Niqash – Informed Comment Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Tue, 12 Nov 2019 04:45:27 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Iraq Protests Heat Up Long-Standing Rivalry Between Iraqi And Iranian Shiite Religious Leaders Tue, 12 Nov 2019 05:03:04 +0000 By Elias Thomas | –

( – Behind the scenes of Iraq’s demonstrations, a decades-old rivalry between two centres of religious learning and authority, one local and the other in Iran, is playing out. 3.11.2019 Politics
Protests in Baghdad.

In early October, snipers shot at unarmed protesters on the streets of Iraq, who were taking part in anti-government protests. The snipers could be seen positioned on tall buildings, wearing masks and dressed all in black. It was immediately clear to almost everyone that they were not members of the official Iraqi armed forces.

Reuters reported that the snipers were deployed by the semi-official militias, even though militia commanders denied they had anything to do with the killings.

Later on Faleh al-Fayad, Iraq’s national security advisor and a former head of the militias, boasted that “we caused the conspiracy to fail”. His statement refers to the conspiracy theories that have been spread by some local politicians and by Iranian leaders that Iraq’s anti-government demonstrations are being led by “foreign” agitators, not aggrieved Iraqis.

The murder … serves our interests. The demonstrations are now contaminated.

Last weekend, protesters in the southern state of Maysan took out their anger on the same militias in the provincial capital, setting fire to the offices of the hard-line League of Righteous group and injuring one of the group’s leaders, Wissam al-Alyawi. The leader and his brother were later attacked while they were on their way to a local hospital, and eventually killed. Along with several other of the larger, better funded and armed militias, the League of Righteous militia is well known to be allied with Iran. They are often described as the loyalist militias

After al-Alyawi’s funeral, sources say that high-ranking militia leaders, army officers and senior government officials met in Baghdad. “The murder of al-Alyawi can be considered a turning point and one that serves our interests,” one of the militia leaders apparently said during the meeting. “The demonstrations are now contaminated, which means we can confront them.”

Over the past few weeks, the battles lines have slowly been drawn. Now they are coming into sharper focus. Protesters have been vocal in their opposition to Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs, burning Iranian flags and defacing posters of that country’s Shiite Muslim religious leader, Ali Khamenei. Meanwhile Khamenei, who is based in the holy city of Qom and who is often forceful in his pronouncements, has continued to push the idea that foreigners and “Western intelligence agencies” are instigating the protests. He has suggested that Iraqi authorities “make it a priority to stabilize these security threats”.

That same week, many Iraqis were also waiting to hear what the highest ranking Shiite cleric in their country, Ali al-Sistani, would have to say about events. Al-Sistani is based in Iraq’s holiest city, Najaf. One of the respected cleric’s representatives, Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbalai, eventually read out what many considered to be a fairly timid statement, cautioning protesters not to be violent and not to damage public or private property. No real reference was made to their demands.

The protests have taken on something of a festive air.

In fact, that is in keeping with al-Sistani’s attitude toward the role of religion in politics. Al-Sistani belongs to the quietist tradition of clerics and, unlike his Iranian counterpart, does not believe that religion should interfere massively in national politics or that clerics should appear often in the media. His reluctance to lead a religious revolution such as the one that occurred in Iran made him a target for criticism from over the border. Nonetheless there is also no doubt that al-Sistani plays a role in Iraqi politics and has always been a presence in national crises over the past decade.

In the end, it seemed that protesters mostly ignored al-Sistani’s speech, as they continued to try to get onto government property, to damage or burn political party and militia headquarters. In Baghdad, the Iraqi army used tear gas to prevent demonstrators from getting into the high-security Green Zone, and the Iranian embassy.

A cleric in Najaf with close connections to the important Shiite seminary, the al-Hawza al-Ilmiyya in Najaf, said that during the week, there was a series of messages coming from Iran to Najaf, where al-Sistani is based. The insider believes that these messages were pressuring al-Sistani to support the current Iraqi prime minister, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, to prevent him from being ousted, as per the demonstrators’ demands. The messages apparently also stressed that the protests be stopped.

