputation – they’re often described as “wicked” fruit who have fallen from the “evil tree” that is the city of Nasiriyah. If somebody did something bad elsewhere, the neighbours might whisper that the person is probably from Nasiriyah.

However since the demonstrations began, Iraqis have started to praise the people of Nasiriyah. “We, the protesters of Baghdad, have been trying to cross the bridge to the [high security, government-controlled] Green Zone for weeks,” as a slogan originating in Tahrir Square goes. “Now we ask our fellow protesters in Nasiriyah to help us do that more quickly.”

There are other examples too. When the Iraqi soccer team recently won a match against Qatar, among the celebratory messages were dozens of notes praising the two goal scorers for coming from Nasiriyah.

The protests are also evolving Iraq’s traditional north-south bias. One of the most insulting words in the country is “shurukiya”. It’s often used to describe the poorer southern provinces of the country and denotes poverty, lack of refinement and manners. For example, if somebody in Baghdad behaves in an uncivilized way, he might be asked why he is behaving like a “shurukiya”.

Since the protests began – and they started in the deep south – the term has become a source of pride. Iraqis all around the country are now using it to praise the residents of those cities. And those from the south write things like “I’m shuruki and proud of it!”.

The protests are also fusing the generation gap. In the past, this younger generation of Iraqis was criticized in the same way western teenagers often are – for being too lazy, for playing too many video games and spending too much time online. But it’s well known that most of the demonstrators are younger and that kind of criticism has died away.

Recently two older men were spotted at the protests carrying a sign that spoke of exactly this change: “To those who woke us from our slumber and broke the barriers that were keeping us silent, we bow down before you,” their sign said.

Via Niqash.org

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Bonus video added by Informed Comment:

Why do Iraqis want a new government? | ABC News

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The Iraqi Street Revolution of 2019 is still Challenging the American-Installed Order https://www.juancole.com/2019/12/revolution-challenging-installed.html Sun, 08 Dec 2019 05:02:09 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=187758 Mustafa Habib | –

(Niqash.org) – Neither of the two opposing groups seem to want to give any quarter and despite impactful events and legislative manoeuvres, nobody is any closer to common ground. 6.12.2019 | Baghdad Politics

A man in Baghdad’s informal “museum of martyrs”, a memorial to the young demonstrators who have been killed. (photo: صباح عرار:جيتي)

Almost six weeks have passed since the start of the anti-government protests in Baghdad and the distance between the protesters, and what they want, and the authorities, and what they believe the protesters should get, continues to grow.

The Iraqi prime minister announced that he would resign. But demonstrations have continued because as those participating say, it is the whole system that they believe is rotten. They want to see changes made to electoral laws and other basic rules. At the same time, Iraq’s political class is insisting on maintaining as much of the status quo as they think they can.

Proposed rules on elections are an example of how far apart the two sides are. The protesters want a new law that would enable genuine representation for voters and they even have a first draft of it, which they are circulating, asking other protest groups elsewhere to give an opinion, via lawyers or constitutional experts. They are seeking comprehensive political change and their new electoral law would make it possible to push Iraq’s established political parties out of power.

In Baghdad, the rules of the game don’t seem to have changed. Nor does there seem to be any acknowledgement that they should.

Meanwhile, Iraq’s parliamentarians are also discussing a new electoral law and they have a draft too. However their draft electoral law is very different from the protesters’ version and appears to have been written with a view to keeping established parties in power. Opinions from outside established political circles – for instance, the protesters’ or the public’s – have not been solicited.

Two factors have made a major impact in the last fortnight: Firstly, the resignation of the prime minister which has been perceived as a victory for the protesters and secondly, the fact that dozens of protesters were killed in Najaf and Nasiriyah. The death are changing general public opinion about the demonstrations.

Memorials have been held all around the country, even in Sunni Muslim-majority cities and provinces, like Mosul, Salahaddin, Diyala and Anbar, where locals did not really protest but instead showed solidarity with the protesters down south in variety of different ways.

Meanwhile in the corridors of power in Baghdad, nothing really seems to have changed. Every time Iraqi politicians select a new prime minister, there are heated discussions, meetings and long negotiations. Multiple names have been suggested for the job and most are part of the long-standing political establishment. In Baghdad, the rules of the game don’t seem to have changed. Nor does there seem to be any acknowledgement that they should.

A few days after prime minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi resigned, Iranian military leader Qassim Soleimani arrived in Baghdad – this too, is according to local political tradition, as Iraq’s allies and neighbours always want a say in the selection of any new leader. And some of the country’s politicians are still doing their best to discredit the protests, saying they were initiated by foreign agents, implying that the demonstrators are guilty of treason.

On the streets of the country, the scene is very different. Protesters are responding to the talk of ongoing negotiations in Baghdad with jokes. They scoff at the idea that the political establishment will remain in power and that a new prime minister will be selected as usual, and that this could even come close to satisfying the demands of the anti-government demonstrators – or that it would make the protesters forget those who have been killed.

Last week, the first rain of winter fell in Baghdad. No doubt the authorities were hoping the watery weather would discourage protesters and that they might return home. Instead they donned raincoats and prepared for a drop in temperature.

