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A protestor getting treated by a doctor in Baghdad. Ali al-Mikdam for Raise the Voices

A protestor getting treated by a doctor in Baghdad. Ali al-Mikdam for Raise the Voices

Iraqis protesting their government face state violence from official troops and unofficial militias, with little legal recourse or protection. Since October 2019, protests and riots have erupted all over Iraq as citizens demand an end to institutional corruption, high levels of unemployment, and inadequate public services and infrastructure. Despite massive oil reserves, which allowed Iraq to achieve record annual oil sales in 2019, over 8% of Iraq’s population (about 3 million people) is unemployed and an even greater number is in poverty. Corruption is rife in Iraq’s government and profits from oil sales have a way of benefitting the political elite instead of going towards the general public.

Much of Iraq’s population currently lacks access to clean water, electricity, stable jobs, and proper human services. They also lack proper representation in the government, which is the root of the many problems that they are facing. The protestors’ main goal is to change the current electoral process to one that allows for greater representation of the general population rather than just the elite few. They are also calling for the resignation of central Iraqi authorities—such as former Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi—who they feel have caused much of the corruption and inefficiency in their government.

Government forces and government-linked militias used tear gas, live ammunition, and smoke grenades against the protestors.

However, the peaceful grass-roots protestors were met with violence and deadly force as government forces and government-linked militias used tear gas, live ammunition, and smoke grenades against the protestors. A recent Amnesty Internationalreport put the verified death toll of protestors at over 600 people, while other reports have numbered the injured in the tens of thousands. Now, as protests continue, what originally started as demands for public reform have quickly turned into calls for a total governmental overhaul.

In order to understand more about the current situation, Raise the Voices interviewed a young Iraqi activist named Ali al-Mikdam. Based in Baghdad, where the largest demonstrations are occurring, Ali has been protesting from the beginning, on October 1st, 2019. 

Note: Interview was conducted through a translator and has been edited for length and clarity.

Emma: Hi Ali, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Ali: I am Ali. I am from Baghdad. I am a journalist and human rights activist. I started this work in 2014 by working with NGOs for press releases and media. I attended the demonstrations in 2011 and 2015 and started my life in human rights activism in 2015. I am also working as a freelancer for BBC on a documentary film. I also work with some Iraqi TV [channels].

I [have been] inviting people for protests since September 24 in different ways, like on social media and on the ground. And the problems started from there. I filmed and documented everything…I am filming and documenting the attacks of the militias and Iraqi armies. And there started the problem of my life and the protestors’.

Emma: So you are receiving a lot of threats?

Ali: Yes, a lot.

Emma: You told me about them threatening your family.

Ali: Yes, the problem was that everybody [who has protested] from the 1st of October is afraid to show themselves to the channels, talking about the threats and what's happening with people in Tahrir square and the people asking for freedom.

So it’s my responsibility as a human rights activist, a journalist, and as one of the protestors who is helping to invite people to tell the media and the activists. Because of that I lost my job as a freelancer and I lost my apartment in Baghdad. They came to my apartment. They destroyed everything there. I left Baghdad to save my life.

On September 25, 2019, a group of people protested outside the Prime Minister’s office in Baghdad. The peaceful demonstration was met with violence when security forces used hot water jets to suppress the protestors. The security forces also conducted random arrests, injuring multiple protestors. The violent crackdown drew severe backlash across the country, which was further exacerbated by Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi’s demotion of Counter-Terrorism Services Chief Abdel Wahab al-Saedi on September 27th. The demotion of al-Saedi angered many protestors—who viewed him as a war hero that had played a critical role in the defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq—because it was rumored that al-Saedi’s transfer was because he had spoken out against the continued corruption of the Iraqi government. 

These events culminated in the widespread protests on October 1st. Protestors marched through Tahrir Square towards the Green Zone, officially known as the International Zone of Baghdad. The Green Zone houses government buildings—such as the US embassy and parliament headquarters—and is well-fortified and blockaded. As such, the protests quickly turned violent as security forces started using tear gas, sound bombs, and hot water to suppress the protestors.

