In a country on lockdown, tens of thousands of young Iraqis have been defying the authorities for three days, burning tires, besieging public offices and shouting slogans echoing those which were emblematic of the 2011 Arab Spring, a movement that had skipped over Iraq at the time, still prey to the ghosts of its past. Its failings are still the same: no real reconstruction, entrenched unemployment, structural corruption, nonexistent public services.
Against these persistent limitations of the dysfunctional Iraqi state, protests have exploded for the past three days in Baghdad and from Basra to Nasiriyah—the country’s oil-rich southern regions, which have not benefited at all from their supposed wealth, neither in the form of jobs nor public services.
Since Tuesday, the protests have spread throughout the country, and public anger has been rising even further with the mounting number of casualties: at least 26 protesters and two policemen have been killed and 1,000 people injured, while the central and regional government authorities have imposed an indefinite curfew and have cut off internet access.
On Thursday, Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi—who has been in office for a full year now, installed after months of post-election paralysis—put Baghdad on lockdown: all movement of vehicles and individuals is now banned (with only a few exceptions: ambulances, religious pilgrims, and employees of the water and electricity departments), while the police continued trying to disperse the protests with water cannons, tear gas and even live bullets.
The protests broke out spontaneously, and are not pushing the agenda of any political party—even though some (such as the Shiite religious leader Moqtada al-Sadr) are trying to ride the wave of discontent and have called for a general strike. Young people are at the forefront. They make up the vast majority of the population and are suffering more than other groups from a lack of jobs and opportunities.
The curfew announced Thursday was hardly effective: there were demonstrations in the suburbs of Baghdad anyway, and the central Tahrir Square, the heart of the mobilization, was the destination for many protesters. They even tried to sleep there so they would not lose control of the square.
Curfews were also introduced in Najaf, Nasiriyah, Amarah and the Babylon province, and internet access was cut in 75% of the country, according to NetBlocks, an NGO that monitors cuts to web access all over the world.
“The people want the fall of the regime,” was one of the slogans heard among the protesters, an overt reference to the Arab Spring riots of eight years ago. “We will sacrifice our souls and our blood for you, Iraq,” was another of the shouts arising from the mass of protesters waving Iraqi flags, with no party insignia anywhere to be seen.
These slogan had previously been used in past years, when major protests exploded in the capital and in the Shiite south, although these ended up more limited in time. For instance, the 2016 protests led by the Sadrist movement led to an assault on the Green Zone and to protesters forcing their way inside the Parliament building in Baghdad. Or the protests in Basra during the hot summers of 2018 and 2019, where popular anger—brought to a fever pitch by power blackouts, drought and unemployment—was aimed at foreign oil companies, which they accused of not hiring from the local labor force and merely exporting the crude oil instead of making it available to local communities bled dry from a lack of public services.
As the government seems unable to give any answers to the protesters except for blunt repression, the first reactions are coming from outside the country. The EU is calling for the armed forces to exercise moderation, Iran has closed two border crossings and the US has called for calm and threatened that the Americans “reserve the right to defend [themselves]” in the case of “attacks on [their] personnel.”
In the background of these unavoidable protests—taking place in a country that was never rebuilt physically and economically after the US invasion and ISIS occupation—lies the conflict between Iran and the US: the Iraqi authorities, weak and dependent as much on Tehran as on Washington, cannot hide their fear of seeing Iraq become the theater for a war waged by others.