It takes courage to face snipers and military grade tear gas canisters day after day. The canisters aren’t as lethal as bullets, but they can embed themselves in a person’s flesh, fizzing like fireworks, choking anyone who comes near and leaving dreadful injuries.
Tear gas and live rounds are the ammunition of choice of the police and plainclothes militias trying to grind Iraq’s new revolutionaries into submission.
Why this story?
Iraq is in the throes of a secular revolution. It needs support, but the world has looked the other way.
When young protesters took to the streets of Baghdad last October it was the first time since the fall of Saddam Hussein that Iraqis had demanded a modern, democratic alternative to Sunni-Shia sectarianism. Against the odds, the protesters are still there. Andrew North, an artist and former BBC Baghdad correspondent, returned to report on a movement that could reshape the Middle East. Giles Whittell, editor
Trying, and failing. For the past five months, tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of young people have camped out in Baghdad and other cities demanding the wholesale eviction of a political class that has delivered only violence, division and corruption.
More than 600 people are reported to have been killed since the uprising began, most of them protesters. Thousands more have been injured, but the outside world has paid little attention: the US and Britain, whose invasion in 2003 cleared a path to power for Iraq’s political elite, have condemned the violence but largely ignored the protests. Far more coverage was given to last year’s pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong where – for comparison – two people died.
Initially at least, the killings only brought more people to the protests. Their demands have remained constant: new elections, new leadership, an end to Iranian meddling in their country and an end to America’s military presence.
“We are a generation born in your wars,” one banner from the early days of the protests read. “We spent our youth in your terrorism. We are the generation of stolen dreams.”
This is an uprising born of those that tore Iraq apart after the 2003 invasion, but quite unlike them. It is neither Sunni nor Shia, but explicitly anti-sectarian.
“I don’t care about sect,” Aman, a medical student volunteering at the protests, told me. “What will the sect do for us? We should be free to take the path we want. Of course we remember the violence because we were growing up then and we saw the results… but really, [that’s] an issue for older generations.”
Her own generation has confounded sceptics by refusing to quit. It represents the most serious challenge to Iraq’s political culture since the downfall of Saddam Hussein, and a stunning rejection of a 17-year experiment in state-building that has cost America $2.5 trillion.
That experiment, for the most part, has been a blood-soaked disaster.
On 1 May 2003 the younger President Bush declared major combat operations in Iraq ended. Since then more than 280,000 Iraqis have died in insurgencies, civil wars and the fight against Islamic State.
Each new phase of violence has entrenched a political system that the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index now calls “authoritarian”. Behind the trappings of democracy and the blast walls of the Green Zone, power is parcelled out to a small pool of ethnic and sectarian leaders.
Some of these leaders are Sunni; some are Kurds; most are Shia – and the fundamental complaint of Aman and her generation is that the political order left by the US after its invasion enshrines these divisions.
The main parties stand for Shia, Sunni or Kurdish interests. After every vote (there are parliamentary elections every four years) ministries are assigned to these groups along with a share of oil revenues, which account for 90 per cent of all government income.
This process has laid the foundations for an enormous and intricate system of patronage dominated by leaders of the Shia majority. Those without the right contacts or the means to pay the bribes to get a job are left out.
The chief beneficiary has been Iran, and this is the supreme irony of America’s long intervention. Its biggest rival in the region has been able to assert more control over Iraq since 2003 than by fighting Saddam’s armies to a standstill in the 1980s. Its proxies are Shia politicians and militia figures to whom it once gave refuge from Saddam. As one protester put it to me: “The Americans destroyed the country and opened it up to al-Qaeda, Iran and its militias. America handed Iraq on a plate to Iran.”
The economy staggered through the war with Isis but remains overwhelmingly dependent on oil. With world prices under $50 a barrel, growth is flatlining. Youth unemployment stands at 40 per cent and unemployment among women at 80. According to the UN around 20 per cent of Iraqis live in poverty.
“Need watan,” is one of their favourite slogans. “We need a country.”
On social media they link to the hashtag “I am coming to demand my rights,” and they set off for Tahrir Square in the heart of Old Baghdad to do just that.
They assembled there for the first time on 1 October last year. Most of those who showed up wanted to protest against the demotion of an army general popular for his role in defeating Isis. State security forces responded with water cannon, tear gas and then live rounds. Ten protesters were killed and a pattern was established: demonstration, over-reaction and the spread of the uprising.
