Forty people were killed in protests in Iraq on Friday. Nevertheless, demonstrations against corruption continue on Saturday.
Some bridges to the Green Zone have been sealed off – but demonstrators are finding a way Photo: Hadi Mizban/ap
Protests in Iraq continued Saturday – despite more than 40 deaths the previous day. Shortly before a special session of parliament, hundreds of people took to the streets in the capital Baghdad to demand reforms, a new government and an end to corruption. Activists also called for further protests in the Shiite-dominated south of the country, where 42 people were killed on Friday, despite curfews.
Even with a massive deployment of tear gas, security forces were unable to drive protesters from Baghdad’s central Tahrir Square on Saturday. It is located near the specially protected Green Zone, where the parliament had planned to discuss the demonstrators’ demands and Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi’s reform plans at a special session in the afternoon.
During the protests on Friday, demonstrators also set fire to government buildings and the headquarters of political parties and armed groups for the first time. Many were shot dead when they tried to storm buildings belonging to the Shiite Hashed al-Shayabi militia. Authorities then imposed a curfew in several provinces in the south.
Since the beginning of the protests in Iraq in early October, nearly 200 people have died, the vast majority of them demonstrators. The original triggers were corruption and high unemployment, as well as poor electricity and water supplies in the country. In the meantime, however, the protests are increasingly directed against the country’s political and religious elite.
Tough fight against corruption
The mainly young demonstrators accuse the elites of having done nothing to improve the situation of the people in the country in the 16 years since the fall of dictator Saddam Hussein.
In Iraq, one in five citizens lives in poverty. According to the World Bank, youth unemployment is around 25 percent. The country, which is Opec’s second-largest oil producer, is ranked by Transparency International as the twelfth most corrupt state in the world. According to official figures, corruption has cost the country a total of 410 billion euros since 2003, twice as much as its gross domestic product.
In view of the protests, Prime Minister Mahdi has promised a series of political and sociopolitical reforms. These include a new system for filling public offices, a lower minimum age for candidates in elections, higher pensions and a restructuring of the cabinet. However, the parties in parliament are so divided that many decisions are blocked.
Rivalries between the militias make political solutions even more difficult. The Hashed al-Shaabi Alliance is dominated by pro-Iranian militias such as the Iraqi Hezbollah brigades, with which the followers of radical nationalist Shiite leader Moktada al-Sadr compete. According to Middle East expert Harith Hasan, Sadr supporters* also reportedly took part in violence against Hashed-al-Shayabi on Friday.
Many demonstrators in Baghdad care little about these rivalries. They simply want to be better governed, as one of them emphasizes: "Enough! The looting, the thefts, the gangs, the mafia, the state within the state," the man said Saturday. "We want a functioning state, people just want to live."