However that has not happened and during the week, then again more definitively on Friday, demonstrations have continued. Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi asked the country’s crack counter terrorism forces to help end the protests in Baghdad but, as one senior army officer told NIQASH, “there was a long debate about whether and how to do this”. The special forces have gained a fearsome reputation for the way they fought the extremist Islamic State group and are generally respected by the general public for this. The commanders were reluctant to squander that.

In the end, no aggressive tactics were possible: During the week, thousands of Iraqi school children joined the protests. Nobody wanted to be seen shooting at 12-year-olds carrying their school bags.

Over the week, many of the protests have since taken on something of a festive air. The Iraqi government has announced a variety of measures to try and satisfy demonstrators’ demands but it is hard to know whether they would be satisfied with anything less than the complete dissolution of the current government.

The size of the demonstrations, supported by all Iraqis and so spontaneously, gave al-Sistani the strength to withstand pressure.

All of this has left senior cleric al-Sistani in a difficult position. Although many of the young protesters have also talked about rejecting religious influence, there’s no doubt that al-Sistani still has a lot of authority – not necessarily to control them but rather to support them, which prevents elements in the Iraqi government or Iranian authorities from going too far.

Behind the scenes, he and his advisers seem to have come to a conclusion. This was clearly indicated by the fact that the religious students in the seminaries in Najaf were released so that they could take part in local protests. Two of Najaf’s important shrines also opened their doors to offer local protesters water and food. At one of Najaf’s mosques, clerics gave a speech criticizing those who had been in command of the snipers that had shot at unarmed demonstrators – that was a clear reference to Iran.

Later on in the week, on Friday, another of al-Sistani’s spokespersons gave a further speech in which he said that no international or regional actor had the right to impose their will on the Iraqi people – another obvious reference to the Iranians. The speech also carried warnings about excessive violence from official or unofficial security forces, meaning the militias, many of which are under Iranian influence. Even though many of the militias fighters in Iraq are supported by Iran, they would also heed al-Sistani’s words.

“The size of the demonstrations, supported by all Iraqis and so spontaneously, gave al-Sistani the strength to withstand pressure,” a cleric close to the religious leader told NIQASH. “In his speech, al-Sistani didn’t mention political decisions though because he believes the demonstrations are going to continue and it is too early to talk about the political situation.”


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Al Jazeera English: “Clashes erupt in Iraq despite Shia leader’s call for calm”

An Arab Autumn:The Hidden Political Poison That Iraq And Lebanon Are Really Protesting About Mon, 21 Oct 2019 04:07:29 +0000 By Mustafa Habib | Baghdad | ( | –

This month Iraq and Lebanon have anti-government protests in common. Partially that’s due to the ineffective and deeply corrupt quota system their governments also share. There’s no easy way out of this trap.

Politics More in common than you might know.

Thousands of locals in Lebanon have been protesting since Thursday against what they say is a corrupt government. On Friday, those demonstrations – sparked by proposed taxes at a time of rising living costs – devolved into some violent clashes. Currently the Lebanese leadership is trying to resolve the issue.

The recent protests in Iraq and the current demonstrations in Lebanon have something unique in common. Both countries’ political systems have what may best be described as an unofficial quota system that dictates the way their democracy works and how politicians, and even bureaucrats, take power.

It’s a system that survives by emphasising sectarian or ethnic fidelities over national identity and forcing the construction of complicated allegiances in administrations. In Iraq, the unofficial quota system splits power between three main voter groups in the country: Sunni and Shiite Muslims and the Kurdish. In Lebanon, the power is distributed between the Sunni and Shiite Muslims and the country’s Christians.

Neighbours begin to realise that they have unemployment, poor state services and corrupt politicians in common. In that unity, comes the realization that they have been fooled by a divisive political game.

