Iraq: 400 killed, 15,000 injured, one Prime Minister out

Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has lost control of Iraq, a country that continues to look ungovernable after years of instability and war.

An Iraqi demonstrator carries the Iraqi flag during ongoing anti-government protests, in Baghdad, Iraq (photo credit: REUTERS/KHALID AL MOUSILY)
An Iraqi demonstrator carries the Iraqi flag during ongoing anti-government protests, in Baghdad, Iraq
Iraq’s Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has exited the stage just a year after taking office. The reason? His government has been widely accused of mass human rights violations, gunning down hundreds of protesters and enabling local militias to act with impunity. The reality? He has lost control of Iraq, a country that continues to look ungovernable after years of instability and war.
According to local estimates, more than 400 have been killed and between 15,000 and 19,000 injured since protests swept Baghdad and southern Iraq on October 1. Last week, a massacre of dozens in Nasiriyah led to deepening divisions between government officials and local protesters. The killings, blamed on a local commander sent to command a “crisis cell” in the city, were opposed by tribes and religious leaders. The largest party, run by Muqtada al-Sadr, called on Abdul Mahdi to resign.
Lt. Gen. Jamil al-Shammari, the commander of forces in Dhi Qar province south of Baghdad, has been blamed for the shooting of protesters in Nasiriyah. The shootings were blamed on Rapid Reaction Forces, sometimes called ERD, and also blamed on members of local SWAT and Badr militia members. They may have had unclear orders or been taken by surprise by the extent of protests. The confusion over who is to blame is part of the problem in Iraq.
Since protests began in October there have been many investigations trying to figure out who is killing protesters, including by large media organizations like Reuters and AP, and by human rights groups like Amnesty International. Probably the best answers are a blend of local militias, many of them linked to pro-Iranian groups.
The militias are called the Popular Mobilization Units and they are now an official paramilitary force. This shadowy network is all supposedly linked to Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Qasem Soleimani, who was rumored to have flown to Baghdad in early October to advise Abdul Mahdi on how to crush the protests. Militias linked to Badr and Asaib Ahl al-Haq have been targeted by protesters. In response, snipers from both, as well as another militia called Saraya Khorasani, shot protesters.
But there is another layer of mystery. Especially lethal tear gas grenades imported from Iran have been used to kill protesters. Who is firing them? A mix of police and others. Which police? The people don’t know who exactly.
Iraq is not a top-down government. Its numerous layers of security forces have different commanders and loyalties. The Federal Police are part of the Interior Ministry. So is the ERD. Both are close to Badr which is run by Hadi al-Amiri, the leader of the Fatah Alliance Party in parliament.
There are also Counter-Terror elite forces, known as CTS or ISOF. These are trained by western governments and helped defeat ISIS. They have not been involved in suppressing protests. Neither has the army. Neither, in many cases, have local police.
Every leader in Iraq wants to blame someone else. Officially, the prime minister and president appeared to accept the right of peaceful protest. But, at the same time since early October, the government moved to expel and suppress critical media and to shut down the internet.
THE PROTESTERS, however, have shown staying power. In late October and November they targeted Iranian consulates in Karbala and Najaf. The protesters oppose Iran’s presence and overbearing role in Iraq. Coincidentally, 700 pages of documents were leaked during the protests from an Iranian intelligence agency showing Iran’s role in Iraq. In mid-November protests also broke out in Iran.
The instability in Iraq fueled the protesters’ feelings that they could pressure Iran. In late November, protesters burned the consulate in Najaf. This led to fears that Ayatollah Ali Sistani, a key religious figure, might be threatened. Militias, including units loyal to Sistani and others, sought to defend him. As did protesters.
When it comes to power in Iraq, power is not in the hands of any one group. The army doesn’t have a monopoly on power. Neither do the militias, the religious leaders, the tribes, or the prime minister. In addition, the protests have not affected the predominately Sunni-Arab areas in Mosul and central Iraq or Anbar province. Neither have they affected the Kurdistan region.
In fact, the autonomous Kurdistan region had been negotiating with Abdul Mahdi over budget-sharing and oil deals. This was important for Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish region. But, Abdul Mahdi has shown that he is relatively weak. The Kurdistan region fears a powerful central government that would harm their autonomous rights.
Now Abdul Mahdi, who was encouraged to resign, will leave. Who will choose a new leader for Iraq? Sadr says the people should. Rumors claim the Iranians and Soleimani want influence and that Nouri al-Maliki – reviled as a Shi’ite sectarian strongman – might be seeking the office.
This is the second time Abdul Mahdi appeared ready to leave office. He has only been prime minister for a year. Iraq already had trouble forming a government last summer and autumn. Now, it will sink into instability again. Protesters have taken over a swath of Baghdad and other cities. They have showed their ability to block ports and roads.
These protesters were mostly born between 1998 and 2002. They are the young generation. They were young teens when ISIS threatened Baghdad in 2014 and now they are adults. Their parents or older brothers served in the PMU, helped defeat ISIS and wanted jobs and a peace dividend. The banners of Ali and Hussein, the Shi’ite imams that helped rouse people to victory over ISIS, do not seem to appeal to them.
Iraqis of an older generation remember only war. They served in the army as conscripts under Saddam, they fought Iran, the Americans and suffered under sanctions. They saw Saddam toppled and the sectarian mass murder of the insurgency, surge and counter-insurgency. They have seen Al Qaeda and ISIS come and go. For them, it has been almost forty years of war. They are tired, but the young men and women at the barricades are hungry. And hunger has pushed Abdul Mahdi and the country to the brink. For almost 20,000 young people the wounds will never heal. For millions of others the questions about what comes next remain.