Mass protests erupt in Iraq
By Lal Khan
July 25, 2018
Despite being economically shattered, with its state bureaucracy in a condition of collapse, Iraq has seen a new wave of mass protests erupting in its rubbled streets. A renewed class struggle has arisen, cutting across the religious divisions and sectarian hatreds that have been fostered since the US/British invasion in 2003.
Last week, thousands took part in mass demonstrations in southern Iraq, against intolerable social and economic conditions. Demonstrators attacked government buildings, blocked roads to Basra’s main port, stormed a local airport and set fire to the offices of political parties. “Hundreds of people tried to storm a courthouse,” said a police official.
The protests began in Basra on July 8 when security forces fired on a demonstration of youth protesting against price-hikes, lack of employment and essential services, including water and electricity. Basra was once dubbed the “Venice of the Middle East” for its network of canals. Now the city is a socioeconomic disaster.
Demonstrations have continued ever since. If the rejection of the old political parties was evident in the 44 per cent turn-out in the general elections in May, these events have pushed things to a higher level, in the most serious political unrest for many years.
“Everybody is corrupt, even me”
Iraq is riven by corruption. An interview in the Guardian two years ago, gave a crystal-clear indication of how high the corruption goes. One of the Government’s own “anti-corruption” officers admitted “There is no solution”, to the reporter “Everybody is corrupt, from the top of society to the bottom,” he said. “Everyone. Including me.” This official had the gall to add, “At least I am honest about it,” (Guardian, Feb 19, 2016)
The war that was launched by George Bush and Tony Blair in 2003 cost their governments, respectively, at least $2tr and £10bn. There were around 4000 military deaths on the US side and nearly 200 British deaths. But these costs are tiny in comparison to the huge price paid by the Iraqi people, with around half a million deaths, millions injured and millions more displaced. To this day, many parts of Iraq are still in a state of disrepair at best and are little more than rubble at worst.
Worse still, the occupying powers put in place a new constitution that was deliberately sectarian from top to bottom, with reserved positions for the three main ethnic groups, Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims and Kurds. This has led to fifteen years of completely dysfunctional government, and the ramping-up of vicious sectarian hatreds, fed by corruption and all-consuming patronage networks from national down to local government. As a result, nothing works. The in-built sectarianism of the constitution played no small part in the rise of the mostly Sunni ISIS movement after 2011.The regime of Haider Al-Abadi’s Dawa has dominated Iraqi politics in the shadows of US bayonets since 2003. While negotiations take place to cobble together some kind of coalition after the indecisive election in May, Al-Abadi has desperately sought to quell the protests through a combination of conciliatory rhetoric and brutal state repression. Several protesters have already been killed by state forces and the government has curbed internet access and has blocked social media sites.
Basra Province is by far the country’s most oil-rich region. Its oil exports account for 95 per cent of annual revenue for the Iraqi government. Abadi ordered Iraq’s notorious Counter-Terrorism Service commandos to ‘defend’ oil fields in Basra.
The protests nonetheless have gained further momentum. Last Friday, demonstrators blocked access to the port of Umm Qasr, while the movement expanded to the cities of Amara, Nasiriya and Najaf, where several hundred protesters stormed the airport and brought air traffic to a halt. Security forces deployed at the airport shot and killed two more demonstrators, bringing the total to at least eight protesters killed during the revolt’s first week. These protests have now spread to Baghdad and the holy city of Karbala.
Iraq has the largest oil reserves in the world after Saudi Arabia, while its ordinary inhabitants still suffer from destitution and misery. In fact, prior to the war with Iran, which started in 1980, Iraq was close to a welfare state according to a UNDP report. Iraq has had a number of revolutionary uprisings in modern history.
A history of struggle, upheaval and revolution
In 1958, more than a million people were protesting on the streets of Baghdad expecting the Communist Party to lead a revolutionary insurrection. However, the British imposed monarchy was overthrown by a coup of the junior army officers of the Baath Socialist Party as the CP leaders vacillated to take power. In July 1968 Maj-Gen Ahmad Hassan Al-Baker overthrew the regime of Gen Abdel Rahman Arif in a coup d’état, which promised radical changes including the nationalisation of oil and commanding heights of the economy. This brought them close to a planned socialist economy, which gave a tremendous spurt to social development and improvement of the lives of the ordinary Iraqis.
A UN report described Iraq in the early 1980s as a country fast approaching living standards comparable to that of developed countries. An extensive and sophisticated health system was introduced. Clean and abundant drinking water was the norm. Advanced sewage treatment plants kept the water quality of the Tigris and Euphrates clean and a modern network of telecommunications was extended to urban and rural areas. Twenty-four electrical power generation stations were the key component of the infrastructure.
Urban and rural women were active in all sectors of the economy and government with a social freedom rarely witnessed elsewhere in the Middle East. Women’s education improved rapidly with free and compulsory education. However, dropout rates increased substantially after the Gulf war, US invasion and rise of violent Islamic bigotry. Before the US/UK invasion, there was not a trace of the Islamic fundamentalist organisations that have since wreaked havoc on the country. Islamic fundamentalist terror has drastically turned the social, cultural and economic lives of women into a living hell. With the eight-year-long Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), the two Gulf Wars, religious tyranny and imperialist invasions Iraq has gone from relative affluence into an abyss of massive poverty and conflagration.
But this new uprising on the class basis is a silver lining in the human tragedy and bloody turmoil that has plagued Iraq for decades. The states of Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Libya that were carved out of the Levant province of the Ottoman Empire by the imperialist masters have crumbled. There is no possibility of restoring any development or prosperity through ‘aid’ of the imperialist financial institution or ‘world powers’ in Iraq or any of these artificial states created for plunder through the Sykes-Picot Treaty, Balfour Declaration and other treacherous deals between the victor imperialist powers after the First World War.
The present movement is a transformational landmark in the struggle of Iraqis for emancipation. When such a movement attains a revolutionary character, it will not remain confined to Iraq but spread like a revolutionary storm in all countries of the Levant, the Middle East and far beyond. There will be ebbs and flows in the trajectory of this movement. But this uprising has proved yet again that even in the most arduous of conditions the youth and toiling masses can rise and smash all obstacles in their struggle for emancipation.