Given the intractable positions taken by both sides, how could this deadlock end?

In Iraqi history, major political changes have tended to lead to reprisal and revenge.

Up until now, the protesters have not formed any sort of body that could ostensibly represent them in negotiations with politicians. In some ways, the protesters seem to see this as a strong point. The majority of them are younger men with little or no political experience. There’s such a deep seated distrust of politics that even the protesters fear that, if they elect representatives, these may be susceptible to offers of money or power and that they could “sell the protests out”, as has happened previously in Iraq. Additionally, by not engaging in negotiations, they don’t get caught up in potentially months-long and difficult discussions with a government that is, many of them say, the best at procrastination and delay.

The current administration, and past ones, may have been proven a failure. But most of the demonstrators are not clear on how to remedy this, nor do they know how to prevent the manipulations of Iraq’s politicians. What some might describe as naivete has also been seen – at some demonstrations, protesters have been setting up theatrical scaffolding and “executing” dolls with politicians’ faces on them.

It is not hard to imagine that these kinds of actions – the threat of execution and prosecution – will only make those in power more intransigent. And that is apart from all the other good reasons for politicians’ stubbornness: Well-established parties have been in power in Iraq for 16 years and they will not easily surrender the wealth, position and power they have amassed over that time.

In Iraqi history, major political changes have tended to lead to reprisal and revenge. After the end of Saddam Hussein’s regime and the fall of his nationalist Baath party, Iraq saw several years of bloodshed and violence, with deaths on all sides. Prior to this, Saddam and the Baath party did the same thing when they seized power in the early 1960s, murdering and imprisoning thousands of Iraqis who they considered their enemies. And in 1958, when the Iraqi monarchy was overthrown, members of the Iraqi royal family were also murdered, their bodes dragged down streets or hung from power poles, in scenes that older Iraqis still remember with horror.

A complete overhaul of the current Iraqi system, established in 2003 after the end of Saddam Hussein’s regime, could ostensibly make thousands of political party members, military service people and even civil servants into “the enemy” – perhaps an enemy that will have to be fought. The country’s politicians are only too well aware of this danger. They are trying to prevent any such breakdown but at the same time, they appear to be refusing to make even the smallest concessions to their opponents, who simply carry on, in the country’s’ squares and streets.

Via Niqash.org

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Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Euronews: “Protesters killed in Iraq hours after US sanctions Iraqi militia leaders”

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Baghdad’s Youthquake: Iraq’s Young Protestors ‘Have Nothing Left To Lose’ https://www.juancole.com/2019/10/baghdads-youthquakeiraqs-protestors.html Mon, 07 Oct 2019 04:04:19 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=186735 (Niqash.org ) – Anti-government protests in Baghdad were led by the younger generation, one that has grown up under military rule, lived a more liberal life online and is now questioning the very basis of local, political culture.

More than a hundred deaths and over 4,000 wounded as a result of five days of anti-government protests, quite possibly the largest such demonstrations in Iraq since 2003. But this time the protests have been led by a different generation of Iraqis, those born in the 21st century, who have grown up with Justin Bieber and Facebook and in a country that was controlled by the US military for a large part of their youth. This is the generation of Iraqis who have tuned religious songs into rap tunes.

On October 1, thousands of young Iraqis – the vast majority of them male, only a handful of women have taken part – marched to Baghdad’s central Tahrir Square, the scene of many such actions. There were also demonstrations in provinces further away, including in Dhi Qar, Basra, Diwaniyah and Wasit.

What did we do to deserve this? We are peaceful and unarmed. We will not forgive the politicians for this.

The demonstrators were motivated by a wide variety of things – anger over corruption, a lack of jobs, deficient state services – and there were even some conspiracy theories springing up about why the demonstrations were happening. But one thing seemed certain to most onlookers: The youth of Iraq were on the streets for a just cause. As a nation, Iraq is mired in corruption, represented by politicians that seem mostly concerned about protecting their own interests, and dealing with a lack of state services, such as the provision of water and power, and damagingly high youth unemployment. Iraq is also caught in the middle of international tensions between two major allies, Iran and the US.

“I feel ashamed when I’m online, on social media, and I see the streets, schools and development in other countries all around us,” says Raed Latif, 19, emotional as he explains why he’s taking part in the protests. “Meanwhile in Iraq, I have nothing to be proud of. I love my country and I want to change the current state of things.”

Latif had been sneaking out of the house without telling his mother that he was joining the protests. One day last week, his mother found out and locked him inside, making the teenager promise not to go out. He snuck out again anyway.

The authorities have tried to stop the protestors from contacting one another and to quell reports of the demonstrations and counter actions by throttling the internet nationwide. But the young demonstrators have still managed to post and publish pictures and videos, and to communicate.

Our reactions are based on how an individual behaves, not who they are, or which tribe they belong to.

Besides using it as an organisational tool, one might also argue that this younger generation of Iraqis is also impacted the online world more than their elders – they’ve grown up with social media and electronic gaming, using sites like PUBG, or Player’s Unknown Battle Ground, a multi-player online game, to communicate with young people all over the world. Ideology and religion still matter to them – they live in Iraq, after all – but they’ve also been in touch with other social groups in other countries online, and it’s potentially given them a more liberal outlook than their parents.

