Violence in Iraq ‘will continue unless there is systemic reform’, experts say

Protest movement and civil society have been targets since late 2019

Universities students hold the Iraqi flag as they take part in a protest over corruption, lack of jobs, and poor services, in Kerbala, Iraq October 28, 2019. REUTERS/Abdullah Dhiaa al-Deeen     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
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Iraq’s new government must have a clear plan for systemic reforms if violence and suppression against critics and activists is to stop, experts have said.

The country is expected to hold general elections on October 10, when the public will vote for a new parliament.

“The problem is not with one leader or one party. There has to be systematic reform, otherwise violence will continue because it is protecting the interest of those across the spectrum,” said Renad Mansour, a senior research fellow and project director of the Iraq Initiative at London’s Chatham House think tank.

Violence against government critics and civil society has increased in Iraq in recent years, especially after the eruption of mass protests in October 2019.

About 700 protesters have been killed and at least 25,000 others injured.

Live bullets and tear gas have been used against members of civil society. Others have been assassinated or forcibly disappeared.

“This is a targeted campaign. It is systematic suppression of activism and civil society. To stop protests before they reach the streets,” Mr Mansour said during an online talk on Iraq held by the London School of Economics.

The protesters have called for an end to endemic corruption by the political class, which is largely seen as having squandered Iraq’s resources through greed and mismanagement.

It led to the resignation of former prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi in late 2019.

In May 2020, Mustafa Al Kadhimi assumed office and pledged to deliver some of the demonstrators’ demands.

Mr Mansour said there has since been some “political reforms as we’ve seen technocrats come in, but they are unable to reform the system”.

The social contract was fundamentally broken. The sad reality is that the elections will not be able to deliver on that
Belkis Wille, senior crisis and conflict researcher

“Incremental reforms are not working. That’s the root cause of the problem.” He said it was difficult to create changes as the system “is facilitated by a pack of leaders who believe in its maintenance,” he said.

Although the violence against protesters has killed the momentum of the protest movement, the campaign led by militias from the Popular Mobilisation Forces has continued to view political activists as targets, forcing many to flee Iraq.

The early elections are a direct result for the public wanting to have space to be critical of authorities and other groups that hold power in Iraq, said Belkis Wille, a senior crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch.

“One of the key calls that protesters were making at the time was for the prime minister to step down and the need for a new social contract between people in Iraq and those in power,” Ms Wille said. “The social contract was fundamentally broken. The sad reality is that the elections will not be able to deliver on that.”

Ms Wille said it was unlikely the elections would bring “a new government in power that would get a handle on the violence and concerted efforts to target and take out critics across the board”.

Mr Al Kadhimi has been unable to hold any officials to account, despite several arrests and rounds of questioning.

Updated: September 28, 2021, 4:31 PM