Iraq's ongoing intifada demonstrates that Islamic State’s rise was a symptom of a deeper crisis

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A still image from Twitter video posted by @BaghdadPostPlus showing Iraqi Security Forces/ERD police cracking down on protesters in Baghdad.

A still image from Twitter video posted by @BaghdadPostPlus showing Iraqi Security Forces/ERD police cracking down on protesters in Baghdad.

Iraq’s intifada has ripped through Iraq in the first week of October. Official estimates suggest that over 100 people have been killed and thousands injured. However, some aid workers online - including Fifty Shades of Aid’s Facebook group - suggest it could be much larger (some say the death toll could be higher then 500). The government has attempted, albeit unsuccessfully, to muzzle coverage of the intifada (rebellion/uprising) by shutting down 75% of the Internet across the country and cutting access to several major social media outlets including WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. The protests, a result of economic deprivation, a unchecked water crisis, poverty and endemic kleptocracy and corruption, have paralysed the country, one which has barely started its recovery from four decades of conflict and violence. The Iraqi army and its security forces, sitting atop this boiling pan, have cracked down on the protests with extreme violence. In September last year, as this author noted, all the signs of a major intifada breaking out were there.

“Iraqi men, women and children have been traumatised by incessant conflict…There is widespread drug trafficking and use…Malnutrition is rife across Iraq…(In Basra), cholera has become a major concern…as pollution, inadequate infrastructure and lack of access to clean drinking water have allowed disease to spread. Drought has further hampered the water crisis and with both shortages of water and electricity, the latter of which angered Iraqis considerably under Saddam and the American occupation wedded to soaring temperatures have turned up the heat on the Iraqi government…Out of 180 countries listed by Transparency International, Iraq was ranked 169th in the Corruption Perceptions Index in 2017. Only Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan and Libya rank lower in the Middle East….The kleptocratic nature of the government encased with the Green Zone, a problem before the resurgence of Islamic State (in 2014), remains so today…Conditions in Iraq are ripe for an intifada on the one of the world’s largest oil fields.”

The grievances which caused the political earthquake in Basra throughout 2018 have returned in full force, spreading across the rest of the country. As with the first Palestinian intifada in 1987, the Iran Green Movement, the Arab Revolutions of 2011 and the latest protests against Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the Iraqi protests, at face-value, appear to be a spontaneous outburst of rage rather than a calculated attempt to seize power by a specific political faction in Iraq. With Iran and the Gulf States, the United States and United Kingdom rubbing shoulders in the Persian Gulf, none of these countries would want to provoke an uprising in Iraq given the high tensions between the regional superpowers of the Middle East. Crisis Group have described these geo-political rivalries as the region’s “1914 moment,” as these military rivalries have stoked fears of a wider war engulfing the Persian Gulf, Mesopotamia and the Levant. However, the politicisation of these protests by regional actors, particularly the United States and Iran, could act as a catalyst for regional war depending on how these actors - and their local allies in Iraq - respond to the country’s intifada.

The political and economic grievances existed in Iraq’s political undercurrents during the conflict with Abu Bakr Al-Baghadi, leader of Islamic State. In 2016, protesters stormed the Green Zone and occupied parliament in protest against corruption and endemic instability. The Green Zone was previously occupied by the Americans and their allies during the unpopular and bloody military occupation between 2003-2011. For many ordinary Iraqis, it is symbol of Western influence within the country. In recent years, it has also come to be associated with kleptocratic rule and incompetence with successive Prime Ministers unable to tackle the crises of power shortages, water pollution, climate emergency and a lack of opportunities for graduates and younger generations across a country crushed by the heel of perpetual war since Iraq invaded Iran in 1980.

Islamic State, whose proto-state collapsed in 2017, was a symptom of deeper problems affecting Iraqi society. In some ways, the war with Islamic State between 2014 and 2017 distracted media outlets from the social and economic problems gripping the country, ones which existed outside of Iraq’s sectarian and political violence and conflicts and also helped fuel resentment and radicalisation in Shia and Sunni communties who eventually fought each other and the government.

As the veteran journalist Patrick Cockburn notes in The Independent, the paramilitary groups involved in shooting protesters include the Popular Mobilisation Forces and Hashd al-Shaabi. These soldiers doing the killing ‘pre-date’ Islamic State’s creation of a so-called caliphate in June, 2014. These Shia militias turned paramilitary armies emerged in the vacuum of the military occupation established by the United States and the United Kingdom after they removed President Saddam Hussein from power in 2003.

