On October 1, Baghdad witnessed mass demonstrations decrying government corruption and demanding economic improvements; the protests have since spread to other parts of the country. While initially peaceful, they were met almost immediately with violent repression, and over 100 have been killed. More recently, there have been reports of snipers from Iran-backed militias—known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF)—firing at protestors. The unrest, notes Bilal Wahab, comes in the wake of a positive development: younger Iraqis especially are increasingly motivated by national, rather than tribal or sectarian, sentiment:
The latest outburst of public outrage was [in part] triggered by the nationalist sentiment that has grown since the defeat of Islamic State. The younger post-Saddam generation is proud of the army’s victory over the terrorists and the subsequent return of calm to most cities. Thus, when Prime Minister Adil Abdulmahdi announced earlier this week that he had removed the war’s most popular military figure, General Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi, the [nationalist] sentiment boiled over. A fearless commander who spearheaded the battle for Mosul’s liberation, . . . Saadi is the epitome of Iraqi national pride: he is Shiite, but popular with Sunnis, and he rose through the ranks without relying on political patronage.
In addition, the younger, web-connected generation knows that it makes little sense for such a rich country to have so many poor people, shabby roads, dilapidated hospitals, and broken schools. . . . Many are also uneasy about the rise of certain militias within the PMF that [fought] Islamic State but are now becoming part of a new, more dangerous network that has accelerated corruption and openly challenged state authority.
Because the demonstrators are mainly young Shiites fed up with the Shiite representatives who failed them, Abdulmahdi seems inclined to fall back on contradictory conspiracy theories: one accusing Saudi Arabia and the United States of fomenting the protests, another blaming Iran and its local proxies. Such paranoia will only cripple his efforts to carry out the serious reforms his public is demanding.
Wahab urges the U.S. to apply behind-the-scenes pressure on the Iraqi government to rein in its security forces and respond to the protestors’ concerns. Otherwise, unrest is likely to grow—creating an opportunity for Tehran to expand its influence in the country.