Basically, it means that, for example, Shiite Muslims usually vote for Shiite Muslims, Sunni Muslims vote for Sunni Muslims and Christians for Christians – and so forth, and so on. Although both countries are supposedly democratic, the unofficial quota system works in opposition to true democracy. It also leads political parties to conduct themselves, and to run campaigns, in a polarizing way, one that necessarily excludes voters who are not part of their ethnic or religious group.

Iraq’s unofficial sectarian quota system was established after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq that toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime. In order to avoid sectarian infighting among politicians, US administrators thought it best to split the most important positions in Iraq’s new parliament between the three major ethnic and sectarian groups in the country. Over time though, many analysts believe this practice has come to hamper Iraqi democracy, with leaders being picked for their sect or ethnicity, rather than on merit.

And the system is far more problematic than that. In reality, it also follows two further principles: How much power each appointment gives to the person who gets the job, and therefore how much money the appointment can generate. This results in a small group of individuals from each demographic group monopolising wealth and privilege.

In Lebanon, the 15-year civil war created a similar sort of problem, with intense enmity between different groups in the country. When the war finally ended, that country’s unofficial sectarian quota system was established for similar reasons: To make all of the country’s groups feel as though they had a part in new power structures.

In Iraq, the quota system was just supposed to be temporary, a way of keeping the peace until true democracy took root. Instead, the quota system flourished and as it did, so did cronyism and corruption, and the system became more permanent. After all, nobody wanted to give up what they had gained.

Thanks to the quota system, there’s no chance for good governance or merit-based administration at all, despite the trappings of democracy.

Today in Iraq, election campaigns run by Shiite Muslim parties have often relied on fear of “the other” – Sunni Muslims in Iraq – with politicians claiming that because the dictator Saddam Hussein was Sunni, all Iraqis who share his sect want the return of an authoritarian regime that puts them in charge. Meanwhile Sunni Muslim parties sew fear by claiming that Iraq’s Shiite Muslims only want to increase Iran’s influence over the country.

Whenever the sectarian rabble rousing abates, and there is no new crisis to distract a country’s citizens from their living conditions, neighbours begin to realise that the Sunni or Christian or Shiite family across the road can’t afford bread either – and that they have unemployment, poor state services and corrupt politicians in common. In that unity, comes the realization that they have been fooled by a divisive political game.

In Iraq, that realization recently came during fighting against the extremist group known as the Islamic State: As Iraqi troops entered the city of Mosul, there were both Sunni Muslims and Shiite Muslims fighting side by side against a common enemy. And during recent anti-government protests in Iraq, sectarian loyalties did not come into the play. In southern Iraqi cities like Basra, Shiite Muslim protesters – leaderless, angry, mostly young men – attacked the offices of Shiite Muslim political parties.

After the recent protests in Iraq and this week’s in Lebanon, political parties in both countries pledged their support for citizens and promised to address their demands.

But one can also assume that the politicians, and often their constituents too, are only too well aware that the existing political system, with its unofficial quotas, refuses any easy fix. It would be almost impossible to bend it to serve those promises. Because the quota system is based on distributing senior positions and powerful jobs to loyalists. It’s not based on good governance or merit; putting technocrats and appropriately skilled administrators into positions of power – rather than loyalists – threatens that quota system, and those who have gained from it.

In the kingdoms of the Middle East region, the royal families may not be particularly competent rulers but, given their dictatorial power and cash, they can appoint as many technocrats, experts and international companies as they want to improve the lives of their citizenry. This legitimizes what is basically undemocratic rule. However in countries like Iraq and Lebanon, bound to this unofficial quota system, there’s no chance for good governance or merit-based administration at all – despite both nations having the trappings of democracy.

To a certain extent, Iraq and Lebanon do enjoy some of the aspects of a genuine democracy as well as much freedom of opinion, especially when compared to other Arab countries. However they both remain fragile systems because the sectarian quota system nourishes itself by creating hostility between different groups of voters. One might imagine that sooner or later such a system would devolve, as the circumstances that forced its creation disappear, and as it becomes increasingly clear that such a system cannot be used to properly run a country, nor to distribute a nation’s wealth equitably.

