The fates of Iraq and Lebanon's protests are intricately linked

In both countries the government has failed to find convincing solutions to demonstrators' legitimate demands, while Iran-backed proxies continue to brutalise people on the streets

TOPSHOT - An Iraqi protester flashes the victory sign from behind barbed wire near the capital Baghdad's Al-Jumhuriyah Bridge on October 26, 2019, during an anti-government protest.  Iraqi security forces fired tear gas to clear lingering protesters in Baghdad this morning, after dozens died in a bloody resumption of anti-government rallies to be discussed in parliament. / AFP / -
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Forty-two demonstrators killed and hundreds more injured in one day: these are the damning figures marking the one-year anniversary of Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s time in office, on Friday, with the country having been rocked by a second round of nationwide anti-governments protests.

The first round of demonstrations erupted in the first week of October, predominantly in Baghdad and the Shia-majority south, as people rose up against unemployment, poor public services and rampant corruption. Calling for an end to Iranian  interference in the country, protesters have also demanded that Mr Abdul Mahdi’s government resign as they feel their leaders have failed to make their lives any better. Iraq is Opec’s second biggest oil producer, but its wealth is lost on most of its citizens, with one in four Iraqis unemployed, and the country ranking as twelfth most corrupt in the world.

Despite the findings of a government investigation, which last week concluded that excessive force was used during the demonstrations earlier this month, authorities have failed to stop the bloodshed. The second round of protests that started on Thursday evening were fatally repressed, bringing the total number of deaths to nearly 200 and the wounded to more than 7,000 since the onset of the uprising. Seven in 10 deaths investigated were caused by shots to the head or chest, indicating that the orders were to shoot to kill. It is unacceptable that the very personnel that Iraqis rely on for protection are the ones effectively killing and maiming civilians on the streets. Even more troubling is the implication of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), an umbrella group of mainly Iran-backed militias, in many killings. The government failed to acknowledge the PMF’s role in the killings, which included the use of snipers to target unarmed civilians.

A riot police officer is seen on an armoured vehicle following a police operation to open a highway blocked by demonstrators during ongoing anti-government protests in downtown Beirut, Lebanon, October 26, 2019. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

Meanwhile in neighbouring Lebanon, people continue to flood the streets, demanding that the government resign and bring to an end a corrupt political system predicated on sectarianism. What is striking is that the people of Lebanon and Iraq are demanding the same things: better access to water and electricity, clean government and an end to foreign meddling in the affairs of the two nations. Both countries are also reeling under the influence of pro-Iranian proxies that have paralysed their economies and put Tehran’s interests above those of ordinary Lebanese and Iraqis.

And it is the people who are paying the price for their opposition to these armed militias. Twelve Iraqi protesters have died after attacking the headquarters of the Badr Organisation - a powerful faction within the PMF - and several others have lost their lives while storming the offices of Asaib Ahl Al Haq, another armed group. In Lebanon, protesters chanting anti-Hezbollah slogans have been brutalised in the group’s Shia strongholds in the south, as well as in Beirut.

What happens next in Lebanon is intricately linked to events in Iraq, as the forces at play against the protesters are one and the same

In both nations, the state’s response has failed to convince protesters that authorities are, in fact, going to take their legitimate demands to heart after decades of neglect and mismanagement. Mr Abdul Mahdi announced sweeping reforms in a speech on Thursday but hours later, protests resumed. While there have been no deaths so far in Lebanon, people also remained unconvinced by the package of reforms promised by Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

What happens next in Lebanon is intricately linked to events in Iraq, as the forces at play against the protesters are one and the same. It is in no one’s interest to let chaos and violence reign. Iraqi authorities must urgently refrain from using violence against their own people and the Lebanese army should keep up its positive role in stopping Hezbollah and Amal’s armed militiamen from harming civilians. In the end, the only way out of both crises is a political solution that involves talks with protest leaders and civil society and the assurance that those who shed Iraqi blood will be punished.