THU 9 - 7 - 2020
Mar 16, 2020
The Daily Star
Iraq's protesters struggle to keep waning movement going
Iraqi military says US should withdraw in accordance with parliamentary resolution
BAGHDAD: At the once bustling hub of the largest anti-government protest movement in Iraq's modern history, crowds have dwindled, and donation boxes have sprouted up. Loudspeakers resound with calls by activists for funds to keep their hard-fought revolution alive.
The six-month-old movement has faced one setback after another, from the shifting positions of a mercurial Shiite cleric to an apathetic political class and, now, fears over an outbreak of the coronavirus that Iraq’s decrepit health system has struggled to contain, with nearly 93 confirmed cases and nine deaths.
Where once Baghdad’s Tahrir Square had seen thousands every day, now only a few hundred protesters turn up. Morale has been dampened among young Iraqis who first took to the streets on Oct. 1 to decry rampant government corruption, poor services and unemployment.
Protesters have found it difficult to revive the strength of their leaderless movement after scoring victories early on, like pressuring lawmakers to pass a key electoral reform bill and forcing former Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi to step down. Assassinations, abductions and threats targeting prominent protesters have contributed to blunting the momentum.
A looming economic crisis linked to the coronavirus pandemic and ongoing political dysfunction could eventually bring a new jolt that inspires Iraqis back to the streets. But for the moment, the movement is looking at what went wrong.
The difficulties of recent months caused the poles of authority among protesters to shift from the capital to the south, while some say shunning any form of central leadership was a mistake.
In Tahrir Square, a group of young men recently shared a hookah pipe under a tarp by a tunnel replete with the wall art of their revolution. Together, they embodied the spirit that first brought many into Iraq’s central squares to protest.
Marwan Ali, 23, had attended university to study communication but could only find work as a barber after graduation. Mohammed Abbas, 19, didn't bother pursuing a higher education, convinced it wouldn't secure a job. So in October he picked up a banner and joined the movement.
Hussein al-Hind, 22, was a teenager when he heeded a call by Iraq's top Shiite cleric to take up arms and defeat Daesh (ISIS) with what would later become the popular Mobilization Forces. He soon became disenchanted as his one-time war heroes joined the ranks of the political class by running in the May 2018 election.
The young men have also suffered the violence that has met the movement. Hind showed off two bullet wounds from clashes with riot police; Abbas was detained by police for three days early on in the demonstrations; Ali's family has received messages from unknown groups threatening his life.
Now, the future of their hard-fought protest movement depends on the ability of these youth to keep to the streets.
When the conversation turned to the state of their movement, Marwan Ali took a moment's pause.
"We are disappointed," he said. Asked why he was still coming to Tahrir, he said, "This isn't about the homeland anymore, we are here for the blood of our martyrs." Over 500 people have been killed since October under fire by security forces who have used live ammunition, tear gas and recently pellet guns to disperse crowds.
In nearby Khilani Square, clashes still rage between a core group of protesters and security, with at least two demonstrators killed last week.
The movement was dealt a blow in January after radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who also heads a major political bloc, withdrew support after elites selected a prime minister candidate he backed, Mohammed Allawi. Sadr's reversal instilled a climate of fear in the square as militiamen affiliated with his group, which once protected protest sites, intimidated demonstrators who refused to back Allawi, activists said. Allawi has since withdrawn from the post.
"We were tools in Sadr's game," said Kamal Jaban, an activist.
It was an eventuality that activists said they wanted to avoid when Sadr's followers first joined the movement.
As early as November, protesters bristled at the question of leadership and were quick to diminish the credibility of those making claims of authority over them. They tore down stages built by political parties in protest plazas, fearing the fate of previous grassroots movements that fizzled out when co-opted by political actors.
Three months since, protesters said in hindsight the lack of core leadership had hobbled their movement, enabling figures like Sadr to do exactly what they had feared.
"There is no one to represent us, put pressure on the government," said Ali, under the tarp in Tahrir.
Sadr's move also diminished Tahrir Square’s status as the central voice of the movement. Activists started looking to Haboubi Square in the southern city of Nasiriya for orders. Nasiriya's protesters have been resilient against infiltration by political parties, partly due to support from local tribes.
In hindsight, said Ali, this weakened the movement.
"Tahrir Square became tainted with Sadr supporters," he explained. "At first Nasiriya was listening to us, now we listen to them."
It was Nasiriya that gave political elites a deadline to make progress on protester demands, prompting an escalation in demonstrations across the country. Later, calls from the southern city led protesters in Baghdad to block the strategic Mohammed al-Qassim highway. When Haboubi Square raised the image of activist Alaa Rikabi as their choice for prime minister, Tahrir did the same.
Other protesters said fatigue from months on the street was taking a toll as donations for food and supplies were running short and temperatures dropped over the winter.
"Weak turnout was expected some time ago because the protesters who have been here for five months are tired, sleeping in cold and far from work, their families and school," said Murtada Emad, a protester and university student at Babil College of Basic Education. "I left school, but my family is pressuring me to go back."
By February, protesters were marginalized as political bickering over Allawi's government formation ignored the core demands of the street. Allawi withdrew as prime minister-designate on March 1 after failing to secure parliamentary support for his Cabinet.
Back in Tahrir, Ali Jumaili, 22, said all hope was not lost.
"Every day, I sit on the sidewalk with my friends and weep because of the weakening demonstrations," he said. "The revolution will repeat itself with more vigor in the future."
Iraqi military says US should withdraw in accordance with parliamentary resolution
Agence France Presse
BAGHDAD: Iraq's military said Saturday that 33 Katyusha rockets had been launched on Taji base north of Baghdad which houses U.S.-led coalition troops and said the attack critically injured several Iraqi air defense servicemen.
The military found seven rocket launchers and 24 unused rockets in the nearby Abu Izam area, it said in a statement, and promised to arrest those responsible.
The military said the U.S. or other foreign forces should not use the attack as pretext to take military action without Iraq's approval. It called on all foreign troops to quickly implement a parliamentary resolution calling for their withdrawal.
It was the 23rd such attack since late October on installations across Iraq where American troops and diplomats are based, with the latest rounds growing deadlier.
None of the attacks have ever been claimed but the U.S. has blamed hardline elements of the Hashed al-Shaabi, a network of armed groups incorporated into the Iraqi state.
The U.S.-led coalition's surveillance capabilities have been impaired by cloudy weather in recent days, which the U.S. official said may have contributed to the attackers' readiness to launch the rockets during the day instead of under the cover of night.
Taji is overcrowded with members of the U.S.-led coalition helping Iraq fight militant remnants, after units were moved to the air base from other installations.
It came three days after a similar attack on the base killed two American military personnel and a British soldier - the deadliest such incident at an Iraqi base in years.
The U.S. responded Friday with air strikes on arms depots it said were used by Kataeb Hezbollah, an Iran-aligned faction within the Hashed.
At least five members of Iraq's security forces and one civilian were killed, none of them members of the Hashed, according to Iraq's military.
Iraq has long feared it would get caught in the spiraling tensions between Iran and the U.S., its two main allies.
They dramatically spiked in late 2019 when a U.S. contractor was killed in a rocket attack on a separate base in northern Iraq, leading to retaliatory American strikes on Kataeb Hezbollah.
Days later, a U.S. drone strike killed Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani and Hashed deputy chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
Iraq's parliament then voted to oust all foreign troops from the country, but the decision has not yet been implemented.
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