Ali: What happened exactly is, on the 1st of October, we were [going] to Tahrir Square. It was a peaceful protest/demonstration. The problem was the army and the police at Sinak Bridge, they started using hot water and big black bombs on the protestors. Then, after that they started using the tear gas. All this happened in about 20 min. They started with a sound boom, and then the bullets. In that moment, in that second, I saw three youths die with my own eyes because of the tear gas. Some of it hit their faces, some of it hit their bodies. I was filming it, so the people were very angry about what happened. I think this is one of the reasons why the protesting continued from 1st of October to the next day, because of the blood and the bullets, and because of the army and the police using tear gas and bullets on a peaceful protest.

Because of the Ministry of Interior and the Iraqi security forces that have surrounded Tahiri square since the 1st of October—the forces at that time were more than the forces used in fighting ISIS—many people, and by many, I mean thousands, hundreds of thousands of people started to demonstrate in their own neighborhoods and own streets because they could not enter Tahrir square. People were so angry and protested strongly because of what the security forces did on October 1, the killings of peaceful protestors.

The Iraqi government at that time, they locked the internet. They closed the whole internet and unless you had a VSAT connection, no one could access the normal internet through mobile or WiFi. Even if you have VPN, it was 100% locked down. This way, the government blocked access to information so people didn’t know about what happened in Tahrir square or the demonstrations in general.

The government was also publishing false information about what was going on. The spokesmen were in official meetings saying that there weren't any human rights violations and there wasn't anything done by the Iraqi government and that everything is normal. Because of this, the activists started thinking about delivering the right information, the correct information about what is going on in Tahiri square and in the demonstrations.

I was supporting my friends in their neighborhoods and told them what to do and how to keep the protests peaceful and in its original context. The main thing we were doing during that time, during the curfew and the internet blockade, was protesting in our neighborhoods, and not going to the official departments for work and to universities and schools. We did a civilian blockade. We would stop government work, stop everything, and push the government to accept our demands or as much as they could of our demands. I kept communicating with my friends to keep organizing the protests in their neighborhoods and at the same time, I was going on televisions and delivering the information through some limited channels.

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Emma: Did you think that was successful, that you were able to really get people out on the streets and organize themselves, did that work do you think?

Translator: Ali asked me to answer by myself. I was participating in protests October 2nd by myself. By my knowledge, I can say that Ali and his friends were doing a really big part in the protests. They were delivering a lot of information about what's going on... He was publishing exclusive content about what [was] going on in the protests [and] was [helping connect the] activists.

Protestors gather at a rally in Baghdad. Ali al-Mikdam for Raise the Voices

Protestors gather at a rally in Baghdad. Ali al-Mikdam for Raise the Voices

Accountability for the violent suppression of protests is made difficult by the variety of groups involved in the brutal crackdown, including semi-independent paramilitary groups such as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), in addition to government security forces. The PMF was created in 2014 to help fight the Islamic State and protect holy sites from damage. Originally starting out with just 7 militias, it presently has over 50 groups, of which many are considered terrorist organizations by the US. However, while they operate under government orders, they also offer a degree of separation between officials and the violence caused by the militias. 

Ali: So what happened after the first couple days of the protests is that people started gathering in the neighborhoods and the streets. As long as they made demonstrations, even small ones, the Iraqi government was following them and persecuting them. They sent security forces to shoot at them and kill people. To kill protestors, even in small gatherings.

Then the government started sending militias like Hezbollah, and Khorasani. They started sending these militias, especially Hezbollah, to protests in neighborhoods, and let these militias shoot people immediately, and gave the okay to the militias to kill people. Then, the government wouldn't look responsible for these killings. The government could say, “It's the militias, we don't know who's doing this,”. But what is obvious to the streets, what is obvious to everyone, is that the government and militias are on the same side, which is the side of killing people, of killing the protestors wherever they exist.

