Surviving on violence: Iraq’s political elite

Iraq is experiencing the largest grassroots political mobilization in its modern history. This revolution has spread across towns and cities in the center and south of the country. Residents are rising up against the failed political system imposed on them in 2003 by the United States and a group of exiled Iraqis. October 2019 represents the greatest existential threat to this political order – much greater than the rise of the so-called Islamic State – because this revolutionary moment continues to receive support from the masses. 

At the root of the revolution is a dire economic situation. For example, conservative estimates put the unemployment rate among Iraqi youth, who are front and center in the demonstrations, at 30 percent. This figure does not so much indicate a temporary “crisis” of unemployment, but rather show how crisis has been normalized and embedded in everyday Iraqi life. Such conditions have led to widespread disillusionment with the political system. Consequently, last year’s national election was marked by the lowest voter turnout since the post-2003 order was established. 

It has never been the goal of the Iraqi government and its leading figures to genuinely address long-standing grievances of their people. On several occasions in the past, leaders have promised reform packages and shuffled cabinet ministries to quell unrest when the public protests. Following last year’s election, party leaders agreed to appoint so-called independent ministers who are not part of the traditional ruling elite. None of this has worked and living conditions have deteriorated. Similar promises of reform today are falling on deaf ears; the Iraqi public is not buying them. 

Iraq’s rulers are today clear-eyed about one goal: tarring their people’s revolution with violence and death. Since the beginning of October, more than 300 demonstrators have been killed and thousands more injured. State security personnel and parastatal armed groups, once known as militias, are killing peaceful demonstrators with bullets and tear gas canisters to the head. No longer able to rely on empty promises, Baghdad’s elite are returning to a familiar strategy to smother the existential threat that this popular mobilization represents: violence.

Confusing shades of violence: One night in Karbala 

Various centers of power are deploying violence and coercion in Iraq. Reports from demonstrators and activists on the ground at first suggest a lack of coherence and organization among those deploying violence. The events in the holy city of Karbala on the night of October 28 help to show the different shades of violence in Iraq being directed at demonstrators. 

Thousands of demonstrators gathered in front of the Karbala governorate headquarters on October 27. Their protest escalated and demonstrators breached the grounds of the building, setting it ablaze. The following day, anti-riot police and SWAT forces directed protesters away from the governorate building towards Tarbia Square. According to demonstrators at the scene, anti-riot police provoked demonstrators by driving their vehicles at high speeds around them. The demonstrators threw stones at the vehicles to deter them from getting too close. Anti-riot police responded with tear gas, a tactic that they have relied on heavily across different Iraqi cities to suppress the protests. 

Armed men clad in black and with no identifying markers took up positions on rooftops looking down on the square and occupied streets around the square in vehicles without license plates. At approximately 10 pm, these men began shooting live bullets at demonstrators. Anti-riot police joined shortly after in violently dispersing the protesters. According to activists in Iraq, anti-riot police in different cities have been ordered to disperse demonstrators exclusively force and have been threatened with punishment by superiors if they attempt any peaceful means of dispersal. 

Hospitals in Karbala were overrun with the dead and wounded into the early hours of the next day, October 29. According to interviews with demonstrators, at least 30 people were killed and more than 600 wounded during the night and through the morning. Notably, the United Nations Assistance Mission to Iraq’s updated human rights report on the demonstrations states that forces “may have killed 18 people and injured 143.” The Iraqi government refuses to release official numbers of killed and injured and has since the beginning of demonstrations disrupted the Internet services through which civil society actors can collect and confirm information.

Video footage from demonstrators in Karbala shows the Iraqi military either standing idly by during these attacks or rushing children to safety. Other reports from local activists suggest that the Iraqi military actually protected demonstrators from the attackers, and in some cases fought back against them. At least one soldier was reported killed and dozens more injured. These accounts are reminiscent of protests in Baghdad on October 25, when unidentified men shot at demonstrators trying to enter the Green Zone. Images from the demonstration show federal police using their shields to protect protesters from the live rounds. These events highlight the confusing nature of the violence deployed and supported by political elites and raise the question of how the Iraqi government and its parastatal armed allies collectively produce and benefit from such murky conditions. 

A fragmented elite coalesces around violence

Ongoing violence against protesters at first points to the fragmentation of Iraq’s coercive apparatuses. But such framing misses how these apparatuses – which include the prime minister’s office, the Interior and Communication ministries, and even Iraq’s judiciary – coalesce to protect the political system. This grouping forms the collection of violence that counters the perceived threat posed by these protests.

Parastatal armed actors, from which the unidentified gunmen killing protesters come, are just one piece to this whole. In recent years, primarily through the formation and institutionalization of the Popular Mobilization Units (al-hashd al-shaabi), these groups have been integrated into Iraq’s state security fabric. But as is widely known, these groups ultimately report to and are led by specific political parties and their leaders, some of whom are supported by Iran.

Some Iraq analysts suggest that the country’s prime minister and commander-in-chief, Adel Abdul Mehdi, holds little decision-making power in the government’s response to these demonstrations. Most of the demonstrator killings are being done outside of the prime minister’s command. This is proof for many that the prime minister is controlled by other more powerful actors, and can be ousted if and when they deem appropriate. But such a narrative belies the fact that the prime minister is also aiming to end the demonstrations and will endorse violence to make that happen. The prime minister’s interest in deploying violence is inextricably tied to the interests of both his political friends and foes, who all benefit from reinforcing the status quo. Violence authorized by the Iraqi government, namely the prime minister, is a critical complement to the killing carried out by other armed actors – all of which protects the collective elite’s interests. Throughout the month of October, as the protesters refused to go home, sources from the prime minister’s office told the authors that the commander-in-chief was increasingly willing to use violence.  