There’s an interesting disconnect between older generations in Iraq and this younger one taking to the streets with clear demands for more jobs and better conditions as well as an end to corruption.

During a seminar held in Baghdad last month by a local civil society organisation, a doctor in his 50s started his speech criticising the “youth of today”. He said that younger Iraqis are fickle, they spend their mornings praising some individual on Facebook only to turn upon them by the evening. “This is a generation with no opinions and no steady moral compass,” he complained.

A younger member of the audience stood up to rebuke the doctor. “What you say is true,” the participant conceded. “But when we praise somebody in the morning and criticise them in the evening, that is because we are basing our reactions upon that person’s behaviour. At one stage, we feel his behaviour is good. At another, we feel it is bad.”

Younger Iraqis are different precisely because of such subjective attitudes, he argued. “We don’t have any affiliations,” the young man continued. “Our reactions are based on how an individual behaves, not who they are, or which tribe they belong to. We are not like those [the older generation] with partisan connections and old-fashioned ideologies, who don’t care whether a person is right or wrong, just who their connections are.”

After a young protestor was killed by security forces last Sunday, his friends searched his pockets for a mobile phone with which they could call the dead man’s parents. They found IQD1,000 note, equivalent to about one US dollar, and they also found a phone. It was very old mobile phone, filled with dozens of videos of the Baghdad demonstrations. When the other young men tried to call the dead man’s parents using the phone, they found they were unable to get through: There wasn’t even enough credit on the phone even to do this.

“What did we do to deserve this?,” mourned Abdul-Karim Khaqani, a 22-year-old demonstrator. “We are peaceful and unarmed. Why did they attack us with live ammunition? We will not forgive the politicians for this and if we fail this time, we will be back. We will protest again. We have nothing to lose,” he said, “other than our lives.”

Via Niqash.org

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Bonus video added by Informed Comment:

Sky News: “What has caused the latest violent protests in Iraq?”

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How Iraq Is Standing Up For Itself, After Israeli Attacks https://www.juancole.com/2019/09/standing-israeli-attacks.html Mon, 16 Sep 2019 04:04:30 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=186347 (Niqash) – Mustafa Habib Often trapped between Iran and the US, Iraq’s foreign policy experts have been playing a wily game to avoid it happening again – especially after suspected Israeli attacks inside the country. 6.09.2019 | Baghdad Politics
Unusual: Iraqi leaders came together to formulate a measured response.

In Iraq, both politicians, military and the general public have recently been preoccupied by a series of mysterious explosions at weapons storage facilities belonging to the country’s semi-official militias. Iraqis pondered what was causing the explosions: was it the high summer temperatures causing the weaponry to ignite? Or perhaps poorly maintained facilities? And of course, some wondered if the sites were being attacked. However, a recent incident on the Iraqi-Syrian border raised different and more pressing questions about the various explosions.

A leader in the semi-official militias appears to have been targeted by a drone in the area of Qaim on the border of the two countries. In late August, Kazem Ali Mohsen, a senior member of Hezbollah in Iraq, was killed there in a drone attack.

After keeping quiet about the explosions at the weapons storage facilities for weeks, members of the militias declared that it was Israel that had been targeting them. The story only got bigger when reports in the Israeli media seemed to confirm this, noting that it was part of a plan to destroy any militias close to Iran. Hezbollah is one of these.

Iraq has been doing its best to maintain some kind of neutrality, caught as it is between its immediate and very influential neighbour, Iran, and its powerful ally, the US. Iraq did not want to be pushed into a war and wanted to remain neutral, the country’s national security adviser, Falih al-Fayadh, told the New York Times afterwards.

On social media, the tensions were often discussed like this: “Why do these people want to push us towards a new war, when what we really need is development and jobs?”

But the seriousness of the situation did not escape the Iraqi government and a series of high-level meetings were called.

Iraqi president Barham Saleh called for two meetings. The first featured the president, the prime minister and the speaker of the Iraqi parliament as well as leaders of the various militias. The second was for political party leaders. After the two meetings, the Iraqi government issued a statement disavowing any extreme statements about the situation. Only the government should be formulating an appropriate response, the statement said. This was in response to some of the threats and radical statements being made by militias. The government also said it would complain about the incident at the United Nations’ Security Council.

Hours after Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes – he is the second in command of the semi-official militias – issued his own statement, threatening to target US forces in Iraq, his words were contradicted by Falih al-Fayadh, also the chairman of the militias.

Al-Fayad rejected al-Mohandes’ threats and stressed that the Shiite Muslim militias have long been divided between those groups loyal to Iran and those with more of an allegiance to the Iraqi government.

“This mysterious bombing of the militias isn’t acceptable,” a senior member of the militias allied with cleric Muqtada al-Sadr (who is more loyal to the Iraqi government) told NIQASH under condition of anonymity because of the topic’s sensitivity. “That’s even though these attacks have targeted the militias closer to Iran rather than others. We still demand investigations and we want to know the reason for these attacks. We also want to know if the bombed storage facilities were holding Iranian weapons. And if so, then what were they doing here in Iraq?” he said.

