Iraq suppresses internet, sends security forces to crush protesters

With a media blackout and the government trying to cut off internet and social media use, the chaos unfolding in Baghdad last night and over the last forty-eight hours has been largely obscured.

October 3, 2019 15:51
4 minute read.
Demonstrators gesture at a protest over unemployment, corruption and poor public services, in Baghda

Demonstrators gesture at a protest over unemployment, corruption and poor public services, in Baghdad, Iraq October 2, 2019. (photo credit: REUTERS/THAIER AL-SUDANI)

With a media blackout and the government trying to cut off internet and social media use, the chaos unfolding in Baghdad last night and over the last 48 hours has been largely obscured.

Iraqi security forces have responded with live-fire and armored vehicles to crush protests in Baghdad and throughout the south of the country, in an unusual display of force that has led to a spiral of violence and an unknown number of deaths.

What we know is from bits and pieces of information that indicate that protests, which began on October 1, have sought to interdict traffic on the way to the airport in Baghdad and also tried to enter the Green Zone, the area where the US Embassy and other sensitive and government buildings are.

The government in Iraq never allowed peaceful protests to grow in Tahrir Square on Tuesday, instead sending heavily armed soldiers and police to disburse them. When protesters also sought to cross Jumariyah Bridge towards the government and embassy sector of the city, they were met with brutality, including beatings, tear gas and eventually live fire in areas of the city. This led to the deaths of several the first afternoon and more yesterday.

Despite calls from the President’s office that peaceful protest should be allowed to proceed, it appears security forces had ordered to disperse them with force. This has only galvanized the protesters, and caused them to spread to other cities. In response the government of Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi, has sought to shut down social media. This is an odd way to respond in a country that has been trying to convince western supporters and regional governments that it is stable and sovereign. However it comes amid an increasing crackdown on dissent.

Recently Baghdad sidelined a popular commander named Abdul Wahab al-Saadi who had led the fight against ISIS. Refusing to provide transparent answers as to why the commander was removed angered citizens who view the elite Counter-Terrorism Service, where Al-Saadi commanded, as one of the few trustworthy and non-sectarian institutions in the country. Baghdad also suspended the channel Al-Hurra after it aired an investigation into religious corruption.

Iraq is in a complex position because in the last months, it has felt pressure due to US-Iran tensions. The Prime Minister has sought to balance some of the competing forces, including the increasingly powerful Hashd al-Shaabi or Popular Mobilization Units, a group of mostly Shi’ite militias, many of which are pro-Iranian.

Yet Baghdad wants support from the US also and the Prime Minister recently went to Saudi Arabia to discuss tensions. There have been accusations that missiles and drones were launched from Iraq against Saudi Arabia. In addition, the Prime Minister recently blamed Israel for airstrikes in Iraq against the PMU. As if that wasn’t enough on Baghdad’s plate, a new border crossing with Syria was opened on September 30. However, there are concerns it could be used by pro-Iranian groups to traffic weapons.

The protests come in the context of anger over corruption and failed public services. Although some elites live well in central and southern Iraq, there is a feeling that two years after the war on ISIS ended, the austerity measures have not ended and Iraq is underdeveloped compared to its oil wealth. This anger was directed at Iran last summer in protests in Basra. In contrast, this time Baghdad has taken no chances seeking to crush the protests as quickly as possible, raising questions about Iraqi democracy.

On the night of October 2, reports indicated explosions near or in the Green Zone. With internet suppressed and most media having relocated or not broadcasting from Baghdad, there were concerns about what might be happening. Wild rumors said protesters sought to enter the Green Zone or get to the airport. Col. Myles Caggins, spokesman of the anti-ISIS Coalition, Operation Inherent Resolve, said that the coalition called on all sides to reduce tensions and noted that peaceful public rallies are a fundamental element of a democracy. However it noted that there were explosions in the morning of October 3 and that “coalition troops reserve the right to defend ourselves.”

This means the US appears concerned over potential attacks on its forces, amid the instability. This comes after a mortar landed near the embassy last month and after other rocket and mortar fire near US forces over the last months amid Iran tensions. Some parties in Iraq have called for the Americans to leave. Last year, rockets were fired at the US Consulate in Basra and it was closed.

Anti-American forces could take advantage of the unrest, this is a main concern. But an added concern is over the overwhelming anger among young people at perceived failures of the government. Abdul Mahdi now becomes the third prime minister to appear unable to provide necessities to the people. Instead, security forces have responded with bullets when people demand an end to corruption and demand basic answers from their government.

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