In both Iraq and Lebanon, people are still angry. The protests will go on. But there is also a much more important question to consider: How can this poisonous quota system be changed? Especially when technocrats and protestors have only their good intentions to combat the will of political parties in power, who have both guns and foreign support.



Bonus video added by Informed Comment:

Sky News Australia: “Anti-government protests continue in Lebanon”

Is Fertile Crescent Drying up? Neighbors’ Dams, Global Heating, and Iraq’s Low Tigris Mon, 25 Jun 2018 04:26:30 +0000 Baghdad ( – In Baghdad, locals have been fretting about dramatic falls in the level of the Tigris river. The government has a plan. Only problem is, that plan requires billions in funding that Iraq does not have.

The passengers in the small bus all peer out anxiously as the vehicle crosses the Sanak bridge – the name used by locals for the Rashid bridge which spans the Tigris river in the middle of Baghdad. They’re not worried about the bridge though, they’re worried about the water levels.

“It’s actually very low,” one passenger says to another.

“We should expect that,” his travelling companion replies, “they are trying to drain the water – and the life – out of Iraq.”

Salah al-Jibouri is the 47-year old driver of the minibus. The passengers call him Uncle Salah. And he’s been driving this route for years. At the beginning of every Iraqi summer, he always hears these same conversations about the amount of water in the Tigris river. But this time, he says resignedly, it’s more serious and people are really worried.

After these dams were built, Iraq’s share of water decreased by more than 45 percent.

Possibly with good reason. At the time the bus is crossing the bridge, it had only been 24 hours since the Turkish government announced that they had started filling their huge Ilisu Dam to the north. Critics have been talking about the damage that stopping the flow of water in Turkey will do to Iraq for years – but now the problem is clear for all to see, as the Tigris river levels have fallen away dramatically.

Locals could talk about little else. Some Iraqis posted pictures of residents who had been able to walk across the river, which usually requires a boat or a bridge to get over. They were also upset with their own government, which seemed to be confused as to what exactly was going on.

Turkish authorities quickly moved to calm the situation with the Turkish ambassador to Iraq saying that it would take nearly a year to fill the Ilisu dam’s reservoir and the Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan announcing that the filling of the dam had been postponed.

The Iraqi minister for water resources, Hassan al-Janabi, said that the two countries had agreed upon a way for Turkey to fill the dam more slowly, and without stopping as much water flowing into Iraq.

But the problem is far from resolved. Baghdad locals used to worry about flooding in the city during the wetter months. But now, floods are the last thing they need fear. Instead it is the dams being built by neighbouring countries – including Turkey, Iran and Syria – as well as climate change, that are reducing the water flow into their city.

Over two-thirds of Iraq’s water comes from tributaries it shares with neighbouring countries.

“After these dams were built, Iraq’s share of water decreased by more than 45 percent,” says Zafer Abdullah, a consultant for Iraq’s ministry of water resources.

Iraq has agreements with its neighbours about water flow and how much water the different nations need to share. But some of the treaties are not being adhered to, with, for example, the Iranian government reporting that it cannot stick to a previous deal because climate change has decreased the amount of water to be shared.

The solution would not be to build more dams, the Iraqi ministry of water resources, has stated. Iraq’s own dams are underutilized and would store billions more cubic litres, if they could.

The Iraqi authorities say they have a strategy to see them through until 2035, that would provide water for things like drinking and agriculture. It takes into account the decreased amount of water due to climate change as well as the potential for neighbouring countries to keep blocking or diverting rivers.

However, as al-Janabi says, for the plan to work, it requires 24 “urgent and essential” points to be resolved, at the cost of up to US$3 billion. And that is extra funding the Iraqi national budget cannot afford right now.


Featured Photo: The Tigris river runs through Baghdad. (photo: Wikimedia Commons).

