Repression and resilience in Iraq
Repression and resilience in Iraq
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It’s been one month since the US assassinated Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani in Iraq, and, as the immediate danger of all-out war seems to have subsided, interest in the issue has waned. But the US-Iran rivalry has not abated, and the repercussions of the US’s strike continue to be felt on the ground by the revolutionary movement in Iraq.

Despite a week of sabre rattling and back-and-forth missile strikes, followed by President Trump and Iran publicly stating they had no desire to escalate further, the tensions between the US and Iran remain unresolved. The likelihood of more military strikes, proxy struggles over Iraq, and another escalation in the near future is still high. 

Trump has implemented more economic war on Iran in the form of sanctions. Already since Trump reinstated sanctions in 2018 the Iranian economy has fallen into a deep recession, oil exports have plummeted, and massive inflation has meant that the people affected most are the poor and working people of Iran who pay the human cost for Trump’s callousness. Human rights organisations report that the sanctions will create extensive hardships particularly for Iranians who require specialised medications and healthcare.

The economic impact of the sanctions, exacerbated by the Iranian regime’s own austerity measures and disproportionate military spending on regional interventions, have pushed the Iranian people to revolt in mass numbers as recently as November 2019--only to be met by a brutal military crackdown, with security forces killing hundreds and arresting thousands. Iran’s regime thus attempted to take advantage of the aftermath of Soleimani’s assassination to drum up anti-US nationalism in order to distract from and excuse its own repression and unrest at home. The dramatic nationalistic processions remembering Soleimani exemplify this, although the shooting-down of a Ukrainian passenger jet at the beginning of January quickly rekindled mass anger directed towards the regime. Chants of “down with Khamenei” filled the streets, with protestors defacing portraits of Soleimani. This cycle of performative state nationalism followed by more repression and stifled revolt is certain to be repeated--and any US intervention will only worsen its effects on the Iranian people.

The drums of war also proved to be a stark threat to the movement on the ground in Iraq. The US assassination of Soleimani, while threatening to re-start imperialist war in Iraq, has managed to overshadow Iraq’s nascent popular revolution and has provided cover for counterrevolutionary forces to emerge emboldened.

While Iraqis have risen up almost every year since 2011, Iraq’s current uprising that began in 2019 represents an advance in both scale and political maturity, quickly becoming a revolution with clear demands and an anti-sectarian, anti-imperialist character.

For over four months now, tens of thousands of Iraqi revolutionaries, led by young and largely unemployed sectors of predominantly Shi’a cities, have fearlessly faced off against the militias that make up part of the Iraqi state – a product of the US invasion and post-war Iranian intervention – that have killed more than 600 protestors and injured at least 15,000 in their attempts to repress the uprising.

Among the movement’s demands is an end to the sectarian political system that designates political positions based on confessional sectarian lines, implemented by the US as part of a divide and conquer strategy following the 2003 invasion. The revolution has symbolised the first serious hope for Iraqis in decades, showing that another Iraq is possible. But the US attack on Soleimani has given the Iranian regime and the Iranian-backed government and militias in Iraq the opportunity to not only shift the focus away from the revolution, but to manoeuvre to crush it.

The motivation behind the US attack is clear: frustration with Iran’s growing role and influence in the Middle East and a desire to defend and maintain US power in the strategically important, oil rich region. Of course, Trump also hoped a military stunt and an applause line at the State of the Union address would give him a boost in an election season.

Iraq’s government, on the other hand, has for the last four months been mired in a popular uprising demanding its resignation. The government and its militias – both of which are Iranian-backed, and entrenched in the sectarian and militarised political system that emerged after 2003 – have used the killing of Soleimani as a pretext to re-orient the protestors to exclusively anti-US demands in an attempt to quell the ongoing uprising. Nevertheless, the movement continues to demand the US and Iran’s ouster from Iraq, immediate democratic elections and an entirely new government.

The US assassination of Soleimani did not do the Iraqi revolution any favours. In fact, the US intervention served to strip agency from the Iraqi people just as they were making advances in their fight for self-determination. During popular uprisings, foreign intervention – no matter the claims about assisting people on the ground –undermines revolutionary momentum and shifts power away from those struggling for their own liberation.

The US assassination of Soleimani has allowed for Iraq’s Iranian-backed government to take advantage of the moment of chaos to reassert themselves, hoping to co-opt and undermine the uprising. At the fore of this effort is Muqtada Al-Sadr, the leader of the Shi’a based Sadrist movement and the electoral Sairun (Alliance Towards Reforms) alliance.

Sadr, who has consistently positioned himself as leader and protector of Iraq’s near-annual protest movements, attempting to mask his participation in the Iraqi government in order to blunt the movements and contain them within reformist demands – had finally begun to be discredited. The US strike, however, gave Sadr the impetus to reinvigorate his following.

Sadr has had members in most Iraqi parliaments since 2003, and he became even more entrenched in Iraq’s government in 2018. Sadr’s political list won the most seats in 2018’s election and formed a coalition government along with the parties associated with the pro-Iran Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) and the Sunni affiliated Al-Wataniya list. This government was headed by the prime minister and former communist Adil Abdul-Mahdi, who, though forced to resign last November under pressure from the revolution, remained as interim leader. Thus far, the Iraqi Communist Party – a part of the Sairun electoral front – has been the only political party to pull out of government as a result of the rebellion. On 1 February, Mohammad Allawi, a prominent factory owner and businessman, was put forward as a possible new prime minister. Allawi, just another deck chair being rearranged amidst the political crisis, served in previous governments, and is understood to be Sadr’s candidate. On Twitter Al-Sadr declared that Allawi was “a good step for the future” and declared his support, pushing forward his nomination. 

