In honour of the martyrs of the Speicher massacre

In honour of the martyrs of the Speicher massacre

Today is the third anniversary of the mass murder of as many as 1,700 Iraqi military cadets at Camp Speicher near Tikrit, north of the capital Baghdad. The Islamic State terrorist group – which Iraqis refer to as Daesh – claimed responsibility for the atrocity and published videos and photos of the crime online. The Iraqi government believes that former members of the Ba’ath Party, which ruled Iraq from 1968 to 2003, were also involved.

As in so many of the violent crimes carried out by Daesh, the killers at Camp Speicher targeted Shi’a Muslims and members of minority faiths such as Christians. The killing was planned, organised, and filmed for propaganda purposes. In addition to being an act of terrorism intended to create tension between faith communities, the Camp Speicher killings were a war crime committed as part of a wider campaign of genocide.

The Camp Speicher massacre took place as the IS group was rapidly expanding the Iraqi territory under its control and just weeks before its headline-grabbing declaration of a caliphate. Since 2014, Tikrit has been liberated from IS rule, mass graves have been exhumed, some perpetrators have been arrested, and some have been tried and executed. Yet many Iraqis, particularly the families of victims, believe that the government must do more to bring those responsible for the atrocity to justice. The site of the killings has become a memorial.

As they have done on numerous occasions during the past three years, Iraqis will take part in demonstrations this Wednesday in Baghdad and other cities. The demonstrations will “honour of the martyrs of the Speicher massacre” and express concerns that the investigation into the atrocity has stalled and justice continues to be denied to the families of victims. I expect some will also express anger at former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who some Iraqis believe should be investigated over his role in the event.

Image credit: This photo shared by Twitter user @khaqani_m shows families of the victims gathered at the site of the killings earlier this week.




The Muslim holy month of Ramadan is meant to be a time of reflection and celebration, yet once again Iraq is in shock and mourning as terrorist bombings target families as they break their fast in restaurants and shopping centres. The Baghdad suburb of Karrada was the target of this week’s atrocity. More than 20 people were killed and dozens more injured in a car bomb attack targeting an ice cream shop.

Among many tragic stories is the tale of an Australian girl who was in Baghdad to visit her sick grandfather. Zynab Al Harbiya, whose parents left Iraq for Australia to escape repression, was killed in the attack.

It is less than a year since the multiple bombing in Karrada during Ramadan 2016 that killed over 300 people, injured hundreds more, and left a deep scar on a city that has already suffered so much. Locals soon transformed the site of the bombing into a shrine for those lost, covering the wreckage with banners, photos, flowers, and candles. There were protests to demand accountability for security.

My memory of Karrada, where I stayed when visiting Iraq in early 2016, is of a clean, friendly neighbourhood of cafes and shops. From the rooftop restaurant of my hotel I had a view over Baghdad that was especially stunning at sunset. My morning walk took in a mosque, a church, friendly chaps at security checkpoints, and busy tea stalls.

It was hard to believe that a war was raging on, that the shop down the street could become an inferno the next day, the next week. That a car or truck in the street might be a danger to the lives of dozens of people.

I find it impossible to imagine the fear, powerlessness, and anger that Iraqis in Baghdad and other cities must have to deal with, all day, every day, as they get on with their lives amidst seemingly endless, brutal terrorism. My heart aches for Karrada.

Reform martyrs

Reform martyrs

This weekend the escalating, nonviolent street politics of Iraq’s pro-reform protest movement, comprising the Sadrist Line and its coalition of civil society actors, was met with violence. This again demonstrates that protests in Iraq are tolerated only when they are not deemed a threat to the political class – or the symbol of its prestige and power, Baghdad’s Green Zone. This week’s events and the narratives surrounding them also remind us that nothing in Iraqi (street) politics is black and white.

Over the past few months two important developments have occurred in the pro-reform protest movement, in which the Sadrist Line is the largest and most powerful participant. First, there was renewed discussion between the various groups that make up the movement regarding shala’ qala’, or “pulling and gouging”, the escalation strategy designed to place increasing pressure on the government. Key figures within the movement met and agreed to their next steps.