Beneath the umbrella of the Popular Mobilisation Forces are factions such as Munathamat Badr (or Badr Brigades or Badr Organization), Saraya al-Salam (Peace Brigades, formerly Mahdi army), ‘Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (League of the Righteous) and Kata’ib Hizbullah (Hizbullah Brigades) who received their training from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and General Qassem Suleimani. According to Amnesty International’s 2017 report on Iraq, The arms and ammunition in the possession of PMU militias assessed by Armament Research Services (ARES) for Amnesty International included a mix of Soviet-era arms manufactured in Russia, Eastern Europe, Iraq and China, Iranian rifles, anti-materiel guns, mortars and light vehicles, and US small arms and armoured fighting vehicles.

According to some social media users posting and sharing live videos of the riots and protests in Baghdad, those also involved in cracking down on the protest include the Emergency Response Division (ERD), an Iraqi special forces unit accused of war crimes and human rights violations. The ERD worked in military partnership with the United States in the Iraqi Civil War despite being blacklisted for U.S military aid after evidence of torture and extra-judicial killings was uncovered by a photographer and Der Spiegel in May and June, 2017. Two months after the initial reports, which were denied by the ERD, the former prime minister, Haider Al-Abadi issued a statement following a government investigation admitting that “abuses” had been committed against civilians by the controversial combat group.

The ERD have already been used in response to protests in 2018. On Twitter, it was noted by David M. Witty, a retired U.S. Army Special Forces Colonel, that the Iraqi Prime Minister, Adil Abdul-Mahdi had already deployed 6 ERD battalions and several Counter Terrorism Service units to Basra in July and then September in response to protests in Baghdad and Basra last year. An ERD spokesman specifically said that ‘its units were deployed to Basra province to protect key infrastructure,’ and warned ‘that it would not ‘allow protests near key facilities.’ This includes government buildings, party offices and oil refineries and facilities. The oil industry is ‘the lifeblood of the government and an important input in the global supply chain, so any disruptions caused by the unrest would send ripples through the broader market.’ As the UK’s Department for International Development website reads, oil exports provide the majority of government revenue (97%). Without it they are crippled economically, hence why the most vicious counter-terrorist and security forces were transferred last year to Basra to quell protests and protect facilities which refine 90% of Iraq’s oil wealth.

The ERD before their redeployment, according to General Abbas Mahamad Hussein Al-Joubri speaking in an interview in August, 2018, were heavily involved in combat and counter-terrorist operations against Islamic State sleeper cells in Kirkuk, Saladin, Tuz Khormato and Diyala in northern Iraq. In this context, the thousands of casualties in the 2019 protests should come as little shock to the international community given that the Iraqi government is relying on the Interior Ministry’s counter-terrorist units, special forces and pro-Iranian paramilitaries who fought against Islamic State to maim and kill protesters. Similarly, the methods adopted and the responses of both the government and Popular Mobilisation Forces is similar to last year; shutting down the internet, killing protesters that threaten their power and using harsh, even lethal methods to disperse crowds.

As with the protests in 2018, many of the mass gatherings are located in Basra and the poorer Shia districts of Baghdad. Activists have been keen to stress that there is no sectarian dimension to the conflict, and to some extent this is true. Iraq’s national flags, rather than those of religious or ethnic groups, are predominant. The Popular Mobilisation Forces, composed predominantly of thirty to forty Shia militias and paramilitary forces, and the Shia-dominated government’s security forces’ - who were waging a counter-insurgency campaign against Islamic State soldiers (predominantly Sunni/Salafi extremists) - crackdown on poorer Shia communities points to intra-Shia tensions widening in Iraq and attaching to wider protests nationwide. Basra, Najaf and Sadr City are the powder kegs of this uprising and are Muqtada Al-Sadr’s traditional strongholds.

During the American occupation, Al-Sadr was labelled a “fire-brand cleric” by the Bush administration and major international media outlets. The most extreme elements within his militia, the Mahdi Army, were linked to atrocities carried out against Sunni civilians during the 2006 civil war in Baghdad. Al-Sadr’s family has a long history of invoking Shia resistance against repressive governments (Saddam Hussein had his father, Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, two of his brothers and cousin murdered) and interference by foreign powers, whether it be the United States or Iran. In 2018, Al-Sadr scored his most important political victory to date when his political coalition won the most seats in parliamentary elections, reflecting his push towards national populism. As supposed to sectarian narratives which drove a wedge between Sunni, Shia and Kurdish communities at the height of Iraq’s protracted conflict, Al-Sadr based his election campaign on non-sectarian slogans and national unity, and included both secularists and communists within his Shia religious base.

In these specific protests, Al-Sadr has distanced himself from the protests, however he has called for an investigation into the killings, the resignation of the government and suspended the parliamentary activities of his coalition until the government responds to the demands of the protesters. The government and parliament is paralysed.

The intra-Shia tensions on display today pre-date the Iraq War as the Sadr family have historically been a voice for poorer communities which exist in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities in the south-east of Iraq. These poorer communities have come into clashes with the party of three successive prime ministers, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, Nouri Al-Malaki and Haider Al-Abadi - the Islamic Dawa Party. In many cases, these confrontations have been violent.

