By Phil Marfleet
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The fight for Iraq’s future

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Issue 2614
Protests in the Shula neighbourhood, northwest of Baghdad
Protests in the Shula neighbourhood, northwest of Baghdad

Thousands of people have taken to the streets in Iraqi cities and stormed government offices, demanding funding for basic services such as electricity and water.

Electricity shortages are a major problem that make everyday life almost unbearable for Iraqis—especially at the height of summer.

Southern Iraq is one of the hottest places on the planet.

At this time of year the temperature in Basra is over 50 degrees centigrade.

But there are only limited supplies of electricity and constant power cuts, so people can’t run air conditioning or even fridges.

People are at breaking point.

But they also know this crisis can be traced right back to the invasion—and their demands are very political.

Some 15 years after the invasion, Iraqis are still paying a very heavy price.

The occupation completely laid waste to the Iraqi economy and also installed a corrupt and sectarian political system.

Of course, there was corruption under Saddam Hussein but it took on an intensified form after the invasion.

The new system produced a huge surge in corrupt practices. That benefited US corporations.

It also served certain Iraqi business people and politicians that the US struck deals with.

The US embedded a sectarian political system that Iraq had never seen before.

After 2004 every single election was based on sectarian parties because that’s the system the Americans designed for Iraq after they destroyed the state of Hussein.

The US favoured certain ethnic and sectarian groups—in particular the Shia elite.


But in fact all the political parties and networks that the US encouraged to grow—Sunni, Shia, Kurds, whatever—have all benefitted from the corrupt system.

So they have a common interest in maintaining this and denying the mass of Iraqis access to the country’s resources.

What’s significant about the current protests—which are on a big scale—is that the two things they’re targeting are corruption and sectarian political practices.

In particular in the city of Basra people are carrying placards and chanting slogans that point out that Basra produces vast amounts of oil revenue.

But they don’t see any of it in terms of wages and access to key things such as power and fuel.

There’s fury. Some 95 percent of the Iraqi state’s revenue comes from oil.

People see the government drawing on this massive oil revenue—which is what keeps the government going and sustains the system of sectarian privilege.

Yet in the areas where the oil fields are located people are struggling to survive.

Ordinary Iraqis are responding very clearly to this. They’re against corruption. They want to see the country’s resources distributed in a way that meets people’s needs. And they want to get rid of the sectarian system.

They’re saying, where’s the money? It’s in the hands of crooked politicians. The whole system’s rotten.

Protests over these issues have in fact been going on since 2011—the year of the Arab Spring. They’ve become more widespread every year. In 2015 and 2016 demonstrators occupied the Green zone in the centre of capital city Baghdad, protesting about the same things they’re protesting about today.

This is a fortified core to the city set up by the US after the invasion.

This was where the occupation was administered from, protected by blast barriers and armoured vehicles. It later became the centre of Iraqi government.

These protests were very shocking to the regime. The story put about by the US after its troops were pulled out was that the Iraqi crisis is over—that they’d installed a new democratic system and prosperity was coming.

But in 2015-16 a very hard government was challenged by a mass of demonstrators. The slogans were very specific—no to corruption, and for a civil state.

The demonstrations were repressed, partly on the basis of the government saying Iraqis have to unify against Isis.

This was the period when Isis was taking over parts of western and northern Iraq and had taken over the city of Mosul.

The line of the government was that the protests are in defiance of the call for Iraqi national solidarity against Isis.

Isis is gone now and the Iraqi government trumpets its success, but now it can’t use the excuse of Isis any more.

With the calls for unity now defunct, Iraqis feel more confident about going back to the basic issues.

Over the last few years networks of activism have come into existence. These will be critical in stimulating and spreading the protests.

They’ve run out of patience and the demonstrations are back on a much bigger scale.

These demonstrations involve all sorts of people. But they’re basically working class mobilisations—and a really significant number of people involved are young people.

A couple of years ago a reliable research group, the International Crisis Group (ICG), produced a very well researched report on what they called “generation 2000”.

By that they meant Iraqis who had grown up in their teenage years after the invasion and were faced with the consequences of the occupation.

With an economic crisis on one hand and a sectarian political system which was breeding ethnic cleansing by rival militias, where do young people stand?

They were faced with just two options, as the ICG put it—fight or flight.

It was very difficult to get a decent job, or sometimes even any job.

Young men were constantly induced to join sectarian militias according to where they lived or on the basis of ethno-linguistic identity.

The other option was to leave, and since the invasion there has been a constant stream of people leaving Iraq. Up until the Syrian counter-revolution and civil war, Iraq was providing the largest number or refugees of any country in the world.

Young people in particular left the country. They would go to the big cities in the Arab world initially—Beirut, Damascus, Cairo or maybe to Turkey.


Then they would make their way through international migration networks, and lots arrived in Europe.

There was virtually no future for them. But what’s happened now is that, instead of fight militarily or flight, there’s another option of collective struggle and collective protest.

That’s why lots of the demonstrators are young people. And they are associated politically with two organisations.

One is the political network associated with the cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr. He comes from a famous Shia family and led a militia which at various points fought the US after the invasion.

But some years ago he transformed himself into a type of populist.

He is trying to position himself in this movement which is so angry about corruption and sectarianism by becoming a radical-sounding leader.

So he supported the demonstrations of 2015-2016, and he also opposed Shia leaders who are linked to Iran.

The other political element is the Communist Party.

The Iraqi Communist Party has revitalised itself in recent years and is attracting quite a lot of support from young people.

In parliamentary elections in May, Sadr’s organisation and the Communist Party joined together in a “Sairoon Alliance.”

The election had quite a low turnout which reflected a general scepticism about the whole political system.

But it nonetheless produced success for the radical protest alliance.

It won the largest number of seats—to the horror of both the US and Iran which each had their own preferred political parties.

The sort of people who voted for the Sairoon Alliance are key activists in the streets today.

Many of these demonstrations are in a sense spontaneous—triggered by the electricity crisis which has pushed people over the edge at the height of summer.

But over the last few years networks of activism have also come into existence. These will be critical in stimulating and spreading the protests.

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