Iraq protests: how violent repression and Covid-19 killed the uprising

Demonstrations vow to carry on until government meets their demands but numbers are reducing on the streets

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A year in, Iraq’s protest movement has yet to achieve its aim of wholesale political change and risks being snuffed out by widespread violence and intimidation at the hands of the security forces and militias coupled with the Covid-19 pandemic, experts and activists say.

Since last October, thousands of Iraqis have taken to the streets to demand the replacement of the political system that has left public services crumbling and overseen the rise of overwhelming corruption. Their demands were met with live fire and deadly force.

Nearly 600 protesters have been killed, dozens kidnapped and tens of thousands left with life-changing injuries, but little has changed on the ground.

While the movement – and ultimately, the violence that faced it – forced the resignation of prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, little systemic change has been made.

Explainer: One year since Iraq protests, what has changed?

Explainer: One year since Iraq protests, what has changed?

"Not much has changed, accountability for those killed have not been made, electoral law has not changed in the way we would have hoped, we wanted to put an end to the sectarian divides in parliament. We've not seen any deep-rooted changes," Inas Jabbar, a human-rights activist from Baghdad told The National.

While protesters managed to maintain momentum in the face of bullets and teargas, by the time the global pandemic forced the government to order people to stay home in mid-March, momentum was waning.

“There is a willingness from the public to re-engage in the movement, but threats, assassinations and coronavirus have impacted and reduced its momentum,” Ms Jabber said.

She participated in last year's protests and said ahead of the anniversary that demonstrators would be back in Tahrir Square, the epicentre of Baghdad's rallies on Thursday to mark the anniversary because the government has not met their demands.

Protesters called for sweeping changes to Iraq's political system, put in place after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.

The May election of Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi, who says he wants to implement the changes demanded on the streets and hold early elections, broke the political deadlock.

But, experts warn that he will not be able to deliver the systemic shift many on the street want to see.

“The Iraqi situation is beyond a place where incremental reform could work,” said Renad Mansour, senior researcher and Iraq expert at the London-based Chatham House said.

Neither the government nor political parties have been able to respond to the public’s needs, so Iraqis will continue to protest he said.

"They haven't addressed the roots of the Iraqi state that these protesters are rising up against. So, until they are addressed, changing a person or a post here or there, won't work," Mr Mansour told The National.

While the demands on the street are numerous, one issue that highlights the difficulty Mr Al Kadhimi faces is in compensating the families of protesters killed or wounded by security forces or prosecuting officers responsible.

“The government has not even compensated those injured by security forces, there has been little contact made with them,” Ms Jabbar said.

Delivering accountability is even more of a challenge because those responsible are protected by the security forces or have powerful political cover, Lahib Higel, Crisis Group's senior analyst for Iraq, told The National. 

Such has been the crackdown and internal divisions, the expert says it is unlikely Iraq will see demonstrations on the scale of the peak of the movement.

“One reason is that protesters have different visions for how to carry on the struggle. Another is the violence and intimidation that many mobilisers have faced,” she said.

But Belkis Wille, a senior crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch, said protesters today have an even more reason to take to the streets than they did a year ago. While the movement was initially powered by anger at the system’s failings, there is now the anger at the killing of demonstrators and the government's inability to hold the perpetrators to account while still failing to pass reforms.

"The question is going to be whether this government is able to control the security forces across the country and ensure respect for the protesters' safety. And we don't yet know the answer to that," Ms Wille told The National.

While the pandemic and violence appeared to reduce the numbers taking to the streets each week, Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at the London School of Economics, told The National, said that the protests have already returned but are more geographically diffused across the south and no longer centrally focused on downtown Baghdad.

“They could well explode again on the October anniversary. But they are not yet as strong as last year because of the sustained, mostly covert, violent repression delivered by the militias,” he said.

This campaign of repression has broken up the protest leadership but, along with Covid-19, has also discouraged all but the most tenacious from taking to the streets, Mr Dodge said.

Raid Madhaa, a protester whose murals in Tahrir Square became a symbol of the protests, said the demonstrations started to disintegrate in February following the outbreak of coronavirus and was derailed by infiltrators.

"They really ruined the movement, a friend of mine was going to get killed because of the infiltrators. People are in two minds when it comes to participating this year – they are worried about their safety and feel that their voices are not heard," Mr Madhaa told The National.

“I’ll be there on Thursday, but will be monitoring the situation from far away because there is a lot of uncertainty as to what will happen this week,” he said.