However, while the militias may operate under Iraqi government orders, they get their funding and support from the Iranian government. Iran has been a major player in Iraqi affairs and politics since the end of the war with the Islamic State. They promised to help stabilize Iraq’s economy and in the process, inserted their influence into the government and militias. While it was common knowledge that Iran played a major behind-the-scenes role in Iraq, this intelligence report released by The Intercept showed that Iranian ties ran much deeper than expected in the Iraqi government. In fact, the leaked reports shed light on evidence that Iran had much to do with the current power structure and leadership style of Iraq. 

Ali: The Iraqi government is getting a lot of power from the Irani militias, which have a really big influence on Iraq. [The Iranians] have a coalition and their own members in parliament who follow and implement the demands of the Irani foreign policy. [This has created] a complementary relationship between the Iraqi parliament members and Irani militias. The parliament members would allow Irani militias to legally use force on the Iraqi lands. It's like a team that contains militias and parliament members who try as much as they can to maintain [their] current control of the Iraqi government. Most of the Iraqi parliament, more than 50% are in partnership with the Irani militias or have worked under Irani foreign policy.

The weak enforcement of the Iraqi government coupled with the support and power of the Iranian government has proven a deadly combination for the citizens of Iraq. In the interview, Ali spoke about how “After the first couple of days—the 4th, 5th, 6th, and 7th of October—the Iraqi forces and militias started to use snipers to kill the protestors,”. He also mentions the exponential death rate from the first few days, saying that “From the 1st of October through the 7th of October, more than 300 protestors died because of the snipers,”. 

Soon after, the militias’ deadly tactics quickly expanded to include the use of smoke bombs as well. Ali recounted this tragic development, saying that, “One of my friends died on the 28th of October by a smoke grenade that was thrown at his body by the Iraqi security forces, and many, many other people have died from the grenades.” However, despite these horrific deaths, Ali also spoke of the sense of unity and determination that pulled the protestors together:

Protestors wash tear gas out of a young boy’s eyes. Ali al-Mikdam for Raise the Voices

Protestors wash tear gas out of a young boy’s eyes. Ali al-Mikdam for Raise the Voices

“What pushed people to participate in the protest was the people who died. For example, when someone died in the protests, his friends and his family and his relatives started to participate in the protests because [someone they knew] died in the protest. So they want to complete the message he wanted to deliver by participating in the protest.

[However],the protests are not just about the protestors themselves, it's also about millions of high school students who stopped going to schools and 500,000 university students who stopped going to university in solidarity with the protests.

It’s also about the families supporting the protests financially and logistically. Many ethnicities of Iraqis, from the Kurds in the north to the Christians in Mosul are supporting the protests.

Asking for democracy should be something normal. This situation shouldn't be something real, the killing of all of those people. And they are ready to kill more and more for demanding their rights.”

Some of the protesters' efforts at achieving governmental change have succeeded. On November 30th, 2019, Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi submitted his resignation to the Iraqi parliament however, he, as well as several other high ranking officials directly involved in the violence against protestors, have still not been held accountable for their actions. Ali described the need for international action to achieve further accountability, saying,

“The whole world and the foreign policy of all countries should focus on the criminalization of the Prime Minister [Adil Abdul-Mahdi] and others who were part of killing the protestors. He did not present his resignation until hundreds of people died.”.

Ali also spoke about how Americans can help create the change needed in Iraq’s governmental structure, saying

“Getting the Iranian militias out of Iraq can be done, not by manipulation, but through communication with Iraqi-Americans. There are more than 100,000 [Iraqi-]American citizens and they can make a change by communicating with their Congress representative and telling them to support the Iraqi protests and the creation of the new election law, and to recognize that the Iraqi government has failed to protect the protestors and civilians in Iraq,”.

To help Ali’s mission, Raise the Voices created a petition on Change.org towards the US House of Representatives and Senate. In it, we ask that Congress issue a public statement in support of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s government and the creation of a fair election system in Iraq. We also ask Congress to pursue the criminalization of former Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi and Iraqi Interior Minister Yassin Al-Yasiri for authorizing the shooting of protestors and enforce the Magnitsky Act on these individuals. (The Magnitsky Act is a global bill that allows the US government to sanction those it sees as human rights offenders and freeze their assets. You can sign this petition here to help create a better life for all Iraqi citizens.

Reema Nannapaneni
Raise the Voice