Rumour had it that Iranian weapons were being stored in Iraq in anticipation of any possible aggression against Iran. No officials would confirm or deny this leak – although Ammar al-Hakim, the cleric who leads one of Iraq’s biggest Shiite Muslim political parties, did tell a large audience in Baghdad that, “the country of Iraq is not a storehouse for non-Iraqi weapons”.

Possibly most significant was the public reaction as various factions and militias close to Iran tried to escalate tensions, calling for public demonstrations against US and Israeli interference; these groups also postered the streets with slogans saying things like “no, no, no to America” and “death to Israel”. Many of the supporters of these slogans were very surprised to find a distinct lack of public interest in their machinations.

On social media, the tensions were often discussed like this: “Why do these people want to push us towards a new war, when what we really need is development and jobs?”

And the country’s most senior Shiite Muslim religious leader, Alli al-Sistani, simply ignored what was being said about the attacks. This served to isolate pro-Iranian factions further.

At the same time though, Israel and the US didn’t escape unscathed. Earlier in August, after the first bombings of weapons depots, the Iraqi government said it would be cancelling permissions for foreign aircraft in Iraqi airspace unless they had prior approval. This can be seen as warning to The US because basically they are the ones that really control Iraqi airspace. In effect, this makes the US responsible for any aerial attacks.

Restricting the powers of the coalition [the international coalition in Iraq fighting the extremist Islamic State group] makes our mission more difficult,” an officer from one of the member states involved in the coalition told Niqash anonymously – he is not authorized to make statements to the media. “But it is also true that the coalition should bear responsibility for any air attack in Iraq,” he conceded.

Iraq doesn’t have the technological capacity to control its own airspace and since 2014, when the extremist Islamic State group managed to take control of one-third of the county, the US have been in charge in this realm, via the international coalition. The recent attacks – whether they were carried out by Israel or any other state or group – saw the US forces accused of both failure and of facilitating the attacks.

It’s clear that as much as Iraq needs the US, if political sentiment were to turn firmly against the Americans, there is recurring talk that their troops might be expelled from the country as a result. This would, in turn, allow Iran to increase its influence in the country, something the US – and indeed many Iraqis too – do not want.

Via Niqash

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Bonus video added by Informed Comment:

AP: “Funeral for Iraqi militia killed in drone attack”

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Is Wave of Anti-Corruption Demonstrations in Iraq Doomed to Fail? https://www.juancole.com/2018/08/corruption-demonstrations-doomed.html Mon, 06 Aug 2018 04:33:40 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=177690 Baghdad (Niqash.org) – There are anti-government protests in Iraq every summer. But the recent batch are different, and in ways that could hinder any resolution.

The protests that have been rocking the Iraqi political establishment for almost a month now began when dozens of unemployed young men from the village of Bahila, on the outskirts of the southern city of Basra, gathered outside an oil company premises demanding jobs. The protests then spread to the city centre and widened their scope, with participants demanding better state services and regular water and power supplies.


Protests in Najaf.

Protests are expected in Iraq in summer. It’s so hot that a lack of potable water and power to cool things down, or keep food, is enough to drive people onto the streets in anger. But these protests – which spread from Basra to other provinces, including the capital Baghdad – are different from past ones in several ways. For one thing, they appear to be spontaneous and leaderless, their demands are many, often non-specific and in some cases, unrealistic. And if the protestors have one thing in common, it is their distrust of, and lack of confidence in, the whole of the Iraqi political establishment. They are not targeting any one party or sector; basically, they don’t like anyone.

If we were asked to choose between taking power or supporting their demands, we would choose protests.

All of these factors make it unlikely that the protestors will be able to achieve what they want. In fact, it may hamper them in the long run.

The lack of leadership makes it hard to find anyone to negotiate with. Some of the demonstrators said they were heading to Baghdad, having organised delegations to meet with the current prime minister, Haider al-Abadi. But as soon as they said this, other demonstrators were quick to announce that the delegations going to Baghdad did not represent them.

In this case it’s hard to negotiate a solution, let alone following up on any plans.

The absence of any leadership could see the protests fade away. There is also the danger that other less well-intentioned parties could exploit the protests.

During last year’s anti-government demonstrations, the leaders tended to be members of civil society groups and secular movements. They created a culture of protest going back to 2010. The other leader of that movement was the influential Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and a large number of his followers.

But all of those former organisers are now somehow tainted by their recent win in the federal elections, held in May this year. They are now seen as part of the political process and therefore, unable to participate in this round of anti-government anger.

Al-Sadr, whose alliance won the most seats in the next parliament, had proposed postponing government formation negotiations in order to respond to the demonstrators. But when al-Sadr tried to send a delegation of his supporters to speak with the Basra demonstrators, the Basra locals refused to receive the group. It was an unexpected rejection.

“Winning has its downsides,” says an MP for al-Sadr’s alliance, who is likely to be awarded a seat in Baghdad’s parliament; he could only speak anonymously as he was not supposed to comment on the situation. “The protestors believe we have become powerful in the country’s politics before the government has even been formed, or the parliament chosen. We do support the demonstrators and if we were asked to choose between taking power or supporting their demands, we would choose protests rather than becoming part of a government that is unable to provide the necessary services,” he told NIQASH.

