Feb 17, 2020
The following article is a translation of an article from Lutte de Classe (Class Struggle), issue #206, the magazine of Lutte Ouvrière (Workers Struggle), the revolutionary communist workers organization active in France.
On September 26, 2019, a demonstration in Baghdad of thousands of unemployed young people demanding jobs turned into a huge mass movement calling for the downfall of the regime, just in the course of a few days. After the firing of Lieutenant General al-Saadi, who was popular for the role he played in the fight against the Islamic State organization, the repression carried out by the security forces against these young people, firing at them with live ammunition, set off an unprecedented revolt.
Since October 1, a movement of popular resistance has swept Iraq, spreading through social media and radiating out from Baghdad. It then spread to southern cities like Nasiriyah and Basra and to the large central cities like Najaf and Karbala, regions where the majority of the population belongs to the Shia denomination. The north of the country, which is mostly Kurdish, and the regions with a Sunni majority have kept their distance from the protests for the moment.
In the world’s fourth-largest producer of oil, the demonstrators denounce the unemployment and the deterioration of public services that cause the population to suffer. They accuse the politicians of being responsible for the corruption that saps all levels of society and of having grabbed up the oil money. The slogan “We want work,” has given way to slogans calling for politicians to resign, notably the Prime Minister Abdel Mahdi, whose arrival in power had stirred the hopes of many only one year before.
In order to hold back the protests, the government announced emergency measures, new elections, and a reform of the employment and retirement systems. But the demonstrators no longer believe in such promises. They reject the political system of religious power-sharing between the Shia, Kurdish, and Sunni elites, put in place after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 following the military intervention of the United States, with the complicity of Iran. “In the name of religion, the thieves robbed us!” the demonstrators chant. “We want a better country, without corruption, without the division of offices through sectarian quotas,” one of them explained.
The government has tried in vain to use repression to put an end to a peaceful movement. The movement has expanded. Young people in working-class neighborhoods were joined by students from secondary schools, high schools, and universities. The unions called for a strike in all public services. Administrations and educational institutions remained closed for more than two months. Doctors and lawyers also joined the movement. During the first three months, the repression caused more than 450 deaths and 20,000 injuries. Braving the heavy weapons of the security forces and the bullets of the militias’ snipers, young people continued to protest and to occupy Tahrir Square in Baghdad, as well as the central squares of other cities.
The speeches of the Iranian leaders, accusing the demonstrators of acting on behalf of foreign powers like the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, only fueled the protestors’ national sentiment. Iraqis are in fact subjected to a double domination, by the U.S. and Iran, both of which they reject. In November, slogans hostile to Iran, like “We want a country,” and “Iran, withdraw!” began to appear. On November 4, in Karbala, which Shia Muslims consider to be a holy city, protestors attacked the Iranian consulate, which they covered in Iraqi flags, writing on the walls: “Free Karbala, out with Iran.” On November 27, the Iranian consulate in Najaf was set on fire.
The rejection of Iran, the sponsor of the Shia religious parties and militias which have dominated Iraq since 2003, is all the more alarming for the government given that young people in the Shia regions, which are supposed to be its social base, have risen up. Sadr City, the huge poor neighborhood of Baghdad and the former stronghold of the Communist Party, had become that of Moqtada al-Sadr, the leader of a powerful Shia nationalist and religious party. His stances made him popular among the disinherited social layers which he claims to represent.
At the time of the legislative elections of 2018, Moqtada al-Sadr rallied the Communist Party to him with a nationalist program calling for a secular state. He based his campaign on a reform of the state, an end to the militias, the struggle against corruption, social justice, and religious toleration. His victory in the elections made his movement the leading political force in Parliament. But as soon as he was elected, he allied himself with his rivals in the Fatah Alliance, a coalition of pro-Iranian militias, to form a compromise government.
