Illustrations by Zia Reigh Calpito
The following article was written for the Spring 2020 semester. It has been re-written to consider the effects from the COVID-19 pandemic.
In October 2019, Iraqis began protesting against the government in Baghdad, the capital of Iraq. These protests spread to other regions of the country, especially the middle and the southern part of Iraq. Hundreds of thousands of people, mostly young men, began demonstrating in different provinces against the Iraq government on the basis of corruption, inadequate public service, and high unemployment rates. However, the protesters would later change their demands two months into the demonstrations, demanding the resignation of the prime minister and his cabinet.
I am an Iraqi-American who lived in Iraq for twenty-four years before settling in the United States in 2014. I was an observer of the recent protests that took place in Iraq. Since the uprising began in October 2019, I have been in touch with family, friends, and individuals working for the Iraqi government. I also learned new insights on the ground from my recent visit to Iraq in January 2020. Here, I will examine the Iraqi protests, seen through my eyes. I will investigate different perspectives and stories from the protests that have not received much attention, such as attacks from snipers, Blue Hats and the Iraqi Armed Forces. All the while uncovering the human rights violations that have taken place since last October.
Experience the Uprising
Several kidnappings have taken place in Iraq since the uprising began in October but none have been as notorious as Saba-Al-Mahdawi. Al-Mahdawi was a doctor, activist, and human rights defender residing in Baghdad. On November 4th, 2019, an unknown force kidnapped her due to her providing medical care for injured protestors. When Al-Mahdawi was released eleven days later, she shared her terrible experience. Many of the activists that were kidnapped, like Al-Mahdawi, suffered under various forms of tortures, such as detention, threats, severe beating, insults, and torture from electric wires connected to needles that were placed under their nails. Her kidnappers wanted to deter activists from reaching the demonstration sites, as a way to intimidate protesters and end the protests’ movement by any means. Not to mention, the shaving heads. After learning stories like Al-Mahdawi’s, I wanted to see these demonstrations for myself.
When I visited Iraq last winter, my father had me promise him that I would not join the protesters. If anyone figured out I was an American, they would have assumed that I work for the CIA or another government agency. Ever since American forces assassinated Iraqi military commander Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis and Iranian major general Qassim Sulamani, all Americans in Iraq were made targets for kidnapping. However, I did not keep my promise to my father. I asked my friend, who will remain unnamed, to take me to where the protests were taking place. My friend and I went to a protest in the city of Basra, located in Southern Iraq at night. It was 11:30 pm, and the protestors had set up their tents as a camp for their protest efforts. The camp was a place where the protestors would meet in groups, talking about their plans and tactics with each other. When I approached the gate, three young men stopped me and requested to search me before entering the camp. Wearing black trousers, a black turtleneck, black blazer, and black shoes, I thought they saw me as a suspicious figure. Yet, even when I allowed them to search me, they did not ask me why I was there. My friend and I walked around the tents and we spoke with a couple of people. Soon after, I noticed a few young men following me. They were trying to figure out what I was doing at the camps. It was clear to us that these protestors were worried I was a government agent or a member of the Iraqi militia, as there have been stories about Iraqi government officials and militia spying in these camps at night to gather intel about their activities. I wanted to see how they directed the demonstrations and identify who was behind the organization of these protests. Each tent had a designated leader, and these leaders would usually meet publicly in their compounds. However, these meetings were easy targets for militia and government attacks. My friend dropped me at my house, and I thanked him for taking me to demonstration sites. I could not sleep returning from the camp that night, because I could not stop thinking about those activists and how they were in great danger.
When I visited Iraq last winter, my father had me promise him that I would not join the protesters…
I did not keep my promise to my father.-Ali Alukrafi
I would later learn that, on January 10, 2020, journalist Ahmed Abdul Samad and cameraman Safaa Ghali were murdered by unknown forces because they were associating with protestors and trying to spread the “truth” to the world. I was still in Basra when that murder had happened. The Director-General of UNESCO, Audrey Azoulay, condemned the murder of the television journalist and requested the authorities to investigate and find the criminals behind it. The government and militia in Iraq wanted to end the demonstrations, resulting in numerous human rights violations. More than 600 protestors have been killed and more than 20,000 were injured since the uprising in October 2019. The military would later admit to using excessive force, publishing the following statement: “Excessive force outside the rules of engagement was used and we have begun to hold accountable those commanding officers who carried out these wrong acts”. The unfortunate truth is that excessive and unnecessary lethal forces were used against civilians while they were protesting. The Iraqi Constitution, ratified in 2005, granted citizens the right to protest peacefully, meaning that the government is responsible for protecting these protestors. Demonstrators demanded the resignation of the Prime minister and his cabinet due to the use of violence. Consequently, on November 30th, 2019, the Prime Minister resigned along with his cabinet. But listening to the stories in the camps, I knew there was still a lot more about the protests in Iraq that the world has yet to know.