When I visited the front line it felt like a scene from a sci-fi urban war: security forces and protesters faced off outside an ancient Shia shrine in the centre of Baghdad. Many of the protesters wore only medical face masks and baseball caps for protection. Others were wrapped in surplus military equipment; flak jackets, gas masks helmets – no shortage of that sort of kit in Iraq. Some had catapults and ammunition pouches full of Molotov cocktails, with shields cut from oil barrels.
The security forces cut a mixed picture too. One group was dressed in conventional police riot gear, a few of them carrying tear-gas launchers. But you could also see men in balaclavas and jeans, armed with Kalashnikovs or what appeared to be hunting rifles, sheltering behind nearby trees.
It was hard to be sure, but some of these men were almost certainly members of the Iranian-backed militias embedded within Iraq’s security forces. It is these groups that are accused of orchestrating violent attempts to crush the protests. The government denies any responsibility, but Baghdad’s arrangement with Iran is an open secret.
Adel Abdul Mahdi, the acting prime minister, has been unable to form a coalition since last year and wields only nominal authority. The result, on the street, is a power vacuum being filled by militias on one side – answering to Shia leaders and by extension to Tehran – and protesters on the other.
For several hours these two sides sparred without moving. Then suddenly things changed. There were bursts of gunfire from further up the street, followed by a hissing sound and the clunk of metal canisters landing on tarmac.
“Don’t run away,” one young protester shouted, pulling down his face mask. “Go back!” But there was no arguing with the sound of bullets or with the tear gas cloud now rolling down the street. What began as a trickle of people soon turned into a chaotic surge.
Several hundred young men and women were now sprinting for safety, leaping over barricades and debris left behind from earlier clashes. A man tripped and sprawled in the road. Others coming up behind dragged him to his feet. Then came a wave of red and yellow tuk tuks carrying injured people, with young men yelling at their comrades to move aside.
Just visible through the tear gas haze, a cluster of balaclava-clad figures were moving forward, their weapons raised to fire again.
Later I sat down with Kareem (not his real name), a young volunteer medic who joined the protests when they started. Like the men firing the tear gas he happens to be from a Shia family, but he shares neither their goals nor their allegiance.
“It’s the religious parties backed by Iran that are the problem,” he said. “These protests against the religious parties have been building for years. We don’t care about Sunni and Shia. We want a secular government.”
Kareem’s father, a retired civil servant, took issue with the instinct to blame Iran. He said all parties were responsible for Iraq’s political and economic paralysis, and that his son had fallen prey to foreign media and holdovers from the Saddam era.
“The problem is that my father is scared of my generation and my views,” said Kareem, getting up to leave because he’d heard enough.
Iraq: a timeline
A story of 30 years of upheaval and intervention.READ MORE
Iraq: a timeline
A story of 30 years of upheaval and intervention.
1990: First Gulf War. Saddam Hussein leads the Iraqi invasion and annexation of Kuwait, sparking the first Gulf War. A US-led military campaign forces Iraq to withdraw in February 1991. Disputes continue throughout the 1990s over foreign inspection of Iraqi arms facilities. The US imposes sanctions.
20 March 2003: US and UK-led invasion begins. Following 9/11, when planes were flown into the World Trade Center and Pentagon, US President George W. Bush identifies Iraq as part of an “axis of evil” alongside North Korea and Iran. A year later, in 2002, the UK produces a dossier claiming evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and aerial bombardment begins in March 2003.
13 December 2003: The fall of Saddam Hussein. Saddam is captured by the US military, after his Sunni regime loses control of Baghdad within a month of the invasion’s start. While Bush declares victory, thousands of Sunni soldiers, unemployed and angry, join a counter-insurgency that will last years.
2005-2006: Sectarian violence. 478 suicide bomb attacks take place in 2005, as sectarian fighting besets Iraq between the newly empowered Shia majority and deposed Sunni insurgents, including an emboldened al-Qaeda in Iraq. The Shia leader, Nouri al-Maliki, is asked by President Jalal Talabani to form a government, while Saddam is hanged for his perpetration of a 1982 genocide against Shias.
2011: US troop withdrawal. President Barack Obama withdraws the bulk of US troops from Iraq, after the UK ended combat operations in 2009. Iraq lives under a new, repressive Shia regime.
April 2013: al-Qaeda in Iraq power grab. Three years after the US troop drawdown, a faction of al-Qaeda in Iraq morphs into Islamic State in Iraq (ISI), led by the extremist Islamic scholar Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. He attacks Iraqi prisons, freeing former jihadists and recruiting new ones, and aims to unite al-Qaeda groups in Iraq and Syria; ISI becomes Isis.