How Troll Farms & Fake News are being Weaponized against Iraq’s Women Politicians Wed, 02 May 2018 04:12:02 +0000 Special Correspondent | | – –

(Baghdad) As Iraqi elections near, the epidemic of disturbing and divisive fake news on local social media only gets worse. But who exactly is behind it? And are they motivated by profit, popularity or a political agenda?

Last week, a rumour swept social media in Iraq: The authorities overseeing election campaigning in Iraq had prevented 75 female candidates from running in the election for unethical behaviour. There was even a sex tape posted, featuring one of the candidates.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the rumour was not true. The sex tape appeared to be real but the fact that female candidates had been expelled, was not. Authorities at the country’s Independent High Electoral Commission, or IHEC, denied it and the story was disproven fairly quickly. Nonetheless many Iraqis still believed the story.

A few hours later another rumour hit the news: The candidate in the sex tape had committed suicide, under pressure from rigid social rules and traditions. This too was untrue and the would-be politician even appeared on a television news show to deny it. But after all that, you do wonder which Iraqis are going to vote for that candidate – that is, if they even think the person is still running – and alive.

I discovered that some of the page admins had agreed to sell the page’s work to one of the political parties for $5,000.

“False reports became a factor in creating a hostile environment for female participation in the political process,” says Hanaa Edwar, the influential head of the Al Amal (Hope) civil society organization. “There were dozens of falsified reports and pictures and unfortunately a lot of Iraqis were deceived by these.”

This is obviously not the first such incident on Iraqi social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube. Social media is an important source of information for many in Iraq, yet often the most viral pieces of information are not fact checked, nor is the provenance verified. There have even been incidents where false reports – or so-called “fake news’ – have been seen to cause violence, even death. Some of the false posts are obviously fake, alerted in an unprofessional way. But there are others that have clearly been altered using programs like Photoshop in a very professional way, although these seem to be in the minority. No matter how well made they are, one thing many of the false reports have in common is that they have been posted with a clear political agenda. So the question is: Who is actually behind these kinds of posts?

Were the items being posted simply to increase follower numbers with some outrageous news story, such as that about the political candidate’s sex tape? Or was the phenomenon a more dangerous one than that, especially as the Iraqi elections near? There are already rumours about so-called “electronic armies” – Iraq’s version of the “troll factory”, where human users of social media are employed in the service of a certain agenda to sew dissent or to spread misleading reports as part of a disinformation campaign meant to confuse.

Civil society activist Edwar believes they exist. “these organized electronic armies have prepared themselves very well for the Iraqi elections,” she told NIQASH. “They are producing false posts and spreading them on social networks. This is what happens when there is a lack of transparency, when officials refuse to comment, and when the media itself is unprofessional because of affiliations with political parties. That is the real reason for this disastrous turn of events.”

It is difficult to find the sources of the false reports although some Iraq-based Facebook pages are more likely than others to post misleading information. Contacting the administrators of these pages is tricky. Some of them blocked NIQASH’s enquiries and others threatened to disrupt – or “hack” – the Facebook account from which the enquiries came.

Examples of fake news debunked in Iraq this month.

In November 2017, one Facebook page catering to an Iraqi audience showed a large crater in the ground and said it was caused by a mid-November earthquake with an epicentre near the Iran-Iraq border. The photo of the crater was published on Facebook within ten minutes of the actual earthquake so it was there waiting for any Iraqis desperately searching for information about the natural disaster.

After verification, it turned out the picture was actually from an incident in Morocco and had nothing to do with the Iraqi earthquake. But it drew Iraqi eyes to that page, at a time when there were hardly any other photos from the earthquake area.

“I remember that news,” says Haider Jalil, a 17-year-old administrator who works on the page in question; Jalil did not want to give his real name for fear of losing his job. “We found that picture and we quickly posted it on our page to get more followers.”

His page doesn’t always create news this way. Jalil, who works with around 10 colleagues, searching for exciting or interesting news items and sharing them on Facebook, says most of the time they take pictures from established news outlets. “We don’t want to hurt anybody,” he says. “We are just trying to be the best and most popular page we can be. Our aim is to get thousands of followers. In fact, we have half a million followers and we did this all without spending any money to promote ourselves.”