The fortunes of the Dawa Party are in decline, and its deterioration is affecting the country. As Carnegie Middle East Centre notes: The current Prime Minister, Adel Abdel Mahdi, ‘formerly of the ISCI, was appointed to head the government. Today, Dawa is divided and has no unified vision about its purpose and objectives…its leaders are aging, and it is barely attracting a new generation of activists.’

These activists are turning to the Sadrists and the Popular Mobilisation Forces, powerful socio-political movements. ‘With the existence of groups representing new generations of Islamists, including the Sadrists and PMF factions, Dawa’s Islamism has become a fading legacy that is unable to mobilize a large number of followers and provide them with a strong sense of mission…Political mobilization has been shifting from ideology- and identity-centered issues to those emphasizing socioeconomic demands.’The forces once united against the overarching threat of Islamic State, and Baghdadi’s soldiers have fractured, demonstrating that from the start, the Shia movement in Iraq is anything but monolithic. ‘Shia Islamists have become more divided, and some have appeared more willing to resort to coercive measures in order to protect their power and networks of interests.’

The removal of Lt. Gen. Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi from his post as Counter-Terrorism Chief and demoted to an administrator in the Ministry of Defence was a microcosm of these coercive means to achieve political ends in Iraq’s current government. “The mounting apprehension of Saadi’s relationship with the United States—and likely pressure from Iran—resulted in the dismissal of Saadi from his position in the Counter-Terrorism Service,” writes Ahmed Tawij. “The move could indicate the effective dismantling of the Iraqi Army as the PMF seeks to increase its influence across the nation, possibly by putting forward a pro-Iranian general to replace Saadi.” The repressive measures adopted by different military and paramilitary groups to protect their fiefdoms are on display in Iraq at the moment with bullets and black-out being utilised to kill and silence protesters threatening the politically divided government and the Popular Mobilisation Forces led by Hadi al-Amiri.

It is unlikely Adel Abdul-Mahdi will resolve the crisis. As BBC journalist, Haider Al-Safi said in an interview with The Conflict Archives, Abdul-Mahdi has limited support in Parliament. “I’m not sure how long they will last. Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi has multiple ideologies,” Haider said. “He will be politically ousted or dismissed from the job. Abdul-Mahdi is a point on which the Americans and Iranians can meet, but he is not a key meeting point for many rivals on the country’s political scene.”

The deterioration of the intra-Shia rivalry into an open civil war and the failure of the Iraqi government to meet protesters’ demands could radicalise segments of the opposition, a scenario which occurred under Nouri Al-Malaki’s tenure as Prime Minister when he cracked down brutally on protesters in 2012 and 2013. The response then, as it could now, contributed to the return of Islamic State in Iraq.

With camps holding Islamic State affiliates and families on the brink of being left abandoned by the Syrian Democratic Forces after President Trump’s decision to withdraw American soldiers from Syria, and give the green light to the Turkish army to launch an assault against the Kurdish enclaves, the door could creak open for the return of the “caliphate” along the Syrian-Iraqi border, and in areas such Mosul which are under fragile military control. Arwa Damon, reporting for CNN from Al Hol camp, described it as an “open air prison” where Islamic State extremists and sympathisers are forming cells, intimidating those who refuse to submit to sharia law in the camp. Several women, including Shamima Begum - who grew up in Bethnal Green, London - have wanted to return home, but have been blocked by European governments who have been hesitant to allow the ‘jihadi brides’ to return.

In limbo, and largely abandoned by the international community, the genocidal ideology of Islamic State has been allowed to fester and the neglect has helped extremists use these conditions of the “open air prison” as a tool for recruitment and radicalisation within the camp and beyond its borders. The escape of an estimated 70,000 - 100,000 suspected Islamic State members and their families would be a nightmare for international policymakers, but more crucially Iraq which has barely recovered from the bloody insurgency and terrorist attacks of the paramilitary-terrorist organisation. Reconstruction in Mosul to this day remains haphazard, slow and blighted by corruption and inefficiency.

The Iraqi protests will have ramifications for the entire region both economically and politically. Both Iranian and U.S weapons are being used to kill protesters in Iraq, and Saudi Arabia ‘has begun to use social media platforms to perpetuate the violent protests in Iraq,’ with Riyadh ‘seeking to stoke these tensions…to topple what it perceives as a pro-Iranian Iraqi government.’ What happens in Iraq will affect the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and how both respond to the killings and the wider revolt will have consequences for the current tensions in the Gulf. Iraq slipping from a precarious peace into civil war, climatic emergency and economic turmoil would be a disaster for the Middle East and global economy and oil-dependent nations. How the international community - particularly the United States and Iran - and the bitterly divided Iraqi government responds to these protests and their demands will be crucial. Meeting the protesters’ needs and basic rights with blood, bullets and repression has only produced utter chaos and courts disaster.