Another unusual thing about the current protests, and a sign that the demonstrators are opposed to all kinds of elites in Iraq: They were even criticizing the country’s highest Shiite Muslim religious authority, Ali al-Sistani, who is usually not an acceptable target. Protestors had banners criticizing al-Sistani and asking why he had not spoken in support of the protests during the first week they happened.

They are lying to us. This promise is worth nothing.

Al-Sistani finally spoke out about the protests during last Friday’s sermons. He called upon demonstrators to keep up the pressure on the country’s politicians and demanded that the new government be finalized as quickly as possible, and that it be headed by a “strong and brave” prime minister. Al-Sistani also called on the politicians to think carefully about what they did in the past.

By talking about the past, al-Sistani was thought to be referring to the Sunni-Muslim-majority anti-government protests of 2013. The government did not respond to the protestors’ demands, or it clamped down violently – all of which enabled extremists to weaponize the protests. This can be seen as part of the reason for the rise of the extremist Islamic State group in Sunni Muslim areas.

Angry protestors also attacked and set alight the headquarters of Shiite Muslim political parties in southern Iraq. They did not appear to care which offices they damaged and even attacked the headquarters of the Shiite Muslim militias. Until just a few months ago the latter had been revered – and in many cases, considered above criticism within their own communities – for fighting the extremist group known as the Islamic State, and sacrificing their lives to do so.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is a more obvious target for the protestors and is often criticised. But over the past three weeks, his acting government – in power until the formation of the next one – has tried rapprochement. Al-Abadi travelled to Basra but was unable to get very far as he was besieged by angry locals. He later decided to receive delegations in Baghdad instead.


Protests in Dhi Qar

To appease the protestors, al-Abadi has fired his minister of electricity and also promised the creation of thousands of new jobs. The government has also tried to engage influential local personalities – including community and tribal leaders and local politicians – to help restore peace.

Unfortunately nobody believes the government. “They are lying to us,” Abdul Ridha al-Rubaie, a community leader in Basra, told NIQASH. “Months ago, when the budget was being discussed, the government announced that it would not be able to create jobs because of the financial crisis in Iraq. Now it is suddenly offering thousands of jobs. But if it is really unable to create jobs – as they said previously – then this promise is worth nothing.”

All this pressure from the demonstrations, as well as al-Sistani’s reproach, has meant that Shiite Muslim political parties are renewing attempts to try and form a government. The political elites of Iraq are currently riven by infighting.

Nonetheless they also remain confused. They’ve been having to try and negotiate with angry mobs and deal with al-Sistani’s call to form a government of technocrats that can change the country for the better, rather than one based on Iraq’s controversial quota system. Some political parties have even stopped saying that one of their members should get the job of prime minister because they know it angers those on the street.

And now they must deal with the even more difficult part: Iraq has never formed a government that ignores the quota system before. To take a new untried route to power, makes things more difficult. And despite ongoing calls to hurry the process of government formation up, it is quite possible that doing so according to al-Sistani’s call, will delay it even further.

Featured Photo: A demonstration in Basra. The sign says: “The people’s revolution. A revolution of anger. Basra demands its rights.”

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Fearing Repression, Iraq’s Sunnis won’t Join Wave of Protests https://www.juancole.com/2018/07/fearing-repression-protests.html Sat, 28 Jul 2018 04:07:57 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=177448 Baghdad (Niqash.org) – A few days ago, a resident in the northern city of Mosul posted a comment about ongoing protests in southern Iraq on Facebook. “We greet you from Mosul,” wrote Imam al-Qaysi. “Our hearts are with you and we know what it’s like to live in these tragic conditions. We don’t have state services either. But we hope that God protects you and we wish you many blessings in life.”

Another Iraqi Facebook user, Mohammed al-Jibouri, wrote that his city was silent. “Our people are sad because they cannot go to the streets and demonstrate,” he said.

These seemed like a reasonable gestures of support for protestors in southern cities like Basra, who have been protesting for around two weeks now about the lack of water, power and state services, made all the more unbearable by stifling summer heat. However what did not seem reasonable were some of the extreme responses the messages got.

The Iraqi government has made this mistake – of not listening to the demonstrators – before.

“You, the people of Mosul, were in cahoots with the [extremist group known as ]the Islamic State,” one of the comments read. “So you should not be allowed to demonstrate.”

“The security forces who are now attacking the protestors are from Mosul and Anbar,” said another sectarian-flavoured comment; most of the Iraqis living in those places are Sunni Muslims whereas most of the Iraqis living down south are Shiite Muslims.

“The Baathists shouldn’t be allowed to protest,” said another, referring to the outlawed Baath political party run by former Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Muslim.

The demonstrations about poor state services started in Basra on July 14 but have since spread to nine other provinces, as well as the capital, Baghdad. But there have been no similar protests in Sunni Muslim-majority provinces – and that is despite the fact that the living conditions there are not necessarily better in central and northern Iraq, and in some cases, could even be worse. So why isn’t anybody protesting there?

