Iraqi protests: aimed at changing the current regime?

Iraqi protesters recently denounced the Islamisation of Iraqi society, demanded better working conditions, and protested the torture of prisoners. But ‘regime change’ has a different meaning in Iraq, and unlike Egypt and Tunisia, these protesters are asking for more support from the current government.
Shatha Al Juburi
24 February 2011

Protest movements sweeping the Arab world have reached Iraq. In February, hundreds of Iraqis gathered in several spontaneous demonstrations across Iraq, in the cities of Baghdad, Diwaniya, Basra, Kut, Ramadi, Amara, and other cities. Most of the demonstrations took to the street to protest government corruption and lack of public services. These demonstrations came a day after Iraq's anti-corruption chief said ministers frequently covered up corruption in their departments.

The demonstration in Baghdad’s al-Mutanabi Street, which carried banners with slogans like ‘Baghdad will not be another Kandahar’, denounced the Islamisation of Iraqi society by provincial councils which are controlled by Islamist Shiite parties. Last month, Iraqi security forces raided the premises of the ‘Writer’s Union’ under the pretext that beverages had been sold by its social club.  In another demonstration, a group of employees from the Ministry of Industry denounced the 20% cuts to their pay.  In the northern city of Kirkuk, a multi-ethnic city, employees of the state’s North Oil Company protested their deteriorating working conditions and low salaries.

Fifty inmates at a prison in the city of Amara in southern Iraq have begun a hunger strike demanding that the government announce a general amnesty. They claimed they had made confessions under torture. In the capital around 500 people, mostly lawyers, called for the government to put so-called ‘secret prisons’ under scrutiny and give detainees access to legal counsel. Recently, both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have said that Iraqi security forces operate secret prisons where torture is routine. In April 2010 and January 2011, the Los Angeles Times revealed abuse by Iraqi security forces at prisons under the direct control of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.  It reported on a secret prison run by the Baghdad Brigade at the Muthanna Airport in Baghdad, which allegedly held hundreds of Sunnis from Ninewa. Some of the prisoners were apparently tortured, raped, and abused in numerous ways.

Last weekend, a protest in the southern city of al-Hamza al-Sharqi gathered near a police station to protest shortages of power, food and jobs and corruption. Security officials opened fire on the demonstrators, killing one and wounding four others. Electricity shortages have been the major cause of discontent and protests in Iraq since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. In June last year, thousands of demonstrators took to the street in Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, to protest persistent shortages of electricity. The protesters clashed with the police, one person was killed when the police opened fire on the demonstrators, who were throwing rocks at the provincial headquarters in Basra.

In a bid to sooth the growing protests over electricity shortages, on Saturday, February 12, the electricity ministry said that it would now subsidise electrical power usage. Hussein al-Shahristani, Power Deputy Prime Minister and Acting Electricity Minister, promised that Iraqis would receive their first1000KWH-hours of electricity for free each month and consumers who use more than 1,000 KWH will pay for what they use over the exempted amount. But al-Sharistani said that the production capacities will stay below required level needed for next summer.  

In response to these protests, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki announced on February 5 that he would not run for a third term, and that he supported a constitutional limit of two terms to the prime minister, a position which currently has no limit in Iraq. Maliki announced earlier that he was reducing his salary by 50% and that every Iraqi citizen would be provided with 15,000 Dinars (about 12 USD) monthly to make up in the current decrease in food rations.

More demonstrations and disturbances are predicted in other parts of Iraq with the news of the demonstrations widely covered in most of the Arab media, especially because several Imams in Iraq used their influential Friday sermons to denounce government corruption and the growing anger over the Iraqi government’s inability to provide the basic necessities of life and unemployment. Nonetheless, many observers have noted that the Iraqi demonstrations, unlike the ones in Egypt and Tunisia, might not lead to, and in general are not aimed at, ousting the current Iraqi regime, for several reasons. As mentioned earlier, the major demand of the Iraqi protesters is the provision of basic services. In addition, Iraq has a democratically elected government, though its last elections are said to have been rigged on at least a low scale. In addition, Iraq obviously has a mixed ethnic-sectarian population which is represented by parties participating in the political process.  While the waves of protest sweeping the Arab world are obviously inspiring Iraqis to re-ignite their calls for change and progress, after so many years of bloodshed, the message in Iraq seems to be: we need to work with the system we have, and make it truly workable.  

Nonetheless, it is anticipated that the demonstrations to be held on February 25 will be joined by thousands of Iraqis from all the major cities of Iraq.  If these demonstrations are confronted by violence from Iraqi security forces accused of infiltration by criminals and militias, more demonstrations will definitely follow. Should this occur, slogans may well be raised that call for ousting the current Iraqi regime.    

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