Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 29 October 2020

A year after Iraq protests, what has changed?

Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi promised to integrate protester demands into his plans but little has changed on the ground since last October

In October 2019, protesters demanded the fall of Iraq’s ruling class. One year on, with a new government in place and almost 600 protesters killed, little has changed.

The nationwide demonstrations which started on October 1 grew into a decentralised movement slamming unemployment, poor public services, endemic corruption and a political class more loyal to Iran or the US than to Iraqi citizens.

It led to the shock December 1 resignation of prime minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, succeeded after months of political deadlock by Mustafa Al Kadhimi, who pledged to integrate protesters’ demands into his transitional government’s plans.

But little has been achieved.

Mr Al Kadhimi has set a parliamentary vote for June 6, 2021, nearly a year ahead of schedule.

“Protesters wanted early elections and a new electoral law. We’re doing that,” Abdelhussein Hindawi, Mr Al Kadhimi’s adviser on elections, told AFP.

But while parliament approved a new voting law in December, essential points including the size of electoral districts and whether candidates would run independently or on lists have yet to be agreed by politicians.

And despite claims he has no political ambitions and would serve as a transitional leader, Mr Al Kadhimi appears to be preparing for an electoral fight.

Several MPs and members of rival parties told AFP the prime minister’s advisers are scouting candidates for the 2021 elections, hoping he could secure a new term in office.

“He’s stuck because he has to make a decision about where he wants to be,” said Renad Mansour, a researcher at the UK-based Chatham House think tank.

“Does he want to be PM for another four years and play politics, or does he want to change something right now?”

When he came to power, Mr Al Kadhimi pledged to guide Iraq through a dire fiscal crisis, saying state coffers were nearly empty after years of waste and an oil price slump.

The World Bank said Iraq’s poverty rate could double to 40 per cent this year and that youth unemployment, already at 36 per cent, could rise further.

Mr Al Kadhimi’s Cabinet vowed to reduce the public payroll and audit stipends to millions of Iraqis, but dropped the policy following public criticism.

It changed course again in August, hiring hundreds at the defence ministry – but not enough to stop sit-ins outside other government offices where demonstrators demanded jobs.

Finance Minister Ali Allawi missed a late August deadline to submit a white paper for economic reforms that is still being finalised, Iraqi officials said.

Mr Al Kadhimi also said he would prioritise Iraq’s fight against the coronavirus, which had by May killed 100 people.

Now, the death toll stands at close to 9,100, with the health ministry saying hospitals could lose control if the virus spread is not contained.

The prime minister has few allies in parliament, where pro-Iran MPs have bristled at his references to protesters’ demands.

“He’s had one foot in the elite camp and one foot in the anti-establishment camp. At the end of the day, he ends up not satisfying either,” Mr Mansour said.

The prime minister has also struggled to make good on his promise to bring those responsible for the deaths of almost 600 demonstrators and activists since last October to justice.

In September, his government announced that families of victims could apply for compensation from the state, but no funds have been disbursed yet.

A few weeks later, Mr Al Kadhimi said a statue would be erected in Tahrir Square, the centre of Baghdad’s rallies, as well as in the protest hot spot of Nasiriyah further south.

“I don’t recall a statue being among our demands last year,” wrote Ali, a protester from east Baghdad.

Meanwhile, the intimidation continued, including the abduction of a German and the murder of scholar and government adviser Husham Al Hashemi in July.

“We know who and where the killers are, but we cannot arrest them or announce that. It’s too sensitive,” one Iraqi official told AFP.

Rocket attacks on diplomatic missions and military convoys have increased, with hardline groups becoming more brazen in their threats against Mr Al Kadhimi.

On Monday evening, a rocket attack against Baghdad airport hit a nearby home, killing six civilians.

Many factions fall under the state-sponsored Hashed Al Shaabi paramilitary network, and his inability to exert full control over them has made Mr Al Kadhimi look weak, Mr Mansour said.

“The challenge in Iraq is no one man can fix it – but certainly not a man who believes in incremental slow change at a time that you have such a violent context,” he said.

Updated: September 29, 2020 02:40 PM

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