McLARTY FIRST TAKE: Continued unrest in Iraq and uncertain path forward

October 29, 2019


    • Protests have escalated across Baghdad and Southern Iraq, resulting in the death of over 75 demonstrators, and the vandalization of offices across the
      Iraqi political spectrum.
    • Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi’s efforts to quell the protests through traditional tools such as economic reforms, cabinet changes, and muscular security interventions have not dissuaded Iraqis from protesting and indicates the public dissatisfaction with the post-Saddam structure.
    • The ineffectiveness of government policy response increase in protests and protestor casualties, and current unwillingness by credible religious authorities to intervene and mediate leaves unclear what will prevent further escalation and political volatility surrounding this crisis.


Since Friday, Baghdad and Southern Iraq have witnessed growing protests and violence that has resulted in the death of 75 and the injury of 3,600 protestors. Protestors stormed and burned the headquarters of multiple ruling parties and their affiliated militias. In Baghdad, security forces used live ammunition to prevent demonstrations from entering the Green Zone- a sanctuary and highly protected area for the government and foreign embassies. While the situation is still fluid, there is no sign of de-escalation, especially with increasing death tolls among protestors in major southern Iraqi cities.

These protests are a continuation of a series of protests that started in the first week of October. The demonstrations were sparked by PM Abdul-Mahdi’s move to sideline national hero General Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi, which was viewed as pandering to Iran. The demonstrations spread to Baghdad and the main urban areas and quickly shifted focus to protest economic deterioration. In response, the Iraqi military and security services used live ammunition and tear gas to disperse the demonstrations, resulting in the death of more than 150 protesters and wounding more than six thousand.

In the few weeks since protests first erupted, PM Abdul-Mahdi has given concessions to the angry public, such as a cabinet reshuffle, a reduction in top officials’ salaries, and the creation of an investigation committee which has already recommended the removal of security and military officers involved in the killing of protestors. Despite these concessions, the call for mass protests on October 25th continued to gain traction, influenced by the protests in Lebanon and by the vocal support of Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the biggest parliamentary block (Saairun).



Iraq has witnessed many waves of widespread protest in recent years, but this time, the protests are more spontaneous, more decentralized, and, above all, more comprehensive in their rejection of the political order than in previous years.

Since the start of protests earlier this month, the current uprising symbolizes protesters’ perception of the failure of Iraqi governance. The Iraqi public appears to feel increasingly trapped in a political and economic system that they claim serve the interests of the various sectarian leaders but denies them representation, economic opportunity, and functioning services. In this way, the current wave of protests suggests a departure from typical sectarian politics and a more widescale dismissal of the entire post-Saddam political structure.

A crucial aspect of the current unrest is the background of the protesters themselves. The protestors represent a younger generation that has not been affiliated with mainstream political forces. Given the wide array of protestors and the political parties’ headquarters that have been burned, it appears that the protestors are not sparing any of the mainstream forces from blame for the current state of Iraq. Furthermore, the current protests come with the support of the Sunni population, but without their participation, because of their justified fear of being portrayed as ISIS sympathizers or Baath affiliates.

While the situation is still unfolding, we are closely watching three potential developments:

  1. Pro-Iran Shia leaders losing influence over their constituents: Despite officials’ warnings, protesters and al-Sadr himself are taking advantage of Arbaeen- a mournful holy gathering that attracts thousands of Shia pilgrims – to widen the scale of anti-government protests. On Friday, the Iran-backed Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq militia started a street fight with the Shia inhabitants in Maysan Governorate. The pro-Iran Shia leaders’ violent reaction to the Shia protestors widens the growing rift and promotes al-Sadr and his version of a national Iraqi Shi’ism.
  2. A call for new elections: Since the beginning of these protests, al-Sadr and his coalition, Saairun, have called for the government to resign and for early elections. Al-Sadr, among a growing number of political figures, increasingly believes that PM Abdul-Mahdi’s government must resign in response to increasing public dissatisfaction. Earlier today, al-Sadr publicly called on PM Abdul-Mahdi to announce new parliamentary elections under international supervision, and ban the current political parties, except those who have the “confidence” of the people.
  3. The Iranian response to the wave of protests: The protests started in Shia-majority cities that are historically part of Iran’s sphere of influence. Iran’s sway over Baghdad and the decision to sideline General al-Saadi fueled the chants against Iran, which highlights a growing rift between the Iraqi Shia population and Tehran. We expect that Iran will increase its involvement in oppressing the demonstrations directly if the current Iran-backed militias are unable to contain the protests from spreading further than they already have.

PM Abdul-Mahdi’s reforms could not contain the protests after their start earlier this month. The increasing death tolls may propel the protestors to shift to violence across southern Iraq. Additionally, if the pro-Iran militias are unable to quell the protests and Tehran decides to interfere directly, a larger conflict could very well ensue. MA will continue to monitor the situation closely.

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