Iraq: ongoing anti-governative protests in the main urban centres

Protests continue in various urban centres in Iraq (in particular, the capital and the cities of Basra, Nasiriyah, Najaf, al-Diwaniyah and Karbala), after first breaking out on 1 October. The protests were initially peaceful (with a high number of students taking part), but have progressively resulted in widespread violence and turmoil after Iraqi security forces forcibly prevented protesters from reaching the International Zone of Baghdad (the so-called “Green Zone”) on Tuesday 1 October. Clashes, whose toll is currently at least more than 30 dead and about 200 wounded, have progressively grown more violent, so much so that, on 3 October, the national authorities declared a curfew in the cities of Baghdad, Nasiriyah, Amarah and Hillah.
In general, protests are frequent throughout the country (in particular in the capital and the urban centres of the southern governorates), motivated by widespread and persistent social discontent, lack of prospects for the younger sections of the population and high corruption rates in the government. These are reportedly the main reasons for the current turmoil too: various sources say the protest movement was born spontaneously, as the lack of prospects has now made the population frustrated; there are indeed no clear leaders behind the protests, which seem to involve people of all ages and social classes.
General discontent has further increased in the past few days as Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi decided on 27 September to remove the commander of the Counter-terrorism Service (CTS), General Abdulwahab al-Saadi, a key actor in the war against the Islamic State and appreciated by the various ethnic and religious components of Iraq. Although the reasons for the Prime Minister’s decision are not clear yet, the dismissal of General al-Saadi has caused some concern in a few Iraqi political factions (National Wisdom (al-Hikma) Movement, Sadrist Movement, Osama al-Nujaifi’s Iraqi Decision Coalition), since it could be indicative of possible pressure from Tehran (the former CTS head was indeed thought to be unwilling to support Iran’s alleged strategy to penetrate Iraq).
As for domestic politics, the protests have paved the way for a new front within parliamentary opposition, including, in particular, National Wisdom (al-Hikma), the Muqtada al-Sadr coalition and the groups that refer to former Prime Minister Nasr Haidar al-Abadi. In a statement released on 2 October, the opposition front sympathised with the protest movement and expressed its support for protesters’ demands. In light of the above, if the protests were to continue and grow more intense, the stability of the current government could be permanently compromised, and Prime Minister Mahdi could have no choice but to resign.

The potential threats to domestic political stability are of particular concern not only because Iraq is currently engaged in a phase of slow and complicated reconstruction following the conflict with the Islamic State (still active in significant portions of Iraq), but also due to possible repercussions for regional stability (where tensions have risen between Iran and its non-state allies, on one side, and Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United States, on the other). In this regard, Baghdad’s thorny strategy to reach balance between Sunni and Shiite influences in recent years (Sunnis and Shiites account for about 20 and 60% of the Iraqi population, respectively) has become even more complicated following the 14 September attack on two oil plants in Saudi Arabia (both Washington and Riyadh have accused Tehran of involvement in the attack). This is why the Iraqi leadership has been engaged in a series of bilateral meetings with the main actors of the recent escalation in the past few weeks. The attempt to maintain a position of neutrality is due, first of all, to the Baghdad government’s fears of Iraq becoming one of the main hotspots of that “proxy war” that already sees Iran and Saudi Arabia as conflicting parties in Yemen and, to a lesser extent, in other countries of the region. In particular, a possible shift to marked pro-Iranian positions would make the Sunni minority even more dissatisfied, with the consequent risk of “helping” the Islamic State and other jihadist groups regroup.