Second, the broad pro-reform message – an end to corruption, a cabinet of meritoriously appointed technocrats, effective government services, and a civil state – were distilled into more specific and immediate demands regarding the electoral system. In short, the Sadrists and their collaborators perceive the electoral commission as corrupt and an impediment to genuine reform. In their view, fixing the electoral commission is a first step toward allowing new voices to enter the political process.

These two developments underpin the events of the past week. In addition to the usual Friday protests in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, two mass demonstrations occurred on Tuesday and Saturday. The first was incident free and closely monitored by security forces. The second was a very large demonstration on Saturday morning. Iraqis travelled from other cities to take part. After gathering at Tahrir Square for speeches, the protesters marched toward the Green Zone so that their political leaders could hear their demands. Streets and bridges were closed. Security personnel in riot gear watched events from across razor wire.

There are several competing narratives about what happened next. One suggests that the protesters provoked violence by forcing their way onto streets that were cordoned off by the security forces. Another suggests that the security forces attacked the protesters who, having passed through Baghdad’s numerous checkpoints, were unarmed. Then there is a theory – plausible, in my view – that a third party, probably an armed group affiliated with a political actor, provoked violence by attacking both the security forces and the protesters.

The violence involved tear gas, rubber bullets, and live fire. It left a police officer dead, killed between five and ten protesters, and hundreds with injuries. The protesters withdrew, the government called for an investigation, media narratives proliferated, and bloody images and videos were shared on Iraqi social media. The organising committee for the protests – which comprises a broadly representative membership – held a press conference on Sunday to condemn the government for committing violence against citizens exercising their democratic rights.

The movement, leveraging the mobilising capability and resources of the Sadrist Line, reorganised itself rapidly to hold a symbolic funeral for those killed, the “reform martyrs”, on Tuesday afternoon. Again, security forces sought to contain the event by closing streets. The organising committee issued guidance to those participating: cooperate with security, avoid provocations, carry only the national flag, and honour the memories of those who were killed. Not only did the funeral proceed without further violence, members of the security forces took part – photos circulating on social media today show security personnel paying their respects to the deceased. There were ten caskets.

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Competing narratives of this week’s events will persist. International analysts will view the violence through the lens of political rivalries between the Sadrists and other groups, ignoring or downplaying the involvement of other civil society actors and the agency of the thousands of protest participants. The government has ordered an investigation although it’s likely to be slow process with a contested outcome. The organising committee is using formal channels to seek justice and the protection of human rights. As it has done in the past, the committee will call for international support. The Sadrist Line’s figurehead, Muqtada al-Sadr, has stated that protesters’ blood was not spilt in vain, suggesting further action soon, although it’s likely that some activists will begin to doubt the wisdom of escalation.

This is the dilemma facing the pro-reform protest movement: stick to Friday protests, workshops at universities, and political debates at cafés and online, or continue to exert pressure on the government through an escalating campaign of nonviolent political action – at the risk of injury or death.


A note on images: The photos included in this post are from the Facebook page of the organising committee for the pro-reform protests and they have all been distributed widely via social media. I suspect these will become defining images of the February 2017 escalation: the mass demonstration demanding electoral reform; blood on the Iraqi flag; the symbolic funeral for the reform martyrs; and security forces personnel paying their respects to those killed.

Tear gas

Tear gas

Iraqis who decide to express their political views through nonviolent protest place themselves at risk of injury, detention, or worse.

A sit-in began in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square this week to demand government accountability and reform after a series of terrorist bombings in the city. The protest seemed largely spontaneous: it began as a small gathering including families of terrorism victims, then it grew, tents and blankets were brought in, and then came the launch of a hot air balloon carrying a simple message: “Peace for Iraq”. Today the security forces forcibly dismantled the protest site using tear gas to disperse the protesters.

Tear gas was used just last week when a small group of protesters gathered to draw attention to the disappearance of Afrah Shawqi, a female journalist who had been kidnapped and missing for days. There were rumours that an armed group with connections to politicians had carried out the abduction and the protesters demanded urgent government action. Security forces reportedly threatened and injured journalists who were present at the protest. Ms Shawqi has since been released.