The motivations for posting false reports on pages like Jalil’s then, have more to do with increasing the page’s popularity than changing the country’s politics, although they may also inadvertently do this.

We don’t want to hurt anybody. We are just trying to be the best and most popular page we can be.

However now it seems that Iraqi politicians are also using the popular Facebook pages, which have built up numbers of followers over time.

Arakan al-Shammari was one of seven administrators working on a Facebook page with 300,000 followers. However he withdrew from the role after he noticed some of his fellow administrators were starting to post more politically-based things, praising one political party and attacking others, and in particular with false reports.

“Then I discovered that some of the page admins had agreed to sell the page’s work to one of the political parties for US$5,000, and they were paying US$500 monthly for each administrator who agreed to keep working for the page,” al-Shammari explained to NIQASH.

Al-Shammari and three other colleagues refused to take up the offer. They were removed as administrators of the page. “I wanted to let people know what had happened and wrote about it on my personal page,” al-Shammari continued. “But I was threatened – the remaining admins said they would get thousands of people to report my page to Facebook, which would get it closed down – and I was told to delete what I had said about [the sale of the page].”

Further research by NIQASH shows that al-Shammari’s page is not the only one. Several other pages with a big followings have recently changed their names. Some have taken up the names of political parties or politicians. Some appear have increased access to funding as Iraqi users of Facebook are now getting a lot more advertisements asking them to follow or like certain pages, as the elections near. Some appear to be working together and often publish false posts at similar times (see NIQASH’s story on Kurdish false content for more on this).

Samir al-Dulaimi works for a bank in Baghdad and he says that he and his colleagues have noticed an increase in demand for local credit cards – this is fairly unusual because many Iraqis don’t even have bank accounts. “Our bank is one of the few in Baghdad to provide Visa cards,” al-Dulaimi explains. “New customers can apply for the cards and must deposit at least US$1,000. When we distribute questionnaires asking customers why they want a credit card, the majority say they want to make online purchases and to use the cards on social networking sites.”

“There is no doubt that political parties are behind some of the false news on paid Facebook pages, especially with the elections so close,” says Iradah al-Jibouri, a spokesperson at the media department at the University of Baghdad. “They make use of people’s preferences and they are frightening people with fake news. It’s easy,” he adds, “because unfortunately there are no laws about what is happening on social media.”

His department has introduced a new course in media studies that is all about combatting fake news, al-Jibouri adds.

The country’s 1968 Publications Law says violators can get up to seven years in jail for insulting the government and the country’s penal code has a clause from 1969 that makes defamation a crime. But none of that really covers what happens online.

There is an urgent need for new laws on digital information sources, agrees Ahmed Hamdallah, a lecturer in the law faculty at the University of Qadisiyah. “There are ongoing efforts to pass laws related to online publishing and there is also a draft of an information crimes law, which could also solve some problems.”

It’s an important subject to students in his faculty, he adds, noting that many of them have chosen to do their thesis or doctorates on the law around fake and false news in Iraq. In fact, most recently he supervised a master’s thesis by one female student at Nahrain University in Baghdad called: “Criminal responsibility for the promotion of false and spurious rumours on social media”.

“In societies living in doubt, false news cultivate suspicion and makes use of tense political, security or social conditions,” says Yousef al-Mousawi, a psychologist based in Diwaniyah. “Dozens of false reports are published on Iraqi Facebook everyday but only some attract a lot of attention – usually people react to those reports that relate to their own religious or political orientation. The social conditions help the spread of false reports and make mainstream news unimportant.”

And all this is because of ignorance about the way social media is being used during the elections, al-Mousawi concludes.

Interested in this topic? Please read our second story here, focusing on fake news in Iraqi Kurdistan in northern Iraq.

This report was prepared by Mustafa Habib and Manar al-Zubaidi

Reprinted by permission from