Setting the scene for a new performance

Resuming after a break for the religious festival of Ashura, Iraq’s pro-reform protest movement is back in the squares and streets each Friday to articulate its demands. The protesters, a coalition comprising civil society groups and participants in the social-religious-political movement known as the Sadrist Line, are focusing their action on Iraq’s electoral system, and especially the electoral commission which they see as corrupt. In their analysis, the electoral system protects the political blocs of the ruling elite and prevents the introduction of new voices into formal politics.

Just as it did when announcing broad political and legal reforms in late 2015, the government has agreed that electoral reform is necessary but is proceeding slowly. And just as they did in late 2015, the protesters are becoming frustrated and threatening to return to their escalation strategy, shala’ qala’. Earlier this week a member of the joint civil-Sadrist organising committee for the protests, Ms Ikhlas al-Obeidi, held a press conference in Baghdad to clearly express the protesters’ position.

The [protest organising] committee postponed earlier protests to give the parliament an opportunity to choose a new election commission. But, apparently, this did not work. We reject any extension of the current Election Commission term for any reason, and if the commission’s term is extended, the people will withdraw their mandate from the parliament members.

As you’ll see in that article – one of the first in English on this topic – while the committee consistently refers to itself as a joint civil society organisation reflecting the views of a range of groups, the media tends to characterise it as Sadrist. To be certain, the Sadrist Line is the largest participant in the protests and its ability to mobilise large numbers of Iraqis is unrivalled. Still, it’s important to note that the Sadrists are keen to position themselves – without much success, so far – as a legitimate civil society actor working in concert with partners. (This is something I have written about at length in a forthcoming publication.)

There are clear allusions here to the escalation of protest activity in late 2015 and early 2016, when reforms centred on the judiciary and the cabinet were delayed. Weekly protests escalated in size, became a sit-in outside Baghdad’s Green Zone, and culminated in the symbolic infiltration of that secure walled district by protesters who proceeded to occupy their own parliament. That event can be thought of as a “contentious performance”, a dramatic and very public act that a social movement uses as it makes claims on the state – in this case, for political reform and accountability.

If a hashtag that Sadrist Line participants began using this week – “the anticipated Iraqi rally of millions” – is any indication, Sadrists are looking back on the April 2016 infiltration of the Green Zone as they anticipate a renewed mass mobilisation to place pressure on the government to act. These two tweets feature images of the Green Zone’s walls being scaled by protesters last year.

…and this tweet is from a brand new user account, seemingly set up for the purpose of disseminating the message of the protesters.

It will be interesting to see how this develops over the coming weeks.

 

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A personal note

A personal note

If I had to sum up my PhD project in a sentence it would be, “Making sense of the Sadrist social-religious-political movement in Iraq by understanding the worldview of its participants.” I’m trying to achieve this by looking at texts and reading about history, but most importantly by speaking with Iraqis who identify themselves as Sadrists. This is the best part of the project. At times it’s also quite difficult, logistically and emotionally.

Australian universities are rightly risk averse when it comes to permitting researchers to travel to places like Iraq, so for now I speak with Iraqis via various social media apps, usually in text but sometimes by voice. Mornings before work is the best time to catch them, owing to the time zone difference. So a lot of insights are gleaned while sitting in a Canberra café with a strong coffee, plugging away with my phone.

Some mornings this is a great start to the day: intellectual stimulation, perhaps a gem of knowledge, or sometimes a few good laughs – and a dose of Arabic music. Lately, though, the tone of my conversations has been dark indeed.

For a side project I was discussing militias with a contact in a southern Iraqi city. He painted a very bleak picture of numerous armed groups causing serious problems for local communities, either by pursuing narrow criminal objectives or acting as local proxies for state or non-state actors, Iraqi or foreign. Extortion, violence, impunity.

“Do you think this will change in the future?” I asked.

A simple answer: “No.”

Conversations this week have been equally troubling, occurring in the context of the Kurdish referendum which many Iraqis seem to consider divisive and badly timed. One contact, referring to the danger that regional states will respond to the referendum with military action, despaired that “Turkey and Iran will destroy everything with their militias”. Another wrote frankly of feeling depressed: “I don’t know when all these wars will end.”

This is what “understanding the worldview of participants” means. It’s not simply about whether Sadrists who take part in mass demonstrations and other political actions are motivated by nationalism or religion or a desire for social justice – or something else again. It’s about the social and political context that informs that motivation. My project challenges me daily to understand this context as deeply as I possibly can. And then to step back and apply academic rigour to the things I’ve learned. In the process I am reminded of my position of wealth and security, all the way over here in sunny Canberra.

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.

Karrada

Karrada

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.

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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.