Tear gas is a symbol of violent repression. For a period during 2015 and early 2016, though, it seemed that the government of President Haider al-Abadi may be curtailing its use. Weekly protests that grew in size and visibility during 2015 – demanding government services and anti-corruption measures – were tolerated by the government. This marked a change from previous governments that had used deadly repression against demonstrations.

The security forces continued to behave with restraint and respect for people’s right to protest even as the Sadrist Line’s mobilisation caused weekly protests to escalate dramatically into mass demonstrations in early 2016. During the Green Zone infiltration, protesters shared photos of security forces standing by as Iraqis symbolically occupied their own parliament.

Things soon changed. A subsequent attempt to enter the Green Zone was repressed with violence. Several protesters were killed. A tragic image shared by protesters showed a young man who had been killed when a tear gas canister (or part of one) struck him in the head. Some of the protesters responded by acquiring personal protective equipment.

Today, my Iraqi contacts – who identify with the Sadrist Line and supported this week’s protest – believe that the breaking up of the Tahrir Square sit-in, and road blocks reportedly established yesterday, are designed to prevent the small gathering of frustrated, mourning Baghdad residents from forming a larger group that might decide to once again threaten the Green Zone and its occupants. While Iraqis demand that their government provide them security against terrorism, their political elite is providing itself security against the people.

It seems that tear gas is back on Iraq’s streets and it’s here to stay.

Security and accountability

Security and accountability

In just the first eight days of 2017, around one hundred Baghdad residents have been murdered and more than two hundred wounded in a series of terrorist bombings by the Islamic State group. This continues an IS strategy of attacking predominantly Shi’a suburbs and public places to create tension between Shi’a and Sunni Iraqis, and to demonstrate that the Iraqi government is not able to provide security to Iraqis. Many analysts expect that this will intensify as the IS group loses its territory in and around the city of Mosul in northern Iraq.

On Sunday night, following the latest suicide car bombings that killed more than twenty people, a spontaneous gathering occurred in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, the location of weekly pro-reform protests. The crowd includes the family of victims. Based on Iraqi news reports and messages shared by Iraqis on social media, it seems that the people are gathering to protest the government’s inability to provide security and to demand accountability from those responsible for security in Baghdad. These demands have been voiced before, particularly after the devastating terrorist attack in the Baghdad suburb of Karrada during Ramadan in July 2016, which killed more than 320 people and left the city with deep scars.

The protest is small for now but may grow in the coming days. Protest participants have begun setting up tents for a sit-in and have used social media and word of mouth to ask for support in the form of tents and blankets. It shows once again that many politically engaged Iraqis see protest as the best way to express their frustration at a political system that seems unable to provide basic services and provide security against terrorism. My contacts have linked the lack of security to the problem of corruption, a perspective I’ve discussed on this blog.

Worryingly, one of my contacts told me that the government has blocked some of the roads around Tahrir Square, a tactic previously used to curtail mass demonstrations. There could be trouble if the security forces are indeed mobilised in response to this protest: deadly violence was used during the second attempt to infiltrate the Green Zone last year, and repression was used against a recent protest regarding the abduction of a journalist, Afrah Shawqi, who has since been released by her kidnappers. Actions to disperse or harm nonviolent protesters would only serve to reinforce the widespread public view that the political elite cares little for everyday Iraqis and is interested only in protecting itself.

عام من الخوف وخيبة الأمل في العراق

This is the Arabic version of my article, “A year of fear and frustration in Iraq”, published in Australian Outlook, the online journal of the Australian Institute for International Affairs, on 20 December 2016. It was published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.

قد تكون العملية العسكرية لتحرير الموصل هي الحدث الأهم لعام 2016، إلا أن العام كان مفعماً بالأحداث الأخرى – من سياسة الشارع المثيرة إلى التفجيرات الإرهابية الفظيعة – والتي ساهمت في تشكيل البلد، وكشفت عن قضايا ولاعبين سيكون لهم دور مهم في مستقبله.