Deadly sniper attacks
One of the protesters has witnessed a sniper shooting at peaceful protesters. “There was a person who was hit by the sniper,” the protester shared. “Five people ran towards him to help, and they were all shot one after the other. There were bodies all along the street. They all had shots in the head and chest.” Amnesty International was able to verify the incident but they were not able to identify the snipers. After the shooting, snipers changed their location and left only empty casings. When the Iraqi government was asked about those snipers, the speaker of the Iraqi government claimed that the Iraqi government had no clue about the identity of those snipers and what affiliations they belonged to. The Iraqi government would label them as “anonymous snipers,” and blamed them for killing peaceful protesters. The Iraqi authority also said that eight of the Iraqi armed forces were also killed by snipers. But protesters believed that the snipers took cover behind the Iraqi Armed Forces and slowly picked off protestors. In other words, protesters think that the Iraqi government was aware of those snipers, and these men were protected by the government. According to the Iraqi constitution, Iraqis have the right to protest peacefully, and it is it’s the government’s job to protect those peaceful administrators. The protesters also think that those snipers were affiliated with militias. Many witnesses told Amnesty International that security forces had prevented injured administrators from reaching hospitals in Baghdad.
An Iraqi university professor who did not want to mention his name, told Amnesty International: “How can the government say they do not know who the sniper is? And if the forces did not know, once they realized that why did they not warn the protesters? The forces were focused on making sure no one helped the injured.” Other witnesses reported that Iraqi security forces opened live fire on peaceful protesters. Armed militia men rode over in their vehicles next to the protesters and opened fire on the crowds – unfortunately, witnesses weren’t able to identify the attackers. Protesters were also under the assumption that the militias in Iraq had released their thugs to kidnap and murder peaceful protesters. Anyone taking pictures or recording videos were in danger; the militia’s people were watching those individuals. One of the Iraqi officers who attended the daily government briefings stated, “We have confirmed evidence that the snipers were elements of militias reporting directly to their commander instead of the chief commander of the armed forces.” He also added, “They belong to a group that is very close to the Iranians.”
According to Reuters, two Iraqi officials had reported that Iran was behind the “anonymous snipers” by backing militias in Baghdad during the anti-government protests. All the Iranian backed militias rejected the accusations, and said that if anyone has evidence, it must be submitted to the Iraqi judiciary branch. By then, the Iraqi government confirmed that some of its forces used live bullets against unarmed protesters. Therefore, the Iraqi authority promised to open an investigation to find out who those anonymous snipers were and also, to hold those officers responsible for shooting at peaceful protesters. Unfortunately, the Iraqi government has not released any information about the snipers and militia’s thugs.
How Iraq’s ‘Blue Hat’ militiamen killed peaceful protesters
Moqtada Al Sadr is a conservative Shia’a Muslim cleric who opposed the occupation of the American in 2003. He established a militia known as the “Al-Mahdi Army” to fight the American occupation forces. The militia was defeated in 2008 by Al-Maliki, who was the Iraqi prime minister at that time. Iran supported Al Sadr and helped him with his attacks against Americans. In 2014, Al Sadr formed a new militia known as “Saraya Al-Salam.” In 2016, Al-Sadr led a massive demonstration against the Iraqi government due to the high rate of unemployment and government corruption. Al Sadr’s demonstration was known to contain over one million protesters. Al Sadr named himself as the spiritual father for Iraqis; however, many Iraqis do not agree with Al Sadr’s title.
In 2018, Al-Sadr’s party won a majority of the seats in the Iraqi parliament; since the victory, Al Sadr stopped protesting because his party became part of the government. Al Sadr’s party and a few other political parties allied together and chose Adel Abdulmahdi as a prime minister of Iraq. People think that Abdulmahdi’s government was corrupted; therefore, many Iraqis were not happy about Abdulmahdi’s performance at all, igniting protests against him. Protesters demanded Abdulmahdi to step down; after the killing of more than 600 hundred protesters, Abdulmahdi decided to resign in December 2019. According to the Iraqi constitution, Iraqi president, Barhim Salih, has the right to name the prime minister if the Iraqi parliament failed to do so. On February 1, 2020, President Saleh appointed Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi to be a new Prime Minister of Iraq. Protesters were not happy that President Saleh named someone who was already involved in the previous, and corrupt, government. In fact, protesters demanded a prime minister who wasn’t involved in any sort of previous government organization since 2003. Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi was a minister of communication from 2006 to 2008 under Al-Maliki’s administration and was rejected by the majority of the Iraqi parliament members; therefore, he failed to get enough support from the Iraqi parliament in order to form a new government. Protesters were not too happy about him either; thus, demanding that he resign. President Salih had to choose someone else to fill the prime minister position. Soon after, President Salih named Adan Al-Zurfi to be the prime minister. Yet the same scenario happened again, and political parties in the Iraqi parliament did not give the confidence to the new prime minister to form a government. Once again, protesters were not happy with the choice of President Salih because Al-Zurfi was a Governor of the city of Najaf and was part of one of the most corrupt governments after 2003. Al-Zurfi had to offer his resignation, because he failed to secure enough support from the Iraqi parliament. Like before, President Salih had to appoint another candidate to be the prime minister. This time, President Salih appointed Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, the Iraqi intelligence chief, to be the prime minister. Al-Kadhimi managed to secure enough votes from the Iraqi parliament to start the process of forming a new government. However, protesters were still not happy with Al-Kadhimi – but the Coronavirus crisis negatively affected protesters.