Another security instrument at the executive’s disposal is the anti-riot police, a division of the Interior Ministry, which has unleashed a torrent of tear gas on protesters. Protesters have filmed numerous instances of tear gas canisters striking demonstrators in the head and killing them. Iraqi authorities have also cut off electricity to Tahrir Square, the heart of protests in Baghdad, on at least two nights in order to facilitate the removal of protesters from the square. 

The Communications Ministry continues to shut down Internet services across the center and south of the country. Demonstrators fear such cuts indicate more violent attacks are imminent, which they will be unable to broadcast to the outside world in real-time. When the Internet is running, social media websites like Facebook and Twitter are often blocked. Iraqis continue to rely on slow VPN connections to upload footage of demonstrations and the gruesome attacks they are sustaining. 

At the end of October, Abdul Mehdi deployed Iraq’s Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) in the streets of Baghdad, including in the heavily populated Karrada District. A show of force by the Iraqi government, the move was meant to intimidate demonstrators. The Iraqi government has also imposed a midnight curfew across Baghdad. This curfew has been actively mocked and resisted by the city’s residents. At around 11 pm each night last week, one hour before the curfew, thousands of Baghdadis took to the streets in a show of defiance into the morning. Security forces were unable to do anything as residents make the curfew moot.

Iraq’s judiciary also promotes the use of violence to counter existential threats to the political system, including mass protests. On November 6, the Supreme Judicial Council Chief Justice Faiq Zaidan ruled that protesters who are resorting to tactics not deemed peaceful could be dealt with in accordance to Article 2 of Iraq’s anti-terrorism law. Through this ruling, the judiciary provided a legal means through which the government can label peaceful protesters as “terrorists.” Such a distinction helps to facilitate a still more violent crackdown. 

State institutions are being used to complement and enhance the violence deployed by parastatal armed actors. Iraq’s political elite are scrambling to protect the political system and their entrenched interest within it. This process involves finding the strongest building blocks for their coercive counterrevolution.

Ambivalent building blocks for counterrevolution 

Images and videos on social media show soldiers dancing in the streets with protesters during more festive moments in this revolution. This is not surprising. Members of the military and police are not separate from the demonstrators and the grievances they hold. For example, a great deal of military recruits come from southern parts of the country, from cities like Nasiriyah and Diwaniyah, that have been the engine of this revolution. These southern areas have been hardest hit by the effects of poor governance and corruption inside the state, such as the poor water management policies that have led to drought, low agricultural yields, and outright contamination of land and water. These socio-political dynamics within state security institutions further indicate that, for elites, there are particular wielders of violence who are more effective at squashing the protests than others. 

Such a fact is also why Abdul Mehdi’s decision to deploy the CTS in Baghdad was a fraught one. Glorified as integral to defeating the Islamic State, the CTS is viewed positively by many Iraqis. CTS members are aware of their reputation and are keen to protect it. Activists in Baghdad say they have had friendly conversations with CTS officers as they pass them by on the street and say the CTS appears reluctant to attack peaceful protesters. This reputation is also why Iraqis were indignant when famed CTS commander Abdul Wahab al-Saadi was demoted because he reportedly refused to go along with corruption in the institution. Saadi’s demotion is cited as the final humiliation that triggered the country’s ongoing protests. Iraqis argue that if the hero on the frontlines who defeated the Islamic State is unable to fight corruption, who can? Coincidentally, in the early morning hours of October 30, Saadi joined protesters in the Zayouna district in Baghdad, defying the curfew alongside thousands of others.

Informing Iraq’s leaders are lessons from protests in Basra last year. In September 2018, a collection of parastatal armed groups killed 23 demonstrators protesting poor state services like electricity and clean drinking water. Baghdad also sent the CTS to help disperse protests. But over the past year, parastatal armed groups in Basra have strengthened their intelligence-gathering capabilities, facilitating an environment of fear among residents of the southern city. More than a year later, this blueprint of violence has been adapted as the central strategy to suppress the ongoing uprising today. This coercive blueprint works in tandem with political and legal maneuvering within other Iraqi state institutions. 

Barhim Salih, Iraq’s president (a largely ceremonial position as head of state), addressed the Iraqi nation on October 31. In his speech, Salih stated new elections could be held once a new electoral law was passed by the current parliament, and a new prime minister could be chosen once the major parties agreed on a candidate. But this position ultimately entails using the old hands and tools of the system in order to defend it, not “reform” it. Major political parties across the ethnic and religious spectrum support keeping the Abdul Mehdi in power. The discrete actors within the political system come together to defend the whole against foreign threats. In this case, the threat is the public it claims to represent. As these moves toward reform inevitably fall short, the more violence becomes the policy of choice that is backed by legal authority. 

The coercive apparatuses in Iraq are multiple. Those who operate them must be seen as equally implicated in the lethal attacks on peaceful protesters. Parastatal armed actors have done the bulk of the killing in the last month. However, those who lead official state institutions like the different ministries, security institutions, and the judiciary – from the prime minister on down – also hold and exercise power. Grasping for a hierarchy of accountability is a convenient way of letting those who appear less culpable or complicit in the violence off the hook. But such a hierarchy ignores the point that demonstrators have been making for weeks if not years: The entire political system is rotten, and it all has to go.

Renad Mansour 

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