Since early October, there has been a spontaneous wave of demonstrations in Iraq’s capital Baghdad and other cities against widespread corruption, unemployment and poor public services.
Green Left Weekly’s Susan Price spoke to Sydney-based Iraqi human rights activist Abeer Hasan Abdulazeez about the significance of this movement.
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What has caused the protest movement in Iraq and how significant is it?
I nicknamed it the October Revolution and in Arabic language it is called intifada.
The protests started on October 1, a date which was set by civil activists on social media, spreading over the central and southern provinces of Iraq, to protest 16 years of corruption, unemployment and inefficient public services.
The protests lasted for a whole week, continuously, then stopped on October 8 and resumed on the 25th. After this day, the demands escalated into calls to overthrow the administration and stop Iranian interference in Iraq’s affairs
The Iraqi government used excessive force to suppress these demonstrations, using live bullets, snipers, hot water and tear gas against protesters. This resulted in 327 dead and over 6427 wounded, according to the latest statistics we have received.
The significance of this Intifada and what distinguishes these demonstrations, is that they did not come at the invitation of a party or political or religious groups, but were spontaneous, by young people who are not politically affiliated and from various regions of Baghdad and other provinces.
What are the people's demands?
As I explained earlier, corruption, unemployment and poor public services such as electricity, water, medical services and the absence of social security made Iraqi people struggle and suffer.
These were the primary factors that led to the intifada in its first phase. In the second phase, other demands were added for a radical change of government, including all members of parliament, as well as to change all the principles on which the Iraqi government was formed after 2003. They also added the demand for the removal of Iranian interference in Iraq's internal and external affairs and independence of the Iraqi political decision-making, to serve the interests of the Iraqi people and the region.
The Iraqi government tried to obscure the facts, distort the truth and the goal of the uprising, by accusing the demonstrators of not having clear and specific demands as well as not having leaders to represent them — so the Iraqi government could sit with them to negotiate the demands of the protesters..
The advanced political awareness among protesting youth and others made them reorganise themselves to form a group of leaders, representing the demonstrators and by states and provinces. They also reviewed all the demands of the demonstrators to make them clear, specific and uniform.
How has the United States invasion of Iraq contributed to the conditions for this uprising?
I do not think so there is a relation between these two events. Some may find that there is a strong link between the entry of US troops to Iraq in 2003 and the uprising that is occurring at present. But that is at least from my point of view.
That is because this big military operation carried out by the US in 2003 in Iraq was the reason for the removal of the former dictatorship and helped to adopt a new political system.
Unfortunately, the government that took power after 2003 with the support of the US was not able to meet the government promised to the Iraqi people, because it was occupied with political and partisan conflicts to obtain sources of power in Parliament as well as money.
On the other hand, I agree with those who say that the entry of the US into Iraq in 2003 also had negative aspects. The severe destruction that accompanied these military operations is one of them, which led to the destruction of 95% of Iraq's infrastructure, as well as the destruction of the army and its equipment in almost complete form.
Iraqis are still suffering from the effects of the destruction of its infrastructure, which not all governments since 2003 have been able to repair. The Iraqi people are still suffering from the lack of electricity, water and sewage services as well as in the areas of health and education.
The most important negative factors that emerged after the occupation of the US in Iraq is the security vacuum in the region as well as Iraq. The Iraqi border became unprotected during US military operations, which resulted in the entry by many militias who work with regional or external forces. This is what we saw through the invasion of ISIS militias into northern Iraq and the occupation of Mosul and some other areas, which required a lot of effort and money as well as sacrifice of lives to liberate these areas from ISIS by the Iraqi army.
What has been the response of the traditional parties of the left to this movement?
The reaction and response of the traditional Iraqi opposition parties were supportive of the uprising and the demands of the demonstrators, despite the difference of emphasis. Where some appeared to be trying to exploit the uprising to promote a party through the assertion and support for the demands of the demonstrators, others showed double attitudes and lack of clarity and frankness.
The general response was in favour of this uprising, supportive of its demands and belief in political reform as the radical solution to the crisis in Iraq.
All Iraqi opposition parties, as well as many parties in Arab countries, Europe, Latin America, all human rights organisations and other international parties have supported the demands of the demonstrators and condemned the use of excessive force by the Iraqi authorities, which have included the killing of many people and injuring of thousands.