“We share the concerns of our people in the south,” Abdul Rahman al-Fahdawi, one of the community leaders among Ramadi’s tribes in Anbar, told NIQASH. “Our living conditions are not much better than those in Basra or Dhi Qar and in some cases, they may even be worse. Our homes have been destroyed and there is no infrastructure because of the military operations against the terrorists. But we cannot participate in the demonstrations because we will be accused of being terrorists and Baathists who want to destroy the government.”

When people in Sunni Muslim areas started anti-government protests several years ago, they were peaceful, al-Fahdawi adds. “But the government never responded to our protests for over a year,” he says, which eventually made it possible for the rise of the extremist Islamic State, or IS, group, who base their ideology on a particularly extreme and perverted view of Sunni Islam. The IS group played upon the Sunni population’s dissatisfaction with the Iraqi government, then headed by prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, and the way the government cracked down on the protestors.


Sunni protestors in 2013. Via Niqash.org

After the Iraqi army was used to brutally disperse the protests, which had become ongoing sit-ins, the IS group offered itself as a protector of the country’s Sunnis against the threat posed by the Shiite-led government. Locals only discovered the level of extremism and brutality the IS group practiced later.

“The Iraqi government has made this mistake – of not listening to the demonstrators – before,” al-Fahdawi says. “This means that extremists, anarchists or even politicians could join the demonstrations which makes the protestors’ motivations look impure. So today we can only watch the protestors from a distance and wish them luck and safety. We hope the government will listen to their very legitimate demands.”

“Our living conditions are not that different from theirs,” says Iman al-Qaysi, the civil society activist from Mosul who wrote that initial comment about supporting the protests on Facebook. “We only get a few hours of water a day and the water isn’t clean because of the destruction of water purification plants. We only get about three hours of electricity a day and the city’s garbage is piling up on street corners because there are no municipal garbage workers,” he says. There are no jobs either, al-Qaysi adds, and the people here desperately need jobs because they need money to be able to rebuild their homes.

But he and his neighbours also know that if they dare to protest, they will be greeted with ready-made insults and threats: terrorists, Baath party supporters, extremists.

The people of Basra are good people and they deserve better.

“I was so disappointed with the replies to my comment,” al-Qaysi says. “People were saying things like, why should you protest? You should thank God the Iraqi army saved you instead. It is as if you want the IS group to return to your areas.”

The situation isn’t that different in other Sunni-Muslim-majority areas. In the province of Salahaddin, locals have been watching the demonstrations further south but they haven’t organized any protests of their own either, for the same reasons. They fear the consequences, says Hussam al-Jibouri, a resident of Tikrit.

People here still have bad memories of their own anti-government protests from 2013, al-Jibouri says, after which the IS group arrived. Any kind of chaos could bring the extremists back, they worry.

“Additionally civilian activists think that the security forces will just call them Baathists,” al-Jibouri explains. “Because Saddam Hussein was from Tikrit originally.”

Al-Jibouri says he and others here are sympathetic to the cause of protestors in places like Basra. “I visited the city a few months ago and saw for myself the situation there. The people of Basra are good people and they deserve better,” he says. “Basra produces so much oil for Iraq and feeds all of Iraq and we hope the locals there can enjoy better services and stability. Also,” al-Jibouri pauses, “I call upon the authorities in Salahaddin to think about this too. Just because we are not demonstrating does not mean we are happy with the conditions here.”

Featured Photo: Protests spread to Baghdad too. (photo: جيتي)

Niqash.org

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In Remote Iraqi town, US Troops and Iran-Backed Militias are already Facing Off https://www.juancole.com/2018/06/remote-militias-already.html Fri, 01 Jun 2018 08:14:15 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=175968 Baghdad (Niqash.org) – Locals in Al Qaim, Anbar, worry that the current stable security situation can’t last. It’s being upheld by US troops and Iran-allied militias, whose antipathy toward one another is becoming more overt all the time.


Iraqi troops searching a secret IS base near Al Qaim. (photo: Iraqi Ministry of Defence).

The people of Al Qaim, a town in the far west of Anbar province, near the border with Syria, is a much happier place these days. During the past three years of the security crisis, sparked by the extremist group known as the Islamic State, it was considered an important base for the group. It was often referred to as the Islamic State group’s secret capital.

“Compared to a year ago the security situation is stable,” says Abdul-Rahman Karbouli, a community leader in Al Qaim, based in the Rumana area. “A year ago, this was a distant dream because of the presence of the extremists. Today we can stay up late without fear and my son works in one of the dairy factories in the city.”

It sounds good but Karbouli says it may not last; there is a big problem brewing. He fears that Al Qaim will fall victim to a conflict between the US military and members of the Shiite Muslim militias. The latter are former volunteers who fought against the Islamic State, or IS, group, but who are now an official part of the state security forces.

The brigade is not happy with the presence of US troops here. We believe they are actually supporting the terrorists.

“The Iraqi army and the militias are protecting us,” Karbouli says, “but we are hearing an increasing number of threats against the US from the Shiite militias in Anbar.”

Iraqi officials say that the US efforts in Anbar have been indispensable when it comes to securing the country’s porous borders with Syria, borders that allowed the IS fighters to come back and forth at will and which made Al Qaim such a good base for them. The Iraqi military has welcomed US troops. However the Shiite militias, who are doing some of the same work as the Iraqi and US military, are not as keen on the idea.

