Iraqi protesters vowed to resume anti-government demonstrations on October 25, a few days after Shia worshippers complete the annual Arbaeen pilgrimage to Karbala.
Mass demonstrations calling for an end to corruption, chronic unemployment and an improvement of basic services and the standard of living began October 1. At least 110 people — mainly protesters but including security forces — have been killed and some 6,000 demonstrators were reportedly injured in the protests.
The demonstrations wound down after government officials called on activists to suspend protests ahead of Arbaeen, which began October 19. Millions of people participate in the pilgrimage each year.
The government said it would meet demands of protesters through reforms, including more subsidies, social housing and employment programmes for young people.
Activists said the promises were not enough and called on Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi to step down. They added that the government has yet to punish members of the security forces responsible for most of the deaths.
Iraqi authorities admitted that security personnel used excessive force and said they would open an investigation. The country’s regular security forces, however, were not the only ones implicated.
Iraqi security officials, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said Iran-backed militias — acting on orders from their leaders and not from the government — deployed snipers on Baghdad rooftops during the protests.
The snipers used radio communications equipment given to them by Iran, the Reuters report added. Ahmed al-Assadi, spokesman of the militia umbrella group, denied the allegations.
Even before the authorities concluded the investigation, activists said they were still being harassed.
“Anyone voicing dissent in Iraq today faces interrogation at the point of a gun, death threats and enforced disappearance,” said Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s Middle East research director. “Enforced disappearance is a crime under international law which, by placing victims outside the protection of the law, exposes individuals to other serious violations such as torture and extrajudicial execution.”
Shujaa al-Khafaji, a prominent Iraqi blogger, was reportedly kidnapped from his home October 17 and released the next day. The blogger was taken from his home by “around 15 men wearing masks and black uniforms,” his father, Fares al-Khafaji, told Agence France-Presse.
In their bid to stop communication between activists or to prevent them from sharing bloody images of protests online, authorities cut internet services, which cost the country’s economy nearly $1 billion.
Internet services have resumed, albeit slowly in an apparent bid to prevent the uploading of protest videos. Authorities also sought to block social media platforms, a move that had little effect once users turned to virtual private network applications to bypass censorship measures.
Influential cleric Muqtada al-Sadr called on his supporters to use the Arbaeen pilgrimage to chant anti-corruption slogans, among others.
“Chant on Arbaeen: ‘No to America! No to Israel! No to the corrupt!’ Conclude with (the chant): ‘Baghdad is free, free. Oh corrupt one get out,” he said on Twitter.
“It is very likely that we will use Arbaeen to mobilise for future protests,” protester Ali al-Sumari told Al-Monitor.
Observers said renewed protests in Iraq may unseat the government.
“The protesters want economic and political reforms that ensure social justice, economic opportunities, prosecution of corrupt officials and genuine representation. Abdul-Mahdi’s government is offering superficial remedies that are not achievable,” Rend al-Rahim, former ambassador of Iraq to the United States, wrote for the Atlantic Council.
“In the coming two weeks, if the government is not perceived as responding effectively to the demonstrators’ demands and holding accountable those who killed protesters, it is likely that [Grand Ayatollah Ali] al-Sistani will further harden his position in favour of the protesters and that the demonstrations will intensify, perhaps leading to greater violence,” wrote Rahim.
“If this occurs, the viability of Abdul-Mahdi’s government will be at risk and with it perhaps the entire political order, leading the country into unpredictable instability, which will be exacerbated by the threat of an emboldened [Islamic State militants].”