إن التغطية الإعلامية للعمليات العسكرية التي تقودها الحكومة العراقية لاستعادة مدينة الموصل شمال العراق قد تعني بأن عام 2016 سيكون عنوانه العام الذي تراجعت فيه طموحات تنظيم “الدولة الإسلامية” بالتوسع. هذا الحدث مهم جداً للعراق ونتائج عمليات الموصل العسكرية سيكون لها تأثير كبير في المستقبل، كما ذكرت في مقالتي السابقة حول المناورات السياسية.

فالوضع في العراق معقد، إلا أنه من المهم أيضاً التطرق إلى عدد من الأحداث الجوهرية التي جرت في عام 2016 والتي تساعد في التوصل إلى فهم أعمق للحكومة والبلد وآفاقه المستقبلية.

سياسة الشارع

لقد كانت سياسة الشارع معلماً من معالم المجتمع المدني العراقي منذ عام 2003. وازداد سعيرها في منتصف عام 2015، حيث كانت الخدمات الحكومية السيئة قد زادت من معاناة العراقيين خلال لهيب الصيف الخانق دون موارد كافية من كهرباء وماء. وحينها بدأ العراقيون مظاهرات كبيرة ألقوا فيها باللوم على نظام المحاصصة السياسية العرقية والطائفية، إضافة إلى الفساد المزمن الذي رسخه ذلك النظام. وفي شهري آذار ونيسان من عام 2016 تصاعدت وتيرة المظاهرات بشكل كبير، ما وضع الحكومة العراقية تحت ضغوطات كبيرة.

وازدادت أعداد المتظاهرين من المئات أو الآلاف إلى مئات الآلاف عندما تدخلت الحركة الاجتماعية التي يقودها مقتدى الصدر، رجل دين ذو تأثير كبير ومثير للجدل، وقدمت كفاءاتها التنظيمية للحركة التظاهرية الداعية للإصلاح. وفي حملة متصاعدة على مدى شهور عدة، صاغ الداعون للإصلاح مجموعة من المطالب، كما تحولت المظاهرات الأسبوعية إلى اعتصامات خارج مداخل المنطقة الخضراء.

وترمز المنطقة الحكومية والدبلوماسية الآمنة في بغداد والمسماة بـ “المنطقة الخضراء” للاحتلال الأمريكي وهي الآن مرتبطة بانحلال النخبة السياسية في البلاد. وبعد تحرك رمزي من مقتدى الصدر الذي دخل المنطقة الخضراء واعتصم فيها وحيداً، تجاوز آلاف المتظاهرين الجدران الاسمنتية الضخمة واحتلوا بشكل سلمي برلمان بلادهم.

ويعتبر الكثير من العراقيين، وخاصة أبناء المجتمع المدني الذين يجتمعون في تظاهرات أسبوعية كل يوم جمعة، بأن الدفع نحو إصلاح سياسي لا يقل أهمية عن قتال تنظيم “الدولة الإسلامية”. وتركز انتقاداتهم العميقة للنظام السياسي العراقي على نظام المحاصصة  الذي يرسخ شبكات المحسوبية والسلوك الفاسد ما يقلل من قدرة الحكومة على تقديم الخدمات العامة ومنها الكهرباء، والماء، والأمن، ويساهم في خلق مناخ ملائم لانتشار الإرهاب. ويؤكد الناشطون بأن مكافحة الفساد يجب أن توازي عملية مكافحة الإرهاب.

فبالرغم من أن دولتهم تواجه تحديات أمنية وإنسانية ملحة وخطيرة، إلا أن العراقيين لا يزالون منخرطين بنشاط بالعمل السياسي. فناشطو المجتمع المدني يحاولون رسم صورة لحكومة عراقية جديدة مبنية على أسس المواطنة وحقوق الإنسان وقادرة على تقديم خدمات حكومية جيدة من خلال حكومة كفاءات (تكنوقراط).

اعتداء الكرادة

في تموز 2016، وحينما كان تقرير تشيلكوت حول دور بريطانيا في غزو العراق عام 2003 يأخذ انتباهاً دولياً، قام تنظيم “الدولة الإسلامية” بتفجير شاحنة مفخخة في منطقة الكرادة في بغداد في إحدى ليالي رمضان والناس في الأسواق. كان التفجير مدمراً ودموياً وأودى بحياة  أكثر من 340 شخصاً.