After the IS group was officially driven out of Al Qaim in November 2017, US troops were deployed to barracks on the outskirts of town, in an area dominated by Sunni Muslim tribes with social and tribal connections to Syrian tribes over the border – in particular the Karableh and Mahalawi clans. But at the same time, Shiite Muslim militias, with strong affiliations to Iran, were also deployed in the area, in what appeared to be a clandestine race for influence in the border area.

Both military groups have a shared objective: To keep the area clear of the IS group and its fighters. In fact, last week, after IS group attacks in Kirkuk and Salahaddin, the Iraqi air force struck locations inside Syria in an attempt to knock out IS cells. And US-Iraqi joint units were able to arrest four senior IS leaders in early May inside Al Qaim.


An Iraqi soldier shaking hands with a US soldier at their Anbar base.

But there are also other apparent aims of the two anti-IS forces here. Iran has long sought to carve out areas of influence that would allow it an unobstructed path to the sea: Such a path would go through Syria and Iraq. The Shiite Muslim militias associated with Iran, which supplies funding, weapons and advisory, want to open that road. The US forces want to keep it shut.

“The information provided by the friendlies [the way that the Iraqi military describe the international coalition, including the US, fighting the IS group] obtained with their drones and other intelligence information is essential in helping us secure these long borders,” says Saad al-Obeidi, a sergeant with the Iraqi army’s 12th division.

But his division doesn’t just work with the US forces, they also deal with a Shiite Muslim militia in Anbar, the Tafouf Brigade. “The irony is that we are working with bitter rivals,” al-Obeidi says. “The US forces fear the Tafouf brigade in the city and the brigade wants the US forces to withdraw. Every time we meet either group, we hear the bad way they talk about each other.”

When the Iraqi government declared the end of fighting in Anbar, all the Shiite militias withdrew from the Sunni-majority province except the Al Tafouf brigade, stationed in Al Qaim. Its leader is Qassim Musleh, who was actually imprisoned by the US during its invasion of Iraq. He was jailed in a UK base in Basra for three years.

The brigade he commands now is one that split from the Ali Akbar fighting units, which are closely associated with the holy southern city of Karbala and Shia Islam’s highest authority in Iraq, Ali al-Sistani. As such, the Ali Akbar units were more pro-Iraq than pro-Iran. However Musleh was removed from the job, allegedly for mistakes made in battle, and founded a new militia, this time one that was more closely affiliated with Iran.

Mostly the Al Tafouf brigade has been working on removing improvised explosive devices left by the IS group on the roads and trying to ferret out sleeper cells that may still be hiding in the Al Qaim area. Last week, it announced that it had found a secret base belonging to the extremists on the outskirts of the city, complete with tunnels and weapons stores.

“Our brigade has good relations with the people of Al Qaim,” one of the Al Tafouf members, Abdul Amir al-Masoudi, told NIQASH in a phone interview. “But the brigade is not happy with the presence of US troops here. We would like them to leave the city and we believe they are actually supporting the terrorists.”

This is an old rumour that has been repeated many times by the Shiite militias opposed to the US presence in Iraq. As recently as last week, Shiite militia Facebook pages were posting clips of what they said was an American plane over Anbar. They said the plane was being used to transport IS fighters. The Iraqi government and the Ministry of Defence have denied the stories and tried to put a stop to the rumours but some Iraqis still believe the tall tales.


The Iraqi army in the Al Qaim area.

“The US forces, the Iraqi army and the Syrian army are coordinating to control the borders north of the Euphrates river,” a member of Anbar’s provincial council told NIQASH off the record. “The Syrian army and Shiite militias are in control of border areas south of the Euphrates river. It is a complicated but useful equation in terms of defending Anbar. But there is a chance it could all collapse because of tensions between the two groups,” the council member admitted.

“Anbar is always under threat from the extremists and we need the US to help us secure our borders,” he noted. “But we also need the militias to fight the extremists.”

Featured Photo: Fighters from the Al Tafouf brigade in Al Qaim.

Via Niqash.org

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Why Muqtada al-Sadr’s Shocking Victory in Iraq Elections isn’t that Shocking https://www.juancole.com/2018/05/muqtada-elections-shocking.html Fri, 18 May 2018 10:25:16 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=175516 Baghdad (Niqash.org) The results of the Iraqi elections were surprising. But in fact, the way Iraqis were feeling about local politics beforehand indicates that nobody should actually have been all that surprised.

The morning after the preliminary announcements about who had won and who had lost in the Iraqi elections, it was clear that Iraqis did feel as though there had been a major political change. The senior politicians who had been in charge of the country for the past decade and a half had seen their popularity wane. Supporters of the winning parties came out on the streets to celebrate their victory.


The odd couple: head of the Communist party, Raed Fahmi (left) and the winning cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Via Niqash.org

Controversial Shiite Muslim leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, whose name has been associated with sectarian violence in the past but who has been undergoing a series of transformations over the past few years – most notably in his opposition to Iranian interference in the country – was ranked first in preliminary results.

