Nov 06,2019 -JORDAN TIMES – MICHAEL JANSEN
Mass protests against mismanagement, corruption and sectarian rule are gripping Iraq, a poor country which should be wealthy. The Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries’ second largest producer, Iraq possesses 12 per cent of the world’s oil reserves. In spite of earnings reaching $17 billion a year, Iraqis suffer from electricity cuts, water shortages, pollution, broken infrastructure, poor healthcare, failing schools and unemployment. Millions have taken to the streets of Baghdad, Kerbala and Basra, and blocked the port of Umm Qasr to put their demands, but the political elite created by the US occupation regime hangs on. Iraqis call for the fall of the current government, a halt to graft, and an end to the sectarian regime imposed by the US and exploited by Iran. “We want a country,” is the heartfelt cry of Iraqis who feel their homeland has been stolen.
More than 255 people have been killed and thousands injured in the latest month-plus protests. A second Tahrir Square, like that in Cairo, has become an icon of another popular uprising. The external powers which are trying to thwart this uprising are, ironically, the US and Iran, regional rivals and longstanding antagonists.
As hundreds of thousands of Iraqis demonstrate across the country, Iraq’s rulers and foreign embassies shelter in the fortified Green Zone created to provide security for the US occupiers after their country toppled president Saddam Hussein in 2003. The expectation in Washington was that US and British forces would be considered “liberators” by Iraqis has not been borne out.
Having learned nothing from the civil war-plagued post-independence history of Lebanon, US Viceroy L. Paul Bremer III imposed that country’s divisive and poisonous sectarian model of governance on Iraq. According to the Iraqi version of this model, the president has to be a Kurd, the prime minister a Shia and the speaker of parliament a Sunni. To make matters worse, Bremer demobilised the Iraqi army, dismissed the civil service and outlawed the ruling Baath party, stripping Iraq of experienced military officers and men and essential administrators. By eradicating the ruling party, Bremer alienated millions of its members. In response, Baathist rebels and radicals terrorised professionals and businessmen who fled the country and settled in Jordan, Syria, Canada and elsewhere.
A sectarian model might have worked if the US had chosen secular Iraqi Shias, as representatives of the largest community, to lead the transition from the secular Baathist one-party government to a non-sectarian multi-party, democratic system. Instead, Washington fixed on figures from Iraq’s banned Shia fundamentalist Dawa movement, many of whom had taken refuge in Iran and are still loyal to Iran. The US supplanted an anti-Iran secular government with a Shia fundamentalist sectarian regime heavily influenced by Tehran.
Consequently, Iran, rather than the US, has become a major focus of popular Iraqi resentment. Iranian consulates in Basra and Karbala have come under attack with protesters chanting, “Iran out”. Tehran was concerned enough about hostile feeling that it dispatched Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, head of the elite Quds force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, to Baghdad to try and rescue Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi. Soleimani, reportedly, pressured Shia leaders not to abandon Abdel Mahdi, who was, and is, a weak, compromise candidate for the premiership. Protesters responded to Soleimani’s intervention last Friday with largest ever demonstrations and have continued to pour into the streets of cities and towns across Iraq.
It is highly significant that the demonstrations, which initially were mounted by men, have been joined by women and groups of school children. They, like Lebanese parents, are protesting that children are losing their futures.
On Monday, despite a warning from the Education Ministry, tens of thousands of university students flowed into Baghdad’s Tahrir Square and to streets and squares in other cities to reaffirm their demand for the ouster of the government. They took up the chant, “No school, no class, until the regime collapses”. Activists circulated video material on the internet showing security forces striking school girls and firing tear gas, water cannon and live rounds into crowds. At least five were killed. Teachers’ and other organised labour went on strike. High school students in Mosul were arrested when they demonstrated.
The Iraqi education and health sectors have been seriously deprived for years. The number of teachers has shrunk, many schools have three shifts a day and classes can have 650 pupils. Many children leave school before completing their education. Tens of thousands of children still in displaced camps are denied the chance to go to school. Currently, 96.4 per cent of Iraqis have no health insurance and they have to rely on government services which are underfunded, understaffed and lacking essential medications.
Parents who grew up during the 1970s and 1980s contrast the current situation with that under Saddam Hussein who, after nationalising Iraqi oil in 1972, focused on eradic aating illiteracy and providing free education as well as healthcare and subsidies for farmers. His programmes deteriorated after his occupation of Kuwait in 1990 due to sanctions and warfare but this was accelerated by the 2003 US occupation of Iraq, resistance by anti-US groups, and the campaigns against Al Qaeda’s affiliates and Daesh. Conflict as well as mismanagement, corruptionand sectarianism has also made Iraqis poor, stressed and frustrated