Sadr, with support from some of the more hard-line pro-Iranian political forces, re-energised his base after the assassination of Soleimani by mobilising the protestors out of the squares. On 24 January, he called a demonstration that brought out a quarter of a million people, under the banner of demanding the withdrawal of US troops that have been occupying the country for nearly two decades. The march was a popular referendum of sorts on the Iraqi parliament’s passing of a non-binding resolution to expel US troops from the country, passed as a response to the killing of Soleimani.

The official response from Trump’s state department, with characteristic arrogance, was that they would not negotiate the withdrawal of any troops, but only the “appropriate force position of troops.”

Though the march against the US presence was large, the full breadth of their demands cannot be realised by Sadr or his movement. Not only because the revolutionary squares have been clearly denouncing the “twin occupiers” of the US and Iran since October--which could be seen in the banners unfurled in Tahrir square the day after the assassination, reading: “Iraq will not be a battleground for settling old scores. . . Keep your conflicts away from Iraq”--but also because Sadr’s vision for Iraq represents nothing close to the alternative demanded by the revolutionaries.

This is clear by Sadr’s continuously changing position towards the protest movement. After the 24 January demonstration, Sadr declared “neutrality” towards the movement, declaring on Twitter: “From now on I will not interfere in these [anti-government] protesters’ affairs in neither a negative nor positive way.” 

Sadr’s mass anti-US demonstration provided the pretext for police and sectarian militias to carry out a massive coordinated attack on the revolutionary squares, particularly in Baghdad, Nasiriyah and Basra. Militias burned the tent structures of the sit-ins to the ground. In Nasiriyah, protesters reported the power being cut and the police withdrawing to allow militia to torch tents that still contained sleeping revolutionaries. Dozens have been killed. Militias used live ammunition to break up the ongoing blockade of a key Baghdad highway. Key forays to Tahrir square were pushed back. The attack on Basra was a particular blow as the workers of Basra – the economic capital of the country – have long been seen as a vanguard of resistance from the days of its uprising against Saddam, the US occupation, and their current role in the revolutionary movement and the city’s general strike. The hashtag #WaitforBasra spread as revolutionaries expressed the hope of shutting down roads in order to stop oil production in this strategically important centre. It was in Basra that the revolution’s slogans against all political parties first arose. The protestors who took up these slogans have had no illusions that Sadr is part and parcel of the current sectarian system, despite his attempts to portray himself otherwise.

Undeterred, the morning after the intensified wave of repression the revolutionary youth and workers marched back into the squares to rebuild and recommit to the revolution. In Nasiriyah protestors have rebuilt structures with concrete blocks and mortar in an affront to the burning of tents. In Basra protestors rebuilt the encampment amid chants of “No to all parties”, “Down with the System, Down with all of them” and “you can’t shoot ideas with bullets.” Large demonstrations re-secured squares in Baghdad. “Their withdrawal has achieved the opposite effect of breaking up the movement,” one of the revolutionary youth told Al-Jazeera, “We have had more protesters joining in. On the day Sadr declared his decision, the entire area from Tahrir Square to Tayaran Square was full of people, waving only the Iraqi flag.”

As the revolution pushed back against this most recent attempt to crush it, Sadr declared again that he would “participate” in the protest movement. However, starting on 3 February, his supporters physically attempted to break up the protests, entering the encampments in Baghdad and Nasiriyah with knives and firearms, and killing nearly two dozen protestors in Najaf alone. Sadrists have tried to directly take over the protest movement and dampen opposition to Sadr’s chosen prime minister. The revolutionary squares have responded clearly to the appointment of a new prime minister, stating: “Mohammed Allawi is rejected” and denouncing the move as just another attempt to maintain the sectarian system of foreign-backed oligarchs.

Over the weeks, mass demonstrations have called for a trial of Sadr and for a popular vote in the squares for a new government. On 13 February, hundreds of thousands of women, who have participated visibly since the beginning of the revolution, marched under the slogan “the country’s daughters” and #SheIsTheRevolution, denouncing the continued violent repression and Sadr’s latest attempts to gender segregate the movement. This march is the first of this current movement that highlights the oppression of women.   

The coming weeks and months remain uncertain. While the political system stands completely delegitimised, the revolutionary movement still faces questions of how to organise an effective alternative as a counterweight to the traditional parties and militias that have a vested interest in the system remaining. The revolution still faces the question of organisation of left and workers’ movements that can oppose the government and provide an alternative vision than that of sectarian groups like Sadr’s or like Hezbollah in Lebanon who have long used “anti-imperialist” credentials to cover a soft defence of repressive governments. A vision described by Iraqi communist Aamar Sharif of the Workers Communist Party of Iraq calls for: “The government [to] be replaced by a people’s government, not another corrupt parliament. . . People must practice their rule every day.”

Solidarity still needs to be built with Iraq’s revolutionaries struggling for a new system in the face of enormous violence. Activists globally must build a movement against imperialism that opposes outside interventions that threaten revolutionary struggles and emphasises solidarity with the ongoing popular mobilisations in Iraq, as well as those in Iran, Lebanon, and around the globe.  We must uplift these voices in the cities of the region who have creatively resisted and fought for liberation with a passion and resilience that should be an inspiration for the globe. These voices denounce their respective regimes and reject attempts to limit these movements to being only about US imperialism rather than an end to both US imperialism and also a new Iraq, and an end to the sectarian neoliberal system.

Sadr will not be able to achieve the revolution’s demands, only an advancement of the revolt will. Building a healthy left alternative internationally is the only way we can build an opposition to the politics of imperialism, sectarianism and capitalism.

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