Shades of Saddam
With killings, beatings, and disappearances, the Iraqi government is growing more authoritarian in response to the protests.
BAGHDAD—Coming from Baghdad’s Ahrar Bridge with tear gas canisters and bullets whistling behind him, Ali Sami saw what he thought was a young protester struggling to breathe and begging for help. Sami swerved into the alleyway where the young man had collapsed only to find himself surrounded by six men wearing civilian clothes. The man whom he had taken for a protester needing help then rose and joined the men as they forced Sami into a black car. They blindfolded him and bound his hands and then beat him for hours.
“They threatened me, telling me, ‘We will kill you if you go to Tahrir,’” the square where the protests are focused, Sami said. “They knew me by name.”
For ordinary Iraqis, that is becoming a more typical experience. As the protests entered their second month in November, the Iraqi government has begun growing more authoritarian in response. On Saturday, security forces killed nine people as they cleared out protesters occupying three bridges leading toward the Green Zone. Eyewitnesses reported live bullets and tear gas canisters aimed directly at the demonstrators. This month, the government shut down the internet for a second time, and that same day the first reports began to surface of security forces using live rounds as they pushed back protesters attempting to cross bridges to the Green Zone, where the government sits protected behind concrete barriers originally set up after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Tahrir Square remains a relative haven for demonstrators, but even those in the square say they have been targeted by a pervasive wave of arrests, disappearances, and threats. Many protesters who spoke to Foreign Policy said they were violently intimidated from taking part in the demonstrations. A 15-year-old protester named Ali, who normally drives a red tuk-tuk to help rescue injured protesters, spoke to Foreign Policy on the phone while he said he was in custody, saying he had been arrested during the protests and had faced torture, including beating and electrocution, while imprisoned.
Medics and doctors told Foreign Policy that they were targeted by the security forces when they attempted to treat the severely wounded at the front lines of the protests. On Friday, protesters showed video of a doctor reportedly named Abbas who had been struck in his stomach with a live bullet and later died. “When we went to the Sinak Bridge, forces wearing black started to target us, hitting us with tear gas and sound grenades,” said one young medic who was a dentistry student before joining the protests. “They were aiming directly at heads and backs. They weren’t aiming at limbs.”
For some, the tactics are reminiscent of Saddam Hussein’s regime. “Suppression has existed since the time of Saddam Hussein, and today there is the same type of suppression,” said Muamal Abdul Shaheed al-Sumari, a student organizer who has received threats for his participation in the protests. “But the way the suppression works is different. In the time of Saddam Hussein they were hunting the people from political parties. … But now the people participating are the simple people, people who didn’t participate before.”
The Iraqi Interior Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Protesters are calling for the end of the regime, but neither side seems willing to budge. “They [the government] are using the word, and this is an important word, mukharabeen,” said Renad Mansour, a researcher at Chatham House, a think tank based in London. “The word mukharabeen basically means a disturber or a spoiler. So they’re increasingly seeing more and more of these protesters as spoilers, as a nuisance, as a disturbance.”
The government appears to be attempting to legitimize its crackdown by invoking counterterrorism laws. “Inviting the chief justice of Iraq to security meetings, having the chief justice come out and basically refer to articles of the counterterrorism law basically gives the government a legal justification to use violence, so that becomes part of that repression.
“It looks like the government, the prime minister’s office, has become more and more fed up with these protesters. They now have the legal justifications and the political justifications to be able to crack down harsher and try and remove these protesters from the streets,” Mansour said.
Despite earlier indications that government officials were negotiating the resignation of Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, he has held onto office. This was reportedly due to the interference of Qassem Suleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force, an elite unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, who visited Iraq to prevent Abdul-Mahdi’s ouster.
The United Nations released a statement on Sunday outlining a plan of reforms and calling for an end to violence in the protests. The statement also warned of “spoilers” hijacking the demonstrations, in language remarkably similar to what Mansour had observed as coming from the political class. The action plan put forward by the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq did not include mention of the resignation of Abdul-Mahdi or his government, one of the key demands of the protesters.
In fact, many protesters demand not only a change of government but also a complete change of the governmental system, which is based around sectarian quotas. “What we are asking for is the fall of the regime, specifically the regime that was put into place following the 2003 international occupation of Iraq,” said a civil activist and protester from Nasiriyah who used the pseudonym Hussein.
“The call of the protesters is to essentially break the system, to completely redefine and change the system that is in place,” said an experienced Iraqi analyst who also wished to remain anonymous. The analyst explained that the parliamentary system was created by the United States and its partner European countries after the 2003 invasion. “So the protesters’ calls fundamentally undermine a system that the entire global community is invested in maintaining on both sides: the Iranian side and the American side,” the analyst said.
This is not the first time the Iraqi government has violently repressed protests, although the scale of the current round of protests and the sheer number of deaths are unique. Iraq has a long history of anti-corruption protests stretching from 2011 until the present moment. In 2015 and 2016, Baghdad witnessed another large protest movement that was similarly met with a crackdown. In 2018, the poverty-stricken though oil-rich southern province of Basra erupted with protests demanding clean water, health services, and jobs.
Chatham House’s Mansour said that in 2016 the government was able to appease the protesters, while in Basra officials were able to successfully suppress them. “The government would have preferred to respond [to the current protests] … the way they did in 2016 and promise these sets of reforms, promise a cabinet reshuffle, promise to change the law, and then the protesters would be like, ‘OK great, let’s go home now because we have all these promises,’” Mansour said.
But this time many protesters say they have no intention of leaving or negotiating with the government. They have also become more organized, setting up camp in tents and even running electricity in an abandoned building known as the Turkish Restaurant, which towers over a bridge leading to the Green Zone.
“All of us have been here for 14 to 15 days, leaving our homes, work, and family to stay here. Our demand [is] the total change of the government,” said a 27-year-old protester named Ali Salem, sitting in a tent in Tahrir Square with a group of protesters amid donated blankets and mattresses. “That is our most important demand, that the government be Iraqi and for the Iraqi people only—it cannot follow any other country.”
More than 260 people have been killed and thousands injured since the beginning of October. Protesters showed Foreign Policy videos depicting protesters struck in the head with tear gas canisters, both blood and smoke pouring from their heads. Security forces have targeted protesters directly with military-grade tear gas canisters, according to a recent report by Amnesty International.
Protesters believe the internet was shut down both to prevent organization among protesters and to put an effective blackout on the violence. “They cut the internet so they could attack the protesters directly,” said a protester and civil activist named Ali Chesab. “So we cannot get the news out to the public. The proof is clear: They close the internet, they close the electricity for an hour.” He added that anyone who leaves the protests at that time “can be arrested.”
Chesab and other protesters fear they are being informed on by both state intelligence and by intelligence from paramilitary groups, including Iranian-backed militias within the Popular Mobilization Forces. In key parts of Tahrir Square, protesters have created informal checkpoints to make sure that no one brings weapons into their midst. “It’s psychological warfare,” Chesab said.
“They put informers among us because they do not want these protests to continue. Their chairs and power is the most important thing to them,” said Muslim Fadhel Falah, 26, who holds a master’s degree in economics and traveled from Nasiriyah to take part in Baghdad’s protests.
Sitting in a restaurant near Tahrir Square, al-Sumari, the student organizer, said he felt too tired mentally and physically to eat. Four of his friends have been killed over the past few days, and he has few expectations for the future, Sumari said. “Nobody is one our side, not even God,” he said.
Nov. 12: This story has been updated with new information.