The country’s sitting prime minister Haider al-Abadi came third. And this was a surprise to everyone, even Iraqis themselves. Al-Abadi’s popularity has only increased over the past few years. He is known as a man who has tackled several difficult challenges, including a security crisis sparked by the extremist group known as the Islamic State and a financial crisis that had the potential to bring down the government. He is so popular in Iraq, that he was the favourite before the elections and it seemed strange to many that he only managed to get third.

Al-Sadr openly discussed the desire for new blood in Iraqi politics with his supporters and he asked his officials not to nominate themselves again.

Second and third place were taken by, respectively, the Fatah alliance, which is the political body born out of some of the Shiite Muslim militias who volunteered to fight the Islamic State, or IS, group, and the coalition headed by a former, and much more unpopular, prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. Both of these bodies are known for a closer association with Iran.

Senior politicians, who are perceived as having big personalities, also lost. For example, al-Maliki is often referred to as a strong and forceful leader, something Iraqis have liked. But he won over 700,000 votes in the 2014 elections and only managed an estimated 91,000 this year.

Further along in the queue were Sunni Muslim parties and the Iraqi Kurdish parties; there were no real surprises here with groups headed by Ayad Allawi and Osama al-Nujaifi winning seats and the two major Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, doing best with voters in their own region.

Allawi is another one of those charismatic politicians who lost a lot of support; he garnered over 407,000 votes in both of the last two elections. This week he seems to have had only around 46,000 supporters.

But really the most dramatic developments occurred among the formerly unified Shiite Muslim politicians. “Those results are a shock and a surprise for the bigger parties but in fact they are a completely normal reflection of the country’s widespread discontent with those who ruled before,” suggests Faeq al-Sheikh Ali, an MP from a smaller, liberal party.

Ask any Iraqi how they felt about the elections, a few weeks ago, and they would usually come back at you with one or other version of this sentiment: We are bored and upset with the old faces and we want new faces, that have not been tainted by corruption.

Opinion polls before the elections tended to confirm this feeling and when it came to actually voting, most locals were eventually divided into one of two groups: One group decided to participate in the election and the other decided to boycott, seeing no point in voting.

Among those who did vote, it is clear that some of the Iraqi voters of 2018 were very different creatures to the Iraqi voters who came before, given the various challenges they have lived through in this country. A lot of the candidates they voted for were new and inexperienced. This did cause some concern and debate but seems not to have harmed the novices’ chances in the end. They were probably also helped by a speech given by the leading Shiite Muslim cleric in the country, Ali al-Sistani, who urged voters to choose the new over the old.

Al-Sadr was well positioned to gather up those votes, if the voters were not already part of his loyal base. He had established a new political movement, renamed it – from the old Ahrar party to Istiqama (or Integrity) – and had also banned all of his former MPs from running again. Some of them were very unhappy with that rule but al-Sadr insisted, a spokesman for his organization, Salah al-Obaidi, said.

“Al-Sadr openly discussed the desire for new blood in Iraqi politics with his supporters and he asked his officials not to nominate themselves again – even though some of them are prominent leaders,” al-Obaidi told NIQASH.

Many of the would-be MPs nominated by the Fatah alliance don’t have much parliamentary experience either though and probably benefited from being newcomers.

There was plenty of debate about this move within the party, al-Obaidi says. “Some said it was political suicide. Others said an alliance with the Iraqi Communist party was going to decrease our popularity. But [in the end] they all agreed to this because they know that Iraqi society is calling for new candidates.”

Al-Sadr also moved to join together with a number of civil society and secular parties, such as the Communist party – these, along with the Sadrists, were behind anti-government, anti-corruption protests in Baghdad that started in the summer of 2015. Not all the locals who joined those protests were religious – but they have voted for the cleric al-Sadr anyway.

And, as al-Obaidi notes, all of his colleagues’ fears proved unfounded.

When it comes to choosing new faces, some of the same motives can be applied to voters who chose the second-place getter, the Fatah alliance. It is led by Hadi al-Ameri, a senior member of the Badr organization who managed to bring together political representatives of various Shiite Muslim militias who fought the IS group. The latter are seen by many Iraqis as heroes for their role in the security crisis of the past three years. Many of the would-be MPs nominated by the Fatah alliance don’t have much parliamentary experience either though and once again, probably benefited from being newcomers.


Iraqi PM Haider al-Abadi votes.

One of the questions that many analysts are now asking with regard to the elections is what difference the low voter turnout made. Did a turnout of only around 44 percent – a big difference from past elections where turnout was around 60 percent – play a role in al-Sadr’s victory? After all, his supporters have always been more loyal.

However local observers suggest that even if those who boycotted had participated, the election results would not have been hugely different. Many of the boycotters did not vote because they don’t trust or respect the existing government and recent leadership. It is an assumption – but one would guess that, had they decided to vote, they too would have voted for the new faces and the new alliances, rather than the old.

In the end, the main thing that the results of these elections indicate is dissatisfaction with the status quo. Iraqis wanted change and now they have it – at least, this week they do. Whether that change can be long-lasting is yet to be seen. The differences between the results of each of the biggest parties remains small, not exceeding two dozen seats. So government formation will depend on complex negotiations, deal-making and concessions. Only after this process, will Iraqi voters know if they got the change they chose.

Featured photo: Muqtada al-Sadr votes. WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Via Niqash.org

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