Challenges in Iraq mount a year after anti-gov’t protests erupted

A demonstrator carries an Iraqi flag during an anti-government protest in Najaf [File: Alaa al-Marjani/Reuters]

In October 2019, unprecedented protests demanded the fall of Iraq’s ruling class. One year on, with a new government in place and nearly 600 protesters killed, little to nothing has changed.

The nationwide, leader-less demonstrations which broke out on October 1, 2019, spiralled into a decentralised movement slamming unemployment, poor public services, endemic corruption and a political class more loyal to Iran or the US than to Iraqi citizens.

A month later, the protests forced the resignation of then-Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi, who was succeeded by Mustafa al-Kadhimi, with the latter pledging to integrate protesters’ demands into his transitional government’s plans.

But on the ground, little has been achieved.

Al-Kadhimi has set an early parliamentary vote for June 6, 2021, nearly a year ahead of schedule.

“Protesters wanted early elections and a new electoral law. We’re doing that,” Abdelhussein Hindawi, al-Kadhimi’s adviser on elections, told AFP news agency.

But while Parliament approved a new voting law in December, essential points including the size of electoral districts and whether candidates would run independently or on lists have yet to be agreed by lawmakers.

Despite repeated claims he has no political ambitions and would only serve as a transitional premier, al-Kadhimi himself appears to be preparing for an electoral fight.

Several MPs and members of rival parties told AFP the prime minister’s advisers are scouting candidates for the 2021 elections, hoping he could secure a new term in office.

“He’s stuck because he has to make a decision about where he wants to be,” said Renad Mansour, a researcher at the UK-based Chatham House.

“Does he want to be PM for another four years and play politics, or does he want to change something right now?”

‘One foot in, one foot out’

When he came to power, al-Kadhimi pledged to guide Iraq through a dire fiscal crisis, saying state coffers were “nearly empty” after years of waste and an oil price slump.

The World Bank said Iraq’s poverty rate could double to 40 percent this year and that youth unemployment, already at 36 percent, could rise further.

Al-Kadhimi’s cabinet first vowed to reduce the public payroll and audit stipends handed out to millions of Iraqis but walked back the policy following public criticism.

It changed course again in August, hiring hundreds at the defence ministry – but not enough to stop sit-ins outside other government offices demanding jobs.

Finance Minister Ali Allawi missed a late August deadline to submit a “white paper” of economic reforms that is still being finalised, Iraqi officials told AFP.

Al-Kadhimi also said he would prioritise Iraq’s fight against the novel coronavirus, which has killed close to 9,000 people, with the health ministry warning hospitals could “lose control” if the spread is not contained.

The prime minister has few allies in Parliament, where pro-Iran MPs have bristled at his references to protester demands.

“He’s had one foot in the elite camp and one foot in the anti-establishment camp. At the end of the day, he ends up not satisfying either,” said Mansour.

‘It’s too sensitive’

The premier has also struggled to make good on his promise to bring those responsible for the deaths of nearly 600 protesters and activists since last October to justice.

In September, his government announced that families of victims could apply for compensation from the state, but no funds have been disbursed yet.

A few weeks later, al-Kadhimi said a statue would be erected in Tahrir Square, the epicentre of Baghdad’s rallies, as well as in the protest hotspot of Nasiriya further south.

Protesters reacted to the announcement with derision, pointing out that public art statues had not been part of their demands.

Meanwhile, the intimidation campaign has continued, including the abduction of a German national and the killing of scholar and government adviser Hisham al-Hashemi in July.

“We know who and where the killers are, but we cannot arrest them or announce that. It’s too sensitive,” one Iraqi official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Anti-government political activists in Iraq’s southern city of Basra have also been shot dead and others wounded in separate attacks by unknown gunmen last month.

The country has witnessed a series of assassinations and forced disappearances of journalists and political activists since October 2019.

Al-Kadhimi pledged to investigate the recent killings, but no one has been held accountable to date.

Rocket attacks on diplomatic missions and military convoys have also increased, with hardline groups becoming more brazen in their threats against al-Kadhimi.

Many of those factions fall under the state-sponsored Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitary network, and being unable to exert full control over them has made al-Kadhimi look “weak”, Mansour said.

“The challenge in Iraq is no one man can fix it – but certainly not a man who believes in incremental slow change at a time that you have such a violent context,” he said

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