Since the COVID-19 began to spread all over the world, protesters could not march in the streets as they did before. Media outlets shifted their focus from protesters’ demands to COVID-19 crisis. Some protesters are still in the demonstration sites, but they cannot go anywhere due to the curfew that is implemented. When the uprising began in October 2019, Al-Sadr was studying in Iran and did not go back to Iraq until the breakout of coronavirus in Iran. Al-Sadr switched his position from supporting the uprising to attacking the peaceful protests. He asked his followers, who participated in the uprising, to leave the demonstration sites. Many Iraqis questioned Al-Sadr’s behavior when he asked his followers not to participate in the uprising, but then it was clear to everyone why he did that. The Blue Hat militia was formed in 2019 by Al-Sadr. He claimed that he founded the Blue Hat militia to protect peaceful protestors and help Iraqi security maintain the status quo.On February 5, 2020, in Najaf, a holy Shitte province in southern Iraq, the Blue Hats militiamen attacked peaceful protesters and wanted the end of the demonstrations by any means.The Blue Hats claimed that there were outsiders among protesters, and they thought that it was their responsibility to find those outsiders and punish them. The Blue Hats militia also claimed that foreign countries were behind those outsiders and those outsiders did not want to see Iraq stable again Instead of looking after the unarmed protesters, the Blue Hat militia attacked powerless protesters.
In the beginning, the Blue Hat militiamen refused to admit that they attacked unarmed protesters. They were exposed to the public, thanks to social media. Finally, the Blue Hats militiamen admitted that they attacked some protesters; however, they claimed that some of those protesters consumed alcohol publicly. In Islamic countries, alcohol is not allowed. Since Al-Sadr is a religious leader, he had to promote virtue and prohibit vice. According to Ali Al-Wadi, the director of Najaf’s health department, he said that the Blue Hat militia injured twenty-five protesters and seven were killed. Activists believed that the government did not provide the right numbers of casualties. The director of the Iraqi War Crime Documentation Center believed that there were at least twenty-three people who were killed and around one hundred and ninety-seven injured. The Blue Hats men massacred protesters savagely; witnesses posted pictures and videos on social media. Protesters were mad at Al-Sadr’s militia and went to streets chanting “We don’t want you, we don’t want you, the Blue Hats we don’t want you.” Protesters created a hashtag in social media “Najaf is burning! Najaf is bleeding!”; protesters requested protection from the international community. Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, the representative of the Secretary-General for the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq, condemned the violence in Iraq. Al-Sadr admitted that his militia, Blue Hats, committed a big mistake by attacking peaceful protesters; therefore, he posted on Twitter “I announce the dissolution of the Blue Hats, and I do not accept the [Sadrist] movement’s presence in and of itself at the protests unless it is absorbed into them.” Al-Sadr did not identify who participated in injuring and killing peaceful protesters. No one held the Blue Hats accountable for killing innocent and peaceful protesters in Najaf.
Iraqi armed forces set fire to the protesters’ tents
Al-Sadr continues to have a strong and powerful militia. He also won a majority of the seats in the Iraqi parliament’s election in 2018; therefore, the Iraqi armed forces could not attack the protesters because Al-Sadr’s people were collaborating with the protesters. The Iraqi government did not want to make an enemy out of Al-Sadr; therefore, it avoided the confrontation with Al-Sadr’s militia. One could maybe think that the Iraqi government was afraid of Al-Sadr and his power in these past years. Besides, many military officers are loyal to Al-Sadr since he is a religious leader. As soon as Al-Sadr removed his support for the protesters, his followers also left from the demonstration sites. At that moment, Iraqi armed forces found it to be an excellent opportunity to launch an anti-government protest campaign. Iraqi armed forces attacked demonstration sites and used tear gas and live bullets to attack peaceful protesters.