وفي الأيام والأسابيع التالية للتفجير، تحولت المنطقة إلى مكان مقدس يؤمه سكان بغداد لتقديم العزاء لضحايا التفجير وعائلاتهم، وشارك الناس في وقفات شموع تنديدية. وحينها، تمت المطالبة بمحاسبة الدولة وإقالة المسؤولين عن الملف الأمني في بغداد، كما تعرض المسؤولون الزائرون للمنطقة لغضب الجموع العارمة.

فقد خلّفت تفجيرات الكرادة ندباً عميقاً ومؤلماً في وجه مدينة بغداد المدماة أصلاً، وذكّرت العالم بأن العراقيين لا يزالون يعيشون تحت وطأة الإرهاب بشكل يومي، حيث من الصعب أن يمر يوم واحد دون حدوث اعتداء إرهابي يستهدف حاجزاً عسكرياً أو مكان عبادة أو سوقاً تجارياً.

المسير إلى كربلاء

يعتبر الحج السنوي إلى مدينة كربلاء، جنوب العراق، لإحياء ذكرى أربعينية الإمام الحسين، من أكبر التجمعات السلمية في العالم، حيث استقطب في الماضي جموعاً زاد تعدادها على 20 مليون شخص. والأربعين هي ذكرى وفاة الإمام الحسين، حفيد الرسول محمد، والذي كان مقتله في معركة كربلاء رمزاً للتضحية الشخصية في مكافحة الظلم. وجاءت ذكرى الأربعين هذه السنة في شهر تشرين الثاني، حيث كان من المتوقع مشاركة حوالى 22 مليون شخص، بمن فيهم زوار إيرانيون.

وتحمل الأربعين معانٍ دينية وسياسية، فالعديد من العراقيين يعتبرون المشي إلى كربلاء رمزاً للمقاومة السلمية وتحد للظلم الكبير. وكان نظام البعث قد منع ذلك، إلا أن البعض تحدوا القرار حينها وقاموا بالزيارة كتعبير عن مقاومتهم السلمية للنظام.

وفي السنوات الأولى من الاحتلال الذي قادته الولايات المتحدة ومن التمرد المسلح، بدأ العراقيون المسير بأعداد أكبر إلى كربلاء في تعبير عن فخرهم الوطني ورغبتهم في متابعة العيش على طريقتهم الخاصة على الرغم من الفوضى والعنف السائدين. واليوم، يعتبر المسير تحدياً رمزياً في وجه الإرهاب، ويراه بعض الناشطون استمراراً لحملة الإصلاح التي يرونها متابعة لسعي الإمام الحسين نحو تحقيق العدالة.

وكما فعل على مدى السنوات السبعة الماضية، قام تنظيم “الدولة الإسلامية” باستهداف حجاج الأربعين بتفجيرات إرهابية ذهب ضحيتها العشرات من الحجاج، العديد منهم إيرانيون. ولحسن الحظ، استطاع الملايين من الحجاج متابعة مسيرهم في أمن وسلام. وعجت صفحات مواقع التواصل الاجتماعي في العراق برسائل الامتنان لقوات الأمن العراقية والتي تضمنت في معظمها صوراً مع الجنود المتواجدين لحماية حجاج كربلاء.

المسيرة طويلة

بعيداً عن مشاهد معركة الموصل على شاشات التلفاز، يعمل الكثيرون من العراقيين المتحفزين سياسياً على تنظيم أنفسهم والمشاركة دون كلل في احتجاجات سلمية تدعو إلى نقد دقيق للنظام السياسي في العراق ووضع تصور للمستقبل.

فعلى الرغم من استمرار الإرهاب كجزء من الحياة اليومية – والذي وقعه سيسهام في صياغة رؤية عالمية حول جيل عراقي قد تسوء أوضاعه أكثر مع فقدان تنظيم “الدولة الإسلامية” حلمه في التوسع ما قد يحولهم إلى التمرد المسلح والمزيد من الإرهاب، إلا أن أحداثاً مثل زيارة الأربعين تشكل فرصة للعراقيين للتعبير بشكل رمزي عن مقاومة سلمية للظلم وتسمح للعالم الخارجي، إن كان يحسن الإصغاء، لسماع صوتهم.

