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.



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.

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.

Infinite and stable

At first I referred to the Sadrist Movement. Later I settled on Sadrist Trend (after reading it somewhere that sounded authoritative) and I noted that some called it the Sadrist Current. Both of these are reasonably common ways of referring to a school of political thought. But if you ask a member of the social movement known as the Sadrists how they would prefer to be known, they will probably say al-Khatt al-Sadri, the Sadrist Line.

When this was explained to me I immediately thought of “family line”. The movement’s figurehead, Moqtada al-Sadr, is descended from a long line of respected religious scholars. His family includes the “vanished imam” Musa al-Sadr, the important Iraqi scholar and political activist, Baqir al-Sadr, and Muqtada’s father Sadeq al-Sadr, for whom Baghdad’s “Sadr City” is named. It would make sense to speak of the Sadr family as the Sadrist Line, but I couldn’t see how it would apply more generally to a movement of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who identify with the movement.

I was missing the point.

The word “line” is not just about family history. It is used as a counterpoint to words like “trend” and especially “current”. These terms suggest impermanence and instability. A line, however, is infinite and stable. Like a line, the movement is stable and will continue on forever, even after its present day participants have passed on.