As aforementioned, the Iraqi government wanted to end the uprising by any means. For example, they tried to negotiate with protesters to prevent the uprising from spreading to all the provinces of Iraq. The Iraqi government wanted to buy some time to end the anti-government protests by arresting activists and the organizers of these protests. Previous Iraqi governments used the same methods of negotiations in order to identify the leaders of the protests. Once leaders were identified, they either got kidnaped or killed. In fact, many young protesters had to stay at the demonstration sites for three months without going home because they were scared that if they go home, they or their family might get kidnapped or killed by the government or militias. Therefore, protesters did not buy into the idea of negotiation – why negotiate with a corrupt government? Protesters wanted a secular government, not a government which was built on a sectarian quota.
Many young protesters had to stay at the demonstration sites for three months without going home because they were scared that if they go home, they or their family might get kidnapped or killed by the government or militias.-Ali Alukrafi
The Iraqi government was running out of time, so it ordered its armed forces to set aflame the protesters’ tents at night. A medical student informed NPR that the Iraqi security forces burned protesters’ tents which contained medicine, food, blankets, and beds. Protesters used to sleep in those tents; those tents were located inside the demonstration sites in Tahrir Square, Baghdad. The protesters’ tents were categorized into three different types, first were tents for medical support; their job was to treat injured protesters before taking them to a hospital. The second type was for meeting between members and sleeping. The third type of tents was for food and water. Iraqi security forces destroyed everything because they did not want anyone to protest against the government at Tahrir Square.
I spoke with a few officers in Basra, but I was not allowed to mention their names due to their affiliation with the Iraqi government. They claimed to have no idea regarding the perpetrators behind the violent attacks against protesters. They stated that the military forces who killed protesters in Basra were, in fact, not even from Basra. The military officers of Basra also mentioned that they were placed in a tough dilemma: should they listen to the instructions from Baghdad to arrest activists, or support the protesters of Basra, some of whom are their brothers, sisters, cousins, and friends? However, the Iraqi prime minister sent a military force from Baghdad to eliminate the demonstrations, which ended in violent clashes between the military and protesters. The government maintained that the demonstrations were not peaceful, and that the protests should not be allowed. But clearly, this undermined the rights promised under the Iraqi constitution.
I spoke with many protesters during my recent visit to Iraq. I would estimate that ninety percent of protestors suspected that the government was well-aware of the perpetrators attacking and killing the demonstrators. They held that the government and militias even burnt their own buildings, so the government could have a scapegoat to put down the demonstrations and arrest their leaders. Protesters believed that the snipers belonged to a local militia supported by Iran. I asked one of the protestors in Basra if he was scared for his life, citing that there were many arrests by the police forces and kidnappings by the unknown militia forces. “They are not going to scare us”, mentioned the protestor. “They are making us stronger. I would be more than happy to sacrifice my life for Iraq.”
Many reading this article might ask: Why now? How come Iraqis did not protest before? The answer is simple actually. Iraqis did protest before, but previous protests were led by religious leaders. Al-Sadr tried to speak on the behalf of protesters, but he failed. Interestingly, the uprising of October 2019 had no religious leaders and no place for sectarianism. The protestors demanded a secular government that belonged to neither the Shitte, Sunni, Christians, or Kurds, but for the betterment of all Iraqis. People are frustrated by the political quotas that have been based in sectarianism throughout the nation’s history. For example, it is accorded by law that the prime minister be a Shiite, the president of Iraq be of Kurdish descent, and the head of the parliament a Sunni.
But all in all, the Iraqi government has not kept its promises to improve the infrastructure, health and education sectors, provide job opportunities and eliminate the corruption within its bureaucracy. Iraqis have suffered from the government’s continued negligence and failure to deliver essential services and goods to its citizens. Consequently, the Iraqi people decided to rise up against the government. While the protests movement that started in October 2019 are peaceful, the government failed miserably to protect these law-abiding protestors. It is the government’s duty to protect protesters, as legally prescribed in the Iraqi constitution. Yet, the government does not comply with these protections. The fabric of Iraqi society is harmed, and the government must be accountable for these injustices. Many of the protesters believe that the government knows of the perpetrators behind the killings, but have done nothing to stop them. Protesters have held that snipers and Iraqi security forces have been working together, wanting to end anti-government demonstrations by any means necessary. Peaceful protesters were attacked by the Blue Hats militia, who have killed and injured many innocent citizens. The government did not bring the Blue Hats militia to justice because of their association with Al-Sadr. Iraqi security forces burned the protesters’ tents and used metal bullets against unarmed and peaceful protesters. If the government cannot provide protection, as demanded by the protesters, then it should not remain in power. It is the government’s duty to investigate who is responsible for the killings of innocent people, who have done nothing wrong but ask for their rights guaranteed by the Iraqi constitution.
To this day, no one is held responsible for the 600 savagely killed and the 20,000 people injured. While the protesters saw the resignation of the three previous Prime Ministers as an achievement, the battle for freedom in Iraq is still to be achieved.
If the government cannot provide protection, as demanded by the protesters, then it should not remain in power.-Ali Alukrafi