Iraqi reinforcements look at flames in the doorway to a shrine dedicated to the late Iraqi Shi’ite Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim in the southern Iraqi city of Najaf on December 1. (Haidar Hamdani/AFP via Getty Images)

Iraqi Protests Go On after Prime Minister Steps Down

Adel Abdul-Mahdi’s official resignation follows months of unrest against entire political system

The Iraqi parliament approved on Sunday the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi following two months of mass protests during which some 400 people have been killed and thousands more injured.

Iraqis are now asking whether Abdul-Mahdi leaving his post, something that had been expected, will ameliorate the crisis and reduce bloodshed, or make things worse.

The protests that began on October 1 are aimed not only against widespread government corruption and incompetence, but also against excessive foreign influence, particularly on the part of Iran.

Many Iraqis fear the violence will continue to escalate. They accuse the government of playing for time, alternating between suppressing the protests and promising reforms, having exhausted other options to contain the anger of the Iraqi street. That anger has only grown because of the excessive force employed by the country’s security services.

Hashim al-Hashimi, a security analyst and member of the Iraq Advisory Council, a not-for-profit institution made up of high-level experts aiming to “provide assistance to Iraqi decision-makers in order to enhance the rule of law, strengthen the pillars of democracy and support the pursuit of social justice,” told The Media Line that the resignation of Abdul-Mahdi improved the chances for progress.

However, he said, the prospects for a political solution remained confused and dependent on regional and international factors such as the Iran-US and Iran-Saudi relationships, the war in Syria, the position of the Turkish government and the desire of the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella organization for some 40 mostly Shi’ite militias in Iraq.

Moreover, the developing security situation in northern and western Iraq, and possible early elections, also need to be taken into account, Hashimi said.

“Faced with all these complex, conflicting pressures and issues, and with the need to assuage the protesters so they will go home, it seems that the Iraqi political system has no choice but to respond [to their demands] and calm down,” he said.

Hashimi added that drawn-out negotiations over the selection of a prime minister, like those that took place before Abdul-Mahdi took office in October 2018, were a possibility, but they had to be based on understandings upon which the previous governments were formed “to facilitate dialogue between the axis of Iran and the axis of the United States, taking into consideration the veto [power of senior Shi’ite clerical authorities] in Najaf, and the desire for a government that will modify its position on outrageous [sectarian] quotas [for government and parliamentary positions] and take a technocratic political approach.”

Hashimi added that what was needed was “a government that can provide stability, security, a good economy and a cohesive federal authority.”

Alternatively, he suggested that the demonstrations might continue until early elections are called because of the distrust in the Iraqi leadership and the current political system, and because the political parties had yet to clearly indicate their intention to radically change the behavior of the regime and respond to the demands of the demonstrators through a proper political settlement.

Hashimi said another possibility was for Iraq to enter into a state of clear violation of the constitution. This would create an institutional vacuum in all areas of government, and likely an escalation of the crisis, he said.

“The House of Representatives must not be dissolved because of the urgent need to pass an election law and vote on the Commission [of Integrity, tasked with preventing and investigating corruption at all levels of the Iraqi government], as well as to provide confidence in the next government. Without the parliament, no new government will be formed.”

He said there was still hope for a serious and honest response to the demands of the protesters, where the leaders of the leading blocs would sit at the negotiating table with the demonstrators and then form a government that satisfies everyone.

“This possibility depends on the seriousness of the political blocs in moving away from the sectarian quotas, confessing their mistakes, apologizing to the demonstrators and stripping their loyalty to the homeland, and on their ability to impose authority and neutralize corruption,” Hashmi continued.

“Especially since national democratic demonstrations are supported by broad popular groups demanding decisive political reform, they will not again accept giving up on reform, which means weakening parties associated with external agendas.”

Ayman Abd al-Majed, an Egyptian writer and head of political coverage at the Rose al-Yusuf newsweekly in Cairo, told The Media Line that the situation in Iraq was getting worse because those holding power were subject to Iranian influence.

“In addition, the Iraqi constitution, which promotes sectarianism and legitimizes it, has created obstacles and complications for the democratic process,” he said.

Abd al-Majed added that the real crisis now was two conflicting forces on the Iraqi street: one calling for an independent country, and one loyal to Iran.

“In terms of the victims, there were attempts by Iran’s militias to instill fear and terrorize the people and end their uprising, so it [Iran] can control [the country],” he said.

Oraib Rintawi, a Jordanian analyst and writer, told The Media Line he viewed the prime minister’s resignation as an Iranian tactic designed to ease the pressure from the protests. Tehran was motivated to act because of its own internal crisis caused by protests in Iran against the steep hike in the price of gasoline, he said.

“The Iranian proxies [in Iraq] are trying to calm things down until the Iranian internal crisis is solved, so they can later crack down after new faces are put in power [in Baghdad] to ensure continued [Iranian] control,” Rintawi said.

He said the situation was complicated by the fact that since 2005, Iraq had become an arena for regional and international players, as well as other powers and militias, to compete.

“Iran controls massive sectors in Iraq, in addition to the presence of the Turkish and American forces,” he explained. “Moreover, there are the Gulf states as well as Saudi Arabia, which play the Sunni card in Iraq regarding their confrontation with Iran.”

Rintawi stressed that after more than 400 people had been killed and thousands injured in the protests, it was no longer possible to return to the status quo or know how the situation would play itself out.

However, he pointed out that Tehran regarded the Iraqi revolution as a conspiracy against it, and was confronting it through its proxies with excessive violence, as Iran felt its regional influence was being threatened.

“Worthy of note is the Shi’ite participation in the demonstrations not only in Iraq, but also in Lebanon,” he stated. “Iran views this as a threat to its influence, which it has invested billions in building in order to ensure it retains control.”

On Saturday evening, military reinforcements arrived in Najaf from Baghdad.

The governor of Najaf province, Louay al-Yasiri, urged the central government to intervene immediately to end the violence there and investigate recent events, as many people had been killed or wounded by militias trying to disperse the demonstrators, and unidentified people had burned the provincial power station.

On Sunday, Yasiri declared an official holiday in the Shi’ite holy city of Najaf, to mourn the slain “martyrs” among the demonstrators, while at the same time declaring that “Najaf has been safe and stable for the past 35 days.”

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