Iraqi Protesters Risk All for a Unified, Diverse and Secular State

by Paul Gregoire

Young Iraqi protesters have been taking to the streets in Baghdad since October. They’ve been demanding employment opportunities, an end to widespread economic disparity, adequate services and infrastructure, but further, a general overhaul of a corrupt governing system.

The brutal crackdown on the non-violent protesters has only served to strengthen their determination and broaden their numbers. Over 400 demonstrators have died at the hands of armed forces in the nation’s capital and across the country’s predominantly Shiite south.

The Iraqi PM resigned last Sunday in response to the bloodiest day of protests on 29 November, which saw 40 mobilisers killed. Having come to power on a reform platform, Adel Abdul Mahdi had already lost the support of Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani: the nation’s most powerful figure.

However, the resignation of the prime minister is not going to quell the demonstrations within a country that’s been ravaged by sectarian violence and foreign interference for decades now, as the youth of Iraq are on the street calling for a new system based on a democratically united population.

The national movement is calling for an end to the quota-based muhasasa system that was imposed after the 2003 US-led invasion. It was supposed to provide equal representation amongst ethno-sectarian groups, but rather, it fuelled division between them, whilst lining the pockets of elites.

Representation for all

“People will not backdown. They will be on the road, until they get what they need,” Iraqi protest solidarity activist Khaled Ghannam told Sydney Criminal Lawyers. “They knew this would be hard, but it is possible.”

The Palestinian-born Australian national explained that “the Iraqi uprising is calling for the current regime to stepdown”. They want the system to be fixed, so that it’s “not based on sectarian political parties”. And this should start with an election that will lead Iraq on a path to economic prosperity.

“The country cannot rebuild itself without a strong democratic system based on a modern constitution and a strong army”, Mr Ghannam asserts, adding that at present “Shiite forces are using violence against peaceful protesters”, while the “official police and army” remain silent.

According to the Socialist Alliance member, “most of the young generation are not affiliated with political parties”, as these are sectarian aligned. And he emphasises that there are “Iraqi Shiite religious leaders”, who are indeed, backing the younger generation’s call for a united country.

To simply describe what’s occurring in Iraq, as an economic crisis, spurned by anger over commodity price rises and wage stagnation is “blinding” the bigger issue, Ghannam made clear. “They’re calling for big change, especially on the concrete point” of amending the constitution.

Youth-led system change

Most of the protesters are under the age of thirty and they represent a cross section of society: Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds and a range of minorities. The movement has no official leaders, just like most of the other reform movements sweeping across Arab nations, as well as other countries globally.

The mobilisers maintain that the muhasasa system that was imposed after the US moved in and toppled the secular, yet-Sunni dominated Hussein regime has not brought the prosperity that was promised. And this is despite Iraq being an oil-rich nation.

Those calling for system change gathered at Tahrir Square in Baghdad have formulated ten

demands, that Mr Ghannam has interpreted as follows. The first is to transform the Iraqi government into a presidential council.

The second calls for the formation of a military council designed to lead the country during its period of transformation. The revolutionaries next call is for the overthrow of the entire current governing system. Followed by corrupt political leaders being held to account.

Protesters in the square, as well as more widely, are calling for a rewriting of the 2005 Republic of Iraq Constitution. They want internationally supervised free and fair elections. And guaranteed rights of freedom of thought, belief and expression.

Iraqis demanding change also want arms to only be legally held by state police and security forces. They call for national funds that have been smuggled abroad to be repatriated and redistributed equally. And the final demand is for a secular state, devoid of interference from the clergy.

A deepening of divisions

It’s for these types of changes that Iraqis are mobilising across the country and risking life and limb in doing so. At least 430 Iraqis have lost their lives rather than continue under a corrupt system, while over 15,000 have been wounded in the process of calling for a better way.

As Al Jazeera tells it, the idea of the muhasasa system was conceived by opposition forces, whilst Saddam Hussein was still in power. They’d envisioned a system that would provide representation for all: Sunnis, Shiites, Kurdish people and other ethnic and religious groups.

And following the US-led invasion of the oil-rich nation – which was justified by the Bush administration’s false assertions that it was in possession of  weapons of mass destruction – the government quota system that was supposed to promote inclusivity was installed.

But what resulted was a deepening of divisions within the country, which transpired into sectarian violence that peaked around 2006 through to 2008. And although this widespread chaos has since subsided, the corrupt governing system continues.

And a class of political elites has developed, which sees those in power solely concerned about their own self-interests, divvying up wealth and handing out key positions based on sectarian connections, rather than merit, whilst the vast majority of Iraqis have become impoverished.

The spring continues

But, as Ghannam points out, this unified rising up of the common people is in no way confined to Iraq. As he puts it, it’s part of the “second wave of the Arab spring”. This started in February in Algeria, and has spread to Jordan and  Sudan, along with the movement in Lebanon.

“Arab regimes need to change their way of ruling their countries or people will keep raising their protest,” Mr Ghannam concluded. And “Palestine cannot be free without Arab people’s full support”.

Author

Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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