In this respect, Moqtada al-Sadr is responsible for the policy carried out by the government. Faced with a spontaneous uprising beyond his control, in which many of his partisans took part, he played a double game, claiming at the beginning to understand the movement, mobilizing his militants to organize it and supposedly to protect it. Although many demonstrators saw this support as an encouragement, others remained suspicious and rightly saw it as a maneuver. And al-Sadr did in fact profit from the movement at first, using it to settle his scores with the Prime Minister, whom he called on to step down. This Prime Minister, Abdel Mahdi, finally announced his resignation on November 29 under popular pressure, although this did not put a stop to the protests.
At the beginning of January, thousands of pro-Iranian militia members burst into the “Green Zone,” heading in the direction of the U.S. embassy sheltered in this protected neighborhood. In response, President Trump ordered the assassination in Baghdad of General Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, his right-hand man in Iraq. This U.S. provocation against Iran changed the game. Among other consequences, it caused the mask to drop away from Moqtada al-Sadr, since he immediately threw his support behind Iran.
On January 29, the demonstration of his supporters with slogans hostile to the United States was a true show of force. Al-Sadr accused the Iraqi protestors of playing the game of the U.S. and called on them to stop their movement. But the young people who had been in the streets for months did not obey his orders, refusing to have their revolt overtaken by the rivalries between powers and used by the United States.
The Iraqi Parliament, dominated by Shia parties, called for the departure of the 5,000 U.S. soldiers and their allies present in the country. In retaliation, Trump threatened the Iraqis with “sanctions like they’ve never seen before.” After Soleimani’s assassination, Iraq might have appeared to be the arena where the U.S. and Iran would clash and settle their scores. But in reality, Iraq has been the site of a tacit alliance between the two powers for the past 17 years. They have both backed a corrupt political regime based on religious sectarianism. In a certain sense, the war which they are waging today in Iraq is coming to the rescue of a weakened regime in crisis. The tension between these two sponsors allows the Iraqi government to make people forget the conditions under which it was established.
We must go back to the origins of this U.S.-Iranian convergence of interests in Iraq, which seems unnatural at first glance. In 2003, two years after the September 11 attacks, the United States and its allies invaded Iraq. They accused Saddam Hussein of being responsible for the attacks and of having weapons of mass destruction. This was the pretext for the military occupation of a devastated country, weakened by successive wars and a heavy embargo. The war waged by Iraq against Iran from 1980 to 1988 had been encouraged by U.S. imperialism, keen on undermining the regime of the ayatollahs which was hostile to it, in this oil-rich region. Next came the Gulf War in 1991, which was followed by 10 years of economic sanctions, causing the deaths of about a million people.
It was in the name of bringing peace and democracy that the United States rained down fire on Iraq in 2003. But the U.S. bombings and occupation only added another level to the country’s destruction. The Iraqi army and civil administration were dismantled. The U.S. administrator, Paul Bremer, set in place a Constitution which pitted Iraqis against each other according to their religious or ethnic background. The Iraqi population is 60% Shia, 20% Sunni, and 20% Kurdish. The Sunnis were punished and marginalized for their supposed support for Saddam Hussein’s regime. The occupation authorities relied on Shia political forces, whom they believed they had won over because of the persecution they had suffered under Saddam Hussein. Among these were Shia religious parties, such as the Dawa Party, which was supported by Iran.
The U.S. occupation created an explosive situation, resulting in a clash between communities. It promoted the emergence and growth of several jihadist militias drawing recruits from the Sunni population. The most violent of these, Al-Qaeda in Iraq, targeted the occupying army at first, before launching attacks against Shias. In retaliation, the Sunni population was targeted by the Shia militias, and chaos became generalized, plunging Iraq into an inter-religious war. The violence did not come from the Sunni or Shia populations, but rather from the militias who used terror to impose their authority.
In 2008, this war ended in the victory of the Shia militias supported by Iran and the United States. They took control of Baghdad and drove most of the Sunni population out of the capital. But terrorist attacks did not stop. In order to protect themselves, U.S. authorities carved out an enclave in Baghdad—the “Green Zone”—in the center of which they built the largest embassy in the world, and in which the Iraqi ruling classes also lived.