تحديات العراق كبيرة وستستغرق سنوات عديدة لحلها. ولكن بالنظر بعيداً عن تقارير الإعلام حول الإرهاب والحرب، يبدو واضحاً أن شعب العراق يُعِدّ تصوراً ويحضر لمستقبل عنوانه الحكم الرشيد والأمن. قد يكون هذا المستقبل بعيداً، إلا أن ملامحه تتضح بشكل بطيء من خلال أناس صامدين لا يزالون يظهرون التحدي في وجه الظلم.

ديميان دويل، باحث دكتوراة في مركز الدراسات العربية والإسلامية في جامعة أستراليا الوطنية. يركز بحثه على الحركات الاجتماعية والسياسات المثيرة للجدل في العراق. يمكنكم متابعته على تويتر: @toaf

تم نشر هذه المقالة تحت رخصة المشاع الإبداعي، ويمكن إعادة نشرها مع الإسناد.

تم نشرها في 20 كانون الأول 2016.

Speicher Man

Speicher Man

Former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki is a divisive figure in Iraqi politics and this weekend became a target for protests. Al-Maliki is criticised for fomenting sectarian tension, alienating Sunni communities, and eroding the state’s capacity to provide security. Some, including Sadrists, argue that this created the conditions for the Islamic State group to commit atrocities like the Camp Speicher massacre in 2014, in which more than 1,500 Iraqi air force cadets were murdered.

At the weekly pro-reform demonstration in Baghdad on Friday some protesters held banners critical of al-Maliki and his political legacy. That evening in Nasiriyah, a city south of Baghdad, a lively crowd gathered outside the hotel where al-Maliki was staying to deliver the message that he was not welcome. Al-Maliki left for the southern port city of Basra – crowds sprung up to harass him there, too, and forced him to abandon a press conference. Protesters included both civic and Sadrist activists as well as family members of Camp Speicher victims.

This is not the first time that the families of terrorism victims have joined protests or that activists have demanded that politicians be held accountable for terrorism. During the second attempt to infiltrate Baghdad’s Green Zone in May 2016, relatives of those killed in a recent bombing in Sadr City planned to perform a symbolic funeral ceremony to demand accountability for ineffective security. That protest was violently repressed. During mass demonstrations in June 2016, protesters again called for accountability, declaring that the blood of terrorism victims was “in the necks” of the corrupt political elite.

At a Baghdad protest on 11 June 2016, a protestor holds the corrupt elite responsible for recent terrorist bombings in Sadr City. Photo via an activist.

Nor is it the first time that al-Maliki has been targeted by angry protesters or accused of creating the conditions for emergence and growth of the Islamic State group. Last month, al-Maliki visited Kerbala to take part in the Arbaeen pilgrimage and was hounded by Iraqis who shouted abuse and forced him to leave. Sadrist Line activists refer to al-Maliki as Speicher Man and hold him directly responsible for the 2014 massacre. They also remember that it was al-Maliki who led a military offensive against the Sadrist Line’s armed group, the Mahdi Army, in 2008. Some Sadrist activists have told me that they wish to see al-Maliki face trial for his crimes – just as Saddam Hussein did.

Anti-Maliki sentiment at Friday pro-reform protests in Baghdad, 9 December 2016. Photo via the organising committee.

It is not clear to me whether the anti-Maliki protests are directed by or endorsed by Muqtada al-Sadr, or whether they are a spontaneous expression of popular anger. I suspect they are a little of both. Either way, they provide a firm indication that, contrary to recent speculation, a brokered political reconciliation between al-Sadr and al-Maliki is not likely any time soon. Above all, the anger toward al-Maliki can be seen as part of the broader civil society critique of Iraq’s political system and elite which sees corruption and sectarian quotas as the cause of ineffective governance and vulnerability to terrorism.

Feature image: Banners stating that Nouri al-Maliki is not welcome in Nasiriyah via twitter user @NazliTarzi on 9 December 2016.