Huge protests have erupted on the streets of Iraq. Green Left Weekly’s Sam Wainwright spoke to Khalil Albawy. Albawy is a member of the Iraqi Communist Party and Secretary of the Iraqi and Australian Friendship Society in Western Australia.
What are the immediate causes of the recent protest movement in Iraq and how significant is it?
For the last 16 years, crises such as rampant corruption, unemployment and the lack of basic services and security have accumulated and pushed the situation to breaking point.
However, the immediate causes of the recent uprising are a shortage of electricity and drinking water in many parts of the country.
This has come on top of recent protests by university graduates, the government evicting tens of thousands of people squatting on state land without providing suitable alternative accommodation and the controversial sacking of senior Iraqi counter-terrorism chief General al-Saadi.
All those issues forced the Iraqi people, especially the young, to say “enough is enough” and to take to the streets to demand a better life.
What are the main challenges facing Iraqi society today and what are the demands of the movements?
The main challenges are rampant corruption and the clergy's attempt to abolish the country’s secular system, by involving religion both in politics and peoples' civil affairs, such as marriage and divorce.
We also have unlawful militia groups that attempt to enforce their own rules, leading to armed conflict between them.
There are five key demands:
- The resignation or dismissal of the existing government in accordance with the constitution procedures;
- Formation of a new government composed of competent and effective patriotic figures;
- The new government should have exceptional powers and be formed away from the abhorrent quota system and corruption in accordance with the constitution;
- Its term should not exceed the period necessary to prepare the prerequisites for transition; and
- The president of the Republic should take the necessary steps to select the Prime Minister in accordance with the criteria of patriotism, competence, integrity, independence and the ability of decision-making; removed from regional tendencies, political sectarianism and narrow partisanship.
How has the United States invasion of 2003 shaped Iraqi society? How has it created sectarian divisions?
The US invasion brought in a sectarian constitution based on the policy of ethnic and religious quotas, where the Prime Minister must be a Shia, the Head of the Iraqi Parliament must be Sunni and the President must be Kurdish.
During Saddam Hussein's rule, the Shia and Kurdish communities were certainly persecuted, but the fact is that anyone who resisted the regime’s brutal policies was targeted, regardless of their religion or ethnic background.
How did the US invasion create the conditions for the emergence of Islamic State?
This question is very controversial and complicated, but I will try to give a historical background to emergence of the Iraqi Islamic State.
ISIS was formed in Iraq under the leadership of a Jordanian Islamist called Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed by US forces after they bombed his hideout in 2007.
When US forces entered Baghdad on April 9, 2003, they dissolved the Iraqi army, police force, secret police, intelligence services and the Fedayeen Saddam forces (a paramilitary force run by Saddam Hussein's son Uadi).
This created chaos in the country because after 35 years of the regime’s iron fist, it was all gone.
As a result of the absence of state authority, people started to look for protection by going back to their ethnic communities, tribes, religious communities, political groups and social groups.
At the same time, opposition Shia groups such as Albadar Corps, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and some other small militant groups started to come back to Iraq from Iran, as did the al-Dawah Islamic Party from Syria.
The interim Iraqi government, established by the US, welcomed those groups and gradually transferred authority to them.
This angered Iraqi Sunnis and Sunni Arabic people in neighbouring countries, as they saw Iranian-backed Shias control the state’s executive branch and take revenge on Sunnis because of their support for the former regime.
At the same time, Muqtada al-Sadr formed a military group called the Mahdi Army, backed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard to resist the US occupation.
Back in 1998, the Iraqi Intelligence Services started a “Faith Campaign” to tackle social issues that were damaging the social fabric of Iraqi society, including officers such as [Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi and his colleagues. The aim of the faith campaign was to strengthen the role of religion in the Iraqi society and claim that Iraqi people’s suffering was the will of God.
From 2003 to 2005, Shia and Sunni groups got assistance from other countries, mainly Iran and Saudi Arabia, respectively. During this time the two groups prepared to defend their people and the relationship between them turned from bad to worse, because they became proxies, putting the interests of these neighbouring powers above that of the Iraqi people.
In February 2005, the Askari Shia shrine in the city of Samara was bombed. This event sparked the sectarian war between Shia groups which was led by the Mahdi Army under the leadership of al-Sadr and the Sunni group, which was led by Iraqi Islamic State under the leadership of al-Zarqawi.
The war lasted until 2008 and led to the emergence of ISIS and other terrorist organisations in Iraq and the region.
Have the recent protests united people across sectarian divisions? What are the challenges for the Iraqi Communist Party in 2019? Are you positive about the future?
Indeed, the recent events have seen people from different religious groups, ethnic origins and various minorities come together to demand their legitimate rights. We fully support the protests and their legitimate demands.
Our representatives in the Iraqi National Parliament and local governments have resigned in protest at the use of excessive force against peaceful protesters.
Thousands of party members are taking part in the organisation of protests across the country. The organisation is working tirelessly with various civil and democratic organisations, left forces, and all progressive and secular groups to form a wide national front to save the country from its intractable crises.
We need to separate politics from religion, and force out the corrupt politicians, in order to meet the movements' immediate demands and to tackle massive unemployment, provide basic services and guarantee security.
Although the situation is very complicated, a broad coalition of all progressive and left democratic forces is capable of overcoming the situation and building up a better political system. The recent unity of people from different religious and ethnic communities confirms that this is possible.