In 2011, the year of the “Arab Spring,” U.S. president Obama decided to gradually withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq. The balance sheet of U.S. occupation and wars was devastating. The destruction caused by U.S. bombardment had still not been repaired. Most of the country’s water and electricity distribution system was out of commission. Iraq had been drained of its skilled professionals, many of whom, including doctors, teachers, and others, had fled the country.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq seemed to have been defeated, but a new militia born within it, the organization of the Islamic State, also known by its Arabic acronym Daesh, grew as a result of the war in Syria. It flooded into Iraq, successfully taking Mosul, the second-largest city in the country, in June 2014. Its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, claimed to be avenging the Sunni population and spoke of his ambition to build a caliphate on horseback in Syria and Iraq. The Iraqi Army, infested with corruption and incapable of combat, vanished into thin air.
Faced with the swift advance of the troops of the Islamic State as they threatened Baghdad, Obama mobilized his allies, including France, for a new military intervention. Iran, for its part, organized and mobilized Shia militias under the leadership of General Soleimani in order to fight the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria. Once again, the United States and Iran found themselves in an alliance to save a regime which they had backed and which preserved their respective interests.
In 2018, Trump officially announced a victory against the troops of the Islamic State and a scheduled withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria and Iraq. But the war against Daesh left Iraq in a state of complete decay. The militias had taken on an unprecedented importance. After the horrors committed by the Shia militias during the war of 2006–2008, their victory over Daesh restored legitimacy to them which they also drew from the Iraqi state, which granted them police powers over all the territories they had taken back from the jihadists.
The militias came out of this war politically, financially, and numerically strengthened. Some 50 militias, grouped in an umbrella organization called the Popular Mobilization Forces, today command 150,000 men and control a budget of 2.2 billion dollars! All of them are more or less close to Iran, led by Hadi al-Amiri and before January by General Soleimani, and have considerable military means. They have tanks, helicopters, a general staff, and their own intelligence services. They are present all throughout the state apparatus, including the federal police. Intending to defend their interests and profit from their victory over Daesh, they managed to become integrated into the national forces in 2016, while preserving their autonomy from the Iraqi command.
The religious parties and the militias linked to them control the government at all levels, from the ministries to the local level, as well as Parliament. They use public funds for their own benefit and for a whole host of clients who depend on them. Their hold on Iraqi society increased corruption, which was already substantial. Every functionary post is for sale, from the highest minister to the lowest employee. At the economic level, the parties and armed groups control a growing portion of oil revenue. They also exercise a stranglehold over import networks due to their control of the customs offices. The population’s resentment of these practices, which mix together the interests of Iran and the Iraqi political-military elites, is enormous.
In the region of Basra, which supplies 90% of the country’s oil exports, the population is left to fend for itself. It suffers from the lack of infrastructure, water and electricity cutoffs, and the exhaustion and pollution of groundwater sources. Unemployment is massive, and the population accepts it even less because Iraqi workers are kept out of the jobs linked to the oil industry, which are reserved for foreign managers and an Asian workforce. This already led to a revolt in the summer of 2018, but the promises to establish quotas for jobs given to Iraqis have never been respected.
The international oil companies are pumping out Iraq’s oil in conjunction with the Shia religious parties and their militias. These groups control the customs offices and maintain a grip on the ports and airports. They take their cut of every commercial transaction and every work contract. Through this type of corruption, billions of dollars have been swallowed up by a wealthy class that emerged from the clergy, the parties, and the militias, whose situation is very far from the extreme poverty of the population.
It is estimated that, since 2003, no less than 410 billion dollars have been extorted, or more than two times the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for 2018. This official figure, widely known to Iraqis, feeds their anger and makes the country’s economic collapse and the deterioration of living conditions intolerable.
