Weeks-long anti-government protests intensified yesterday as demonstrators shut down major streets in Iraq’s capital while calling for an overhaul of the political system amid growing anger over poor governance and lack of economic opportunity.
In a move that appeared to follow a tactic adopted by protesters in Lebanon, where similar demonstrations have been under way since Oct. 17, demonstrators in Baghdad on Sunday blocked key roads, highways and intersections. The escalation is part of a civil disobedience campaign waged by protesters to pile pressure on the Iraqi government to deliver a number of key demands.
"The civil disobedience is a response to the failure of the government and parliament to achieve our demands," Jasim al-Edani, a protester, told Anadolu Agency (AA).
Tens of thousands of protesters have gathered in Baghdad's central Tahrir Square and across southern Iraq in recent days, calling for the overhaul of the political system established after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Protesters have also taken over a large tower in the square that was abandoned after it was damaged in the war. Thousands of students have skipped classes to take part in the protests, blaming the political elite for widespread corruption, high unemployment and poor public services.
In Basra, the oil-rich port city, public schools were shut down for the first time since the movement erupted last month. Protesters also continued to cut-off the highway leading to the Umm Qasr port, one of the main conduits for food, medicine and other imports into Iraq.
Last week, President Barham Salih said Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi is willing to resign once political leaders agree on a replacement. He also called for a new election law and said he would approve early elections once it was enacted, but that this process could take weeks or even months. The protests have only grown since his announcement.
Security forces have fired tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition at the protesters, killing more than 250 in two waves of demonstrations since early October. Since the protests restarted on Oct. 25 after a brief hiatus, there have been near-continuous clashes on two bridges leading to the heavily-fortified Green Zone, the headquarters of the government and home to several foreign embassies.
The protests are the largest since the Iraqi government was formed in 2018, barely a year ago. Iraq, which is deeply divided in terms of sectarianism, has been ruled and dominated by Iran-backed Shiite governments. Sunni activities and demonstrations have largely been silenced on grounds of terrorism. Yet this time, Shiites have joined those on the streets, increasing the government's frustration.
Iraq is governed by a sectarian political system that distributes power and high offices among the country's Shiite majority, as well as Sunnis and Kurds. It holds regular elections, but these are dominated by sectarian religious parties, many of which have close ties to Iran. Political parties vie for control of ministries and subsequently hand out jobs to their supporters, contributing to a bloated public sector that is unable to provide reliable public services.
More than 15 years after the U.S.-led invasion that overthrew Saddam Hussein, Baghdad and other cities still see frequent power cuts, the tap water is undrinkable and public infrastructure is crumbling. Few Iraqis have seen any benefit from the country's oil wealth, despite the country constituting the OPEC member with the fourth-largest proven oil reserves in the world.