October 4, 2019

IntelBrief: Violent Protests in Iraq

An anti-government protester flashes the victory sign during a demonstration, in Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, Oct. 3, 2019  (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban) .
  • Iraq has been convulsed by growing protests this week over corruption, widespread unemployment, and the government’s inability to provide basic services.
  • The government shut down access to the Internet, a tactic favored by repressive governments across the region, as recently witnessed during unrest in Algeria and Egypt.
  • The growing protests are a symptom of large-scale anger at a persistently dysfunctional government and an economy unable to produce enough jobs.
  • Prime Minister Mahdi is under immense pressure amid a smoldering Islamic State presence and navigating increasing tensions between the United States  and Iran.


Over the course of the past week, Iraq has been convulsed by growing protests over corruption, widespread unemployment, and the government’s inability to provide basic services. The first few days of October saw thousands of protesters taking to the streets in Baghdad and throughout many other cities and towns in the country. Many of the protests have grown violent, with several hundred wounded and 21 dead, with that toll expected to grow. In Amara, Najaf, and Nasiriyah, protesters burned government buildings. Security forces responded to the protests with tear gas and rubber bullets, but in some cases live ammunition. Tensions mounted as the Iraqi government sought to enforce a curfew in a struggle to restore stability. The government also shut down access to the Internet, a tactic favored by regimes across the region attempting to gain control over the population, as recently witnessed during unrest in Algeria and Egypt.

Iraq continues to face serious problems. Baghdad has been unable to cement the hard-fought military gains over the so-called Islamic State and now faces the Herculean challenge of rebuilding major cities like Mosul. The Islamic State (IS) remains a serious threat to Iraq, manifesting as a low-level insurgency, even as it is bereft of physical territory. Throughout parts of Anbar province and in and around cities like Kirkuk and Hawija, IS is rebuilding its networks while selectively targeting local figures of influence for assassination or intimidation. The residents of cities and towns destroyed by several years of fighting struggle with few basic services and little hope that the situation will improve anytime soon. The lack of justice for the victims of the Islamic State’s countless crimes against humanity remain an open wound for many local communities. 

While Iraq’s young population faces massive unemployment, the country as a whole remains plagued by a stagnant economy hobbled by egregious levels of graft and corruption. This corruption exists at all levels of government and has called into question the legitimacy of Iraq’s political leadership. The country’s infrastructure is in shambles as the government lacks both the funding and political will to undertake the projects necessary to rebuild war-torn cities, towns, and villages. Iraq also faces a growing environmental crisis, as water shortages remain a serious challenge across the country. There is grave concern that the protests will grow more violent; addressing the grievances of the demonstrators is a long-term challenge with no obvious or immediate solutions. 

Only a year into its tenure, the government of Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi is facing intense pressure as the Iraqi central government attempts to lead a fractured country. Baghdad has been ensnared by the growing tensions between the United States and Iran and is striking a precarious balancing act as the Iraqi government attempts to remain on good terms with both Washington and Tehran. Iran retains significant influence in Iraq and Iranian-supported militias continue to grow in strength. Baghdad needs to limit the power of these militias, groups that provided crucial help in the fight against the Islamic State but that have now become a problem themselves. Iraq also needs to maintain good relations with the United States, which provides substantial military support to Baghdad in terms of training, equipment, and other critical resources related to security cooperation and capacity building efforts. This support is vital for Iraq to overcome any future challenges by an Islamic State that will inevitably resurge throughout parts of the country in its quest to reassert control over territories it once held. 


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