Iraq’s Protesters Dig in Their Heels | OZY

Facing sticks, knives and punches, Iraq’s protesters refuse to budge without meaningful political reform.

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Facing sticks, knives and punches, Iraq's protesters refuse to budge without meaningful political reform.

As smoke billowed into a red sky over Iraq’s holy city of Najaf, 20-year-old Mohammad Abu Sieeda snapped a photo with his iPhone — but this was no ordinary sunset shot.

It was the site of a brutal attack last week on Iraq’s biggest anti-government protests since 2003, allegedly by followers of controversial Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. “What you see before you is Sadrists burning [protesters’] tents,” Sieeda wrote on Instagram. “The sound of gunfire passed over our heads,” he said later, describing people being beaten with sticks as they ran. He and his friends escaped but that night, seven people were killed.

In the three months since Iraqi protesters first took to the streets, the tens of thousands of young people who want electoral reform and early elections have withstood tear gas, bullets and attacks by government forces.

Every time they attack [the protest movement], it gets stronger.

Hafsa Halawa, Middle East Institute

Protesters forced the prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, to resign last year and now criticize his newly anointed successor, Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi, for being too close to a corrupt elite. Many see the Shia-led government as beholden to neighboring Iran and demand a complete overhaul of a democracy forged in the aftermath of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Even in the face of attacks such as the one at Najaf, many thousands of demonstrators are still camped out in cities across southern Iraq, taking to the streets a few times a week in protest.

“With all of the political elites and groups, there’s been a miscalculation — every time they attack [the protest movement], it gets stronger,” says Hafsa Halawa, nonresident scholar at the think tank Middle East Institute, adding that protesters “are literally willing to die to protect the space they’ve created.”

More than 500 protesters have been killed since the demonstrations began. Iraqis and analysts had feared that the American assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani on Iraqi soil in early January would give Iran-backed militias, which support the status quo in Baghdad, an excuse to crush the protests once and for all. But with Iraq’s prime minister-designate now trying to form a new cabinet within the next 30 days, Tehran’s focus is on shaping the new government, analysts say. “Since the election of Allawi, [Iran’s proxy militias] are laying low. … They want to go the traditional way of dividing up cabinet positions,” says Halawa.

“I think [the protest movement] will become stronger,” says Hiwa Osman, an Iraqi analyst, citing the huge student demonstrations in recent weeks in cities across southern Iraq. There is still some way to go before the grassroots uprising become a political force, he says. Some “are talking about transforming the protest movement into a political movement, but the situation is not ripe yet,” he says, noting the lack of state protection for political challengers to the main parties.

These latest attacks come as protesters have lost the support of Sadr, one of Iraq’s most recognizable Shia leaders. Sadr has an unrivaled street following in Iraq, built up from impoverished Baghdad slums since the U.S.-led invasion. Sadr’s followers had offered protection to protesters, vulnerable to brutal crackdowns from official security forces and shadowy paramilitaries. With Sadr’s previous backing, “we, as peaceful demonstrators, felt that the revolution would win,” says Sieeda in Najaf. But when the appointment of Allawi as prime minister this month failed to pacify protesters, Sadr withdrew his support and Sadrists “took to the streets in Baghdad and elsewhere to prevent any demonstration against the prime minister-designate, using batons and knives,” says an Iraqi official.

Sadr has been in Iran for weeks — his advisers say he is studying — and has said he is independent of foreign influence. But his decision to withdraw support “transformed [him] from being a symbol of protest and revolution into being a policeman for the Iranians,” says Osman.

Sadr had grown increasingly upset by the protesters’ intransigence, says Dhiaa al-Asadi, a former Sadrist MP. He “was expecting the protesters to come up with solutions, not paralyzing life and getting themselves killed and chased by police and security forces,” says Asadi, adding that Sadr supported the protesters’ calls for reform. A spokesperson for Saraya al-Salam, Sadr’s militia, said there had been no orders to attack protesters.

However, the attacks continue. Ahmed Abuy Jrrouh, 23, a protester from the city of Samawah, described an attack by Sadr’s followers in Baghdad where he was beaten on the face and back. As many as 120 people were injured in the Najaf camp, according to the official Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights. “Some of my friends got hurt in the clashes,” says Sieeda, adding that they were too scared to go to the hospital. “They’re in a safe place, fearing for their lives because they’re threatened by danger.”

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