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Iraqi Protesters Demand Independence From Political Clientelism

“We want what all sovereign nations want — to be free from corruption, free from nepotism, free from foreign interventionism and free to decide what our country’s future will look like.”

“We want what all sovereign nations want — to be free from corruption, free from nepotism, free from foreign interventionism and free to decide what our country’s future will look like … If Iraq is to survive as a country we need to break free from all forms of political clientelism. Our ruling elite has betrayed the people it promised to serve. Officials have robbed us, lied to us and prevented us from reaching our full potential as a united nation. Today we want out …” Ali Abu Jassem in Basra told Citizen Truth in exclusive comments.

If mainstream media has moved on from the killing of General Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s most revered military official and commander in chief of its elite Quds Unit, and Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, Deputy Commander in Chief of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), Iraqis have not. In fact Iraqis’ anger has now become twofold. With one eye on its ruling elite and the other on what it perceives as U.S. military occupation Iraq southern provinces want to reset the clock on their state institutions and reclaim sovereignty over their land, airspace and political future.

Weeks after Iraq’s Parliament voted to expel all foreign troops – a knee-jerk reaction to Washington’s January airstrike, demonstrators have come out in their tens of thousands throughout the Shia South, united in their rejection of a system tainted by corruption and social injustice. With no clear leadership heading the movement Iraq’s southern uprising stands united in people’s broad rejection of an elite they feel betrayed their democratic aspiration through political and sectarian clientelism.

Initially bolstered by Moqtada Al Sadr, a cleric made notorious in Washington for his unequivocal rejection of America’s influence in Iraq, Iraq’s streets were left to fend for themselves when Al Sadr disavowed the protests for the sake of national cohesion and mounting calls from Najaf to avoid any further escalation between protesters and the security forces.

The very epicentre of Iraq’s religious life, the holy city of Najaf is home to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Shia Islam most influential cleric. If Ayatollah Sistani has often proclaimed its reluctance to intervene in Iraq’s internal affairs, he nevertheless holds almost absolute power over Shia  government officials. 

As Harith Hasan notes in a report for Carnegie Middle Eastern Center: “Sistani has occupied a central place in Iraqi Shia politics, revered by all parties as a higher moral guide and sometimes as the ultimate informal authority. His fatwas and statements have played important roles in supporting or legitimizing certain courses of action—whether it was his call for early elections in 2003 after the U.S. occupation, his advice to the Da‘wa party in 2014 to select a new prime minister, or his fatwa calling on Iraqis to join the war against the Islamic State. It became common in the post-2003 period to turn to Sistani in times of crisis, under the assumption that his words would be obeyed by most Iraqi Shia.”

With no backing to speak of now that Al Sadr withdrew his militia and political faction’ support,  southern Iraqis have struck a defiant tone, undisturbed by threats of violence should they refuse to bow to officials’ calls for  normalization. As several protesters told Citizen Truth in exclusive comments: “Our government has left us no other choice but to take matters into our own hands. We have no future, no hope … nothing! Our movement is not politically motivated, we just want justice. We want Iraq to be for Iraqis, governed by Iraqis for the good of the people. We do not want any foreign hands over our politics and no foreign boots on our soil.”

Across all social divides, all political affiliations compounded Iraqis are adamant – Iraq will break free from all patronage, might it be from neighboring Iran or western influence.

Often a pawn caught in between Tehran’s hegemonic ambitions and Washington’s desire to placate the Islamic Republic move for regional domination, Iraqis no longer wish to see their land turn into a proxy.

If so far the protests have largely been confined to Baghdad and the Shia-majority areas in central and southern Iraq, the protesters’ demands have not been sectarian – an interesting point if one considers how heavily matters of religion have weighed characterised by strong public will, popular agency and belief in the power to change, protesters have, for the most part, remained independent from political factions’ attempt to co-opt their movement.

Protests have engulfed Southern Iraq since last October, resulting in an estimated 600 deaths and over 1000 casualties. Unable to contain the fury of his people,  Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi offered his resignation in November, a move which many politicians have qualified as dangerous since it added a layer of uncertainty at a juncture in time when Iraq faces many difficulties.

With threats of more violence hanging in the air observers on the ground have warned Iraq’s budding revolution could lead to an institutional vacuum and violent riots against U.S. troops. 

Only this week several rockets were aimed at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad Green Zone, proof that Iraqi officials have somewhat lost control of the streets. 

Five rockets crashed into a riverbank near the embassy in the Iraqi capital without causing any injuries, the US Joint Operations Command said in a statement, but AFP news agency citing a security source said three of the rockets “directly hit the US embassy”. One slammed into a cafeteria at dinner time, it added. 


Catherine Perez-Shakdam

Catherine is a Research Fellow at the Henry Jackson Society and a former consultant to the UN Security Council on Yemen. Her work has been published in the Times of Israel, the Jerusalem Post, the Daily Express, Epoch Times and countless other media.

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