Iraq’s Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi appears to be exiting 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, The Jerusalem Post reported
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 “crises 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, including by large media organizations like Reuters and AP, and human rights groups like Amnesty International, trying to figure out who is killing protesters. 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 an official paramilitary force now. 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 that 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. This is because 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 appear 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 shut down the internet. However the protesters 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 during the protests 700 pages of documents were leaked from an Iranian intelligence agency showing Iran’s role in Iraq. In mid-November protesters 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 fear that Ayatollah Ali Sistani, a key religious figure, might be threatened.
Militias, including units loyal to Sistani, and others sought to defend him. Protesters also did. What this showed is that when it comes to power in Iraq, the 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 mostly Sunni Arab areas in Mosul and central Iraq or Anbar province. Neither have they affected the Kurdistan region.