The Iraqi community and other communities in a number of countries, including Australia, Germany, France, Austria, Sweden and the US are also standing in support of the rightful demands of the demonstrators and condemning the practices of power against the protesters.
What new political forces are emerging?
At the moment, there is no indication of the emergence of new political forces or ideologies.
On the contrary, all political forces in Iraq and parties are now considering and monitoring the results that will follow the intifada, to determine their stance.
Some parties have claimed support for the demonstrators and their demands, but the support by those parties is nothing but political deceit to ensure their survival in power and in the political scene.
In addition, some political forces and parties involved in the current Iraqi government think that support for the demonstrators will give them the opportunity in the future to change stances and ensure the support of the Iraqi people.
Swinging positions by some political forces, as I mentioned earlier, was a strategy to ensure they stay in the political game, whatever the outcome of this crisis.
Dual positions are only a temporary political tactic, in the event of the victory of the intifada and the fulfillment of the demands of the demonstrators — which will certainly be achieved and won.
Where do you see this movement going? Will it succeed? What are the next steps needed?
This revolution is going in the right direction, as long as the demonstrators stick to the demands and particularly, the demand for the overall change of government, parliament and the non-participation of the current parties in the upcoming elections.
The intifada will succeed, but will need more time than everybody expected, due to overlapping political interests, as well as the intervention of foreign forces that have the desire to retain the current Iraqi government in power.
The next and important step is to mobilise more international support to pressure the Iraqi government to sit at the negotiating table and discuss the demands of the demonstrators, which represent the demands of the entire Iraqi people.
As part of the process to increase international support, we are in constant contact with most of the Iraqi community living in Australia and abroad.
Also, we are encouraging them to ask the governments of the countries in which they live to raise the issue in all international forums and to pressure the Iraqi government internationally, which will accelerate the process of political changes in Iraq.
In line with the requirements of supporting the uprising in Iraq, The Dream association is working hard with Iraqi community members to raise the issue of Iraq and explain the reasons that caused the intifada. We are succeeding in getting solidarity from other organisations and communities living in Australia, such as the Chilean community and their organisations as well as Australian organisations, including the Greens, other human rights organisations and a few members of parliament.
The October uprising will succeed eventually, the people of Iraq will get their rights, no matter how long it takes.
How united are the forces in this movement? How important is unity?
What attracts attention about the October uprising and makes it distinctive and different from the previous uprisings in the past, is that the demonstrators are spontaneously united in all their categories and that is something that encourages optimism.
The goals of the October uprising unite the protesters and brings them together as one against the Iraqi government. Moreover, the October uprising was born from 16 years of suffering of the Iraqi people. This suffering affected all categories of the Iraqi people, except the ruling class and the rich.
The protesters' strong belief in the issues and in changing the government and its underlying principles has united them all. These principles led to sectarian division and have divided Iraqi society. It is now known to everyone that these principles and ideologies were marketed by Iran to serve Iran’s interests in Iraq and in the region, through its affiliates in the Iraqi government.
The young intellectuals, who form the largest volume in the uprising, have a great awareness of the reality of the political situation in Iraq and the changes needed to the government.
They will maintain the momentum that will push the uprising to continue until the changes are achieved and for the fulfillment of all demands.
The people of Iran are once again mobilising against the regime. Do you see this struggle as related to the struggle in Iraq? Does the Iraqi movement see itself as part of the struggles emerging in the Middle East, Chile and elsewhere?
Certainly, there is a relationship between the struggle of the Iraqi people and the Iranian people, but it is an indirect relationship and there is no cooperation between the two movements.
The two movements in Iraq and Iran suffered corrupt regimes that seized the wealth of the people.
Most of the Iranian people, especially intellectuals and youth, reject the expansionist policies of the Iranian government in the region and its interventions in the affairs of neighboring countries — such as Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen — to attempt to control them completely.
The struggle against corrupt government, unemployment and poverty of public services and for freedom, equality and justice has become the demand of all peoples who struggle across the world. Therefore, the Iraqi movement is part of struggles that are emerging in the Middle East, Chile and elsewhere — and vice versa.
The protests in Iraq, Lebanon, Chile and elsewhere are complementary, because they represent the right of all humankind to live in freedom, with dignity and justice.
[Abeer Hasan Abdulazeez is the founder of The Dream association, an organisation that supports human rights and assists refugees. She has worked in international diplomacy, publishing and broadcasting.]