Summary: Iraq protests transcend sectarian lines established by US and Iran, as a new generation of youth and workers takes the stage – Editors.
Following months of spontaneous protests and amid a mass outpouring of anger, the Iran-and-US -backed Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi finally resigned on December 1. This desperate attempt to save the political system did not even dent the resolve of the protesters, however, who are calling for the total uprooting of the corrupt and sectarian political system installed in 2003 by the US, and quietly backed by Iran.
Tensions are boiling over as Iraqis continue their struggle to end their oppression. Plain-clothed gunmen have been assaulting demonstrators alongside uniformed members of the security forces in broad daylight, with 25 more killed in Baghdad on December 7.
Starting on October 1, civil society activists began their protests in Tahrir Square, Baghdad, demanding the effective provisioning of basic services, trash collection, road repair, and reliable electricity. These core functions of government have been lacking for almost two decades and are still lacking more than two years after the defeat of ISIS in Iraq.
Following the spread of the protests to southern Iraq, including the large city of Basra, Iraqi security officials responded with an Internet blackout and street curfews to stifle the spread of information. Despite this attempt to contain dissent, marches and strikes continue to block roads, ports, and bridges. Hundreds have been murdered, a number of activists have been “disappeared,” and nearly 20,000 people have been injured in security crackdowns not only by the Iraqi state’s official army and police, but also by the self-styled “Popular Mobilization Forces,” sectarian Shia militias dominated or even controlled by the Islamic Republic of Iran. In response to these shocking casualties, protesters have organized their own medical care, libraries, and security to preserve life and resist the state. A massive unfinished tower overlooking Tahrir Square, dubbed the “Turkish Restaurant,” has been occupied by protesters to prevent it from falling into the hands of hostile snipers. This large building, besides being a symbol of Iraq’s missed potential for development, also serves as a 24-7 headquarters for the movement.
Calls to end foreign interference in Iraq – a nation with a liberal democracy on paper – have only grown stronger in the face of domination by Iran and the United States. Iraqi youths, many born with little to no memory of Saddam Hussein and his brutal Baathist regime (1968-2003), make up most of the protesters. At a political level, they are demanding early elections and an end to the current political order. It is especially notable that most of the youthful protesters are themselves from the majority Shia Arab community, which the Iranian-linked political parties and militias have up to now regarded as their base of support. Fewer Sunni Arabs or Iraqi Kurds have participated as of yet.
As the protesters vent their pent-up frustrations with foreign interference in their country, many symbols of the Iranian state have been defaced or burned to the ground. Portraits of Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Religious Leader, have been beaten with shoes (a severe insult in the region). Iranian consulates in Najaf and Karbala, the two most important Shia religious centers, have been torched. The offices of Iranian controlled parties and militias have also been set ablaze. This has occurred despite past good will toward them because of their crucial role in the war against ISIS.
An overall disenchantment among Iraqi youths and workers may be breaking out into a revolutionary surge. The problems of day-to-day life have resulted in an Iraqi Intifada that demands real democracy and justice for the workers and all people, a far cry from the promises made by Americans or Iranians. The political and economic system established by the US occupiers and by US and Iran-installed exiles in 2003, is being challenged by youth and workers who demand a future free of poverty and alienation.
In a country with one of the greatest reserves of oil in the world, the Iraqi people’s wealth is being stolen and squandered by a capitalist and bureaucratic class that has relied on sectarian allegiances to stay in power. With Shia Arabs challenging their self-crowned representatives and defenders, the veneer of sect is being toppled and revealed as the false consciousness it is. No matter what accusations are thrown at the protesters – that they are puppets of Israel and the United States, etc. – the Iraqi people are demanding solutions to a problem that is firmly rooted in the contradictions of capitalism.
The relentless accumulation of capital has always relied on the tried and true method of bigotry, of stoking ethnocentric, racist, misogynist, and sectarian identities to divide the working class, and to prevent it from uniting against its common enemy, capital. Its most spectacular weapon has been racism, from which the human race still suffers to this day. In Southwest Asia and North Africa, the imperialist powers have long used sectarianism and religious bigotry to their supreme advantage. Whether it was the French with the Alawites and Christians in Syria, the British with the Jews and Arabs in Palestine, or the Americans in Afghanistan with jihadists and the fear of “godless communism,” much of the working class has been divided.
Yet, in Tahrir Square and elsewhere in Iraq this fall, the protesters have managed to temporarily create a society free of this sectarian and ethnic bigotry. Young women as well as men, they range from highly privileged and educated high school and university students to marginalized and impoverished fruit sellers and tuk tuk (auto rickshaw) drivers. Those occupying the Turkish Hotel in Baghdad, and other gathering and occupations, have called for the firmest unity among Shias, Sunnis, Kurds, Christians and other ethno-religious groups. Slogans include “Free, Free Iraq,” “Iran Get Out,” and “We Are One Community, All Iraqis.” Even the venerated Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who has given some support to the protesters, has come in for criticism by youth, who point out that he helped establish the current system and who declare that they never needed his go ahead in order to protest.
Their common enemy, the oligarchs, the politicians, and their foreign backers, has been resolutely targeted. While the demands for a presidential political system and an end to foreign interference are far short of anticapitalist, they seem to enjoy deep working-class support. As a result, despite the bloodshed, the future of Iraq seems far brighter than even a few months ago. Much can go wrong of course, and already has. More continue to be gunned down, Iran and the US continue their machinations, and the Sunni Arabs and the Kurds have not participated nearly as much as the Shia, though this is slowly changing. The global Left and especially Marxist-Humanists are watching, supporting, and learning from the actions and aspirations of the spontaneous crowds thronging Tahrir Square and other parts of Iraq.