While the GDP per capita was $7,000 in 1990, it fell to less than $4,990 in 2017. Iraq is a country where 60% of the population is less than 25 years old. The young people who started the movement came from the poor neighborhoods that surround the capital. Forty percent of them are unemployed. The students who joined them do not see a future for themselves. With diplomas in their pockets, they find only small jobs in the informal economy. All of these young people have known only hardship and war, and some of them have to provide for their families, after the departure or death of the father during the fighting that has bled Iraq since 2003.
These wars have also destroyed the country’s industrial fabric, which included many factories and a large working class. Today, almost all goods consumed in Iraq are imported from China, Russia, and especially Iran, which considers Iraq to be a vital market for unloading its products. The many companies which Iran has implanted in Iraq are a way to get around the U.S. embargo.
The country’s economy is dependent on oil, with more than 90% of its resources coming from the export of hydrocarbon. Between 2003–2014, with the price of a barrel above $100, the government responded to unemployment by hiring in the public sector. In this country of more than 42 million people, one out of every two workers is employed by the state, or seven million people. But, with the fall in the price of oil since 2014, the government no longer has the same options available to it and has become heavily indebted.
The consequences for the population are disastrous. Public services have been abandoned. Medicines can no longer be found in the hospitals, of which there are not enough. Not all children have access to education. In certain classrooms, the students do not have chairs or tables to study. Thousands of establishments have been partially or entirely destroyed. The United Nations Children’s Fund estimates that 7,500 more schools are needed to comfortably accommodate all children. Not having enough space, one third of Iraqi schools have to use up to three rotations to accommodate all of their students. Despite this, 130,000 children did not attend school this year.
It is a daily challenge for millions of Iraqis to get food, drinkable water, and a roof above their heads. With the announcement of Daesh’s defeat and the return of a relative peace, the population’s hopes for a free and dignified life have returned to the surface. They have mostly been expressed in the Shia regions, which have been far less affected by the fighting.
The inhabitants of the Kurdish and Sunni regions, sites of the war against Daesh, are still in a state of shock. In total, 1.8 million people had to flee their homes, and one third still live in the camps. The city of Mosul, which was liberated in 2017, has not yet recovered from the destruction. Hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees have also fled into Iraq. Furthermore, fear remains present, since the defeat of Daesh does not mean that all of the jihadists disappeared, and their sleeper cells could reactivate at any moment. This may explain why these populations have remained to the side of the protests, even if they share the same revulsion against the regime based on religious division, corruption, and interference by foreign powers.
Five months after the start of the demonstrations, the movement continues, with the occupation of central squares, street protests, and blockades of universities and roads. The demonstrators now reject the new Prime Minister Mohammed Allawi, who had already been Prime Minister twice before. Despite the maneuvers by political parties and a repression which has killed more than 600 and wounded 25,000, the young people engaged in struggle are continuing to defy the government. They know that every demonstration and every blockade can end in bloodshed. Their leaders are tracked, hunted and threatened with death by security forces and by militias armed to the teeth.
After years marked by military interventions, foreign wars and civil wars, as well as periods of economic embargo, population displacements, bombings and massacres, Iraq is a devastated country. The economy, which was relatively developed until the 1980s, has experienced an enormous setback. The country’s resources are being bled by political-mafia clans linked to neighboring powers or to imperialism. Iraqi young people are struggling against this situation with courage and with energy born out of desperation. On the basis of past experience, they no longer have confidence in the existing political forces, each of which has its share of responsibility for this catastrophe, and they rightly see a way out only through their own revolt.
In order to put an end to imperialism’s domination over the Middle East, which takes shape in the multiplication of crises and wars, the regimes which divide up the region must be overthrown, along with the possessing classes who support them. Only a proletarian revolution on the scale of the region would make this possible. It is on this path that the Iraqi young people must learn how to lead their movement. There is no other real way out of the intolerable situation in which they live, just like the rest of the population and that of many neighboring countries, from Iran to Syria and Yemen, from Egypt to Lebanon, and from Libya to Sudan, where the situation has become just as unbearable.