Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Iraq's Protests Persist

Sixteen years on from the fall of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, Iraqis are once again facing state crackdown on dissent. The brutal suppression of protests since the beginning of October has seen Iraqi state security forces and unidentified gunmen kill more than 325 people and wound at least 15,000. The worst repression in over a decade, it is the clearest sign yet that the Baghdad government is veering away from its democratic promises. The government is using tactics common to authoritarian regimes around the world. From shooting demonstrators dead to policing Facebook for government criticism and blanket shutdowns of internet access, the repressive approach has elicited unflattering comparisons with Iraq’s former dictator.

The state’s repression goes beyond the pitched battles between security forces and demonstrators hurling rocks which have at times left the squares of Baghdad and southern cities resembling war zones. Activists have gone missing, protesters say they have been arrested and then coerced to sign documents renouncing their participation in demonstrations, while others have been jailed after posting support for the protests on social media. Social media access was restricted for 50 days, during which internet access was cut altogether for almost two weeks, according Alp Toker the founder of NetBlocks, an internet freedom monitor. At one point a nightly internet curfew was introduced, while intermittent targeted restrictions are an almost daily occurrence.

“The coercive power of the state has been deployed to suppress valid political expression,” said Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at Chatham House. “This bodes very poorly for Iraq’s democracy going forward.”

“We are in a so-called democratic country, so why did they take down Saddam if that’s what we will get now?” said Baan Hashem, a civil servant at the education ministry. 

The protests have been concentrated in mostly Shia Muslim areas of the capital and southern Iraq, and the majority of the protesters are unemployed young men. Aggrieved with the political class for squandering Iraq’s oil riches.

Ms Hashem said she was tired of politicians “who employ Iraq’s money for their own needs or to implement a foreign agenda to destroy this country”

Iraqis were especially dismayed this month by reports that Qassem Soleimani, head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s elite overseas unit, has steered backroom deals in Baghdad to prop up the government and repress protests.

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