2014: Isis surge. Isis sweeps through Iraq and takes control of a third of its territory. With the Sunnis tired of the corrupt and authoritarian Shia-led government, the Iraqi army folds quickly. The murder of journalist James Foley and genocide of Yazidi Christians helps to provoke a US attack to halt Isis’s spread.
November 2017: ISIS pushed back. Supported by Kurdish allies and Shia militias, the Iraqi Government drives Isis out of all but a few strongholds. October 2019: Elections – and protests. Elected President Barham Salih, a Kurd, appoints Adel Abdul Mahdi as prime minister and he is backed by Shia MPs. Protests against unemployment and corruption across Baghdad and other cities spark intense violence, with over 600 deaths. Mahdi resigns, and unrest continue to this day.
Across town in Sunni-dominated Amiriyah I met Aman and Fatima, sisters and medical students with more in common with Kareem than with their parents’ generation. They too have choked on the tear gas at the protests, bringing food and working and medical volunteers. Why? “Because if I have children I want them to have a better life,” Aman said. “With these protests, change has started. The ruling political groups have failed to attend to the interests of the young who have grown up since 2003. Now it’s our turn.”
The nerve centre of the movement has been Tahrir Square, which the protesters have filled with tents and blocked off from normal traffic except for their signature tut-tuks. It has had a carnival atmosphere, with incense sticks and poetry outside the “people’s theatre” tent. Volunteer medics staff makeshift clinics stocked with donated drugs. At times the protesters have also occupied the shell of a multi-storey building overlooking the square. Known locally as the “Turkish restaurant” – for a planned but never finished restaurant on the top floor – this was partly a defensive measure to deny snipers a vantage point.
On the days I was there a frontline had formed a few blocks away in Khilani square, which takes its name from the turquoise-domed mosque nearby. It is one of the landmarks of this part of Baghdad, and another sacred place for Shias.
Thirteen years ago, a suspected Sunni suicide bomber detonated a truck filled with TNT and propane gas tanks outside the Khilani mosque, killing at least 80 people and injuring hundreds more. It was at the height of the sectarian bloodshed unleashed by the US invasion, when al-Qaeda in Iraq – from which Isis was later born – repeatedly launched mass-casualty attacks against the Shias in this part of Old Baghdad.
There is no memorial here to those who died. In any case, that bombing was not unusual. There are many other places within minutes of the Khilani mosque where even more people were blown to pieces by al-Qaeda. Only memories keep those dreadful events alive, but they burn deep. And for the Shia politicians who now hold most of the power in Iraq that terrible era is one reason they fight so hard to hang on.
These Shias nurse paranoid theories about what is behind the protests – that they are an American plot aimed at paving the way for a Sunni army general to seize power in a military coup. Or that naïve youngsters are opening the way for the Sunni extremists of Isis to return.
This sort of mindset leaves little room for compromise on the protesters’ demands for new elections. Nor does it help bring the two sides closer that the protest movement is proudly egalitarian. “How can we talk to them when they don’t have any leaders?” a former prime ministerial advisor complained to me.
In some respects Iraq has seen all this before. A century ago the still-emerging nation rose up against British colonial rule in what became known as the 1920 revolution. Ayatollah Muhammad Taqi al-Shirazi, a senior Shia cleric, called for nationwide anti-government protests, and from Baghdad the uprising spread to towns and cities across the country.
British forces crushed the revolution, then pursued a policy of divide and rule that elevated Sunnis over the Shia majority for the next 83 years. It was an imbalance that lasted until Saddam was overthrown. Then, when Iraq’s new American rulers signed off on an ethnic and sectarian-based political system after the invasion, the Shias seized their chance to make sure they were never excluded from power again.
Iraq: key figures
The caretaker: Adel Abdul Mahdi. The 77-year-old compromise candidate became Prime Minister after October 2019 elections, but Mahdi agreed to step down after his government’s handling of protests that have brought 600 deaths on Iraq’s streets. Facing a fiendishly difficult task given the effects of a US occupation and a war with Isis on the country’s public services and infrastructure, the Shia leader had commanded the support of the parliament, but will now only be caretaker PM until a new leader is found. The critic: Moqtada al-Sadr. The most prominent Shia leader in Iraq, al-Sadr has been a key stakeholder in every government since 2003. The cleric led a merciless Shia militia in the late 2000s which brutalised Sunni communities, but he worked more pragmatically across denominations and civil society in the past decade. Sadr’s supporters have historically led anti-government protests, but this new wave of demonstrators are younger and have distanced themselves from al-Sadr, whose role in Iraq’s future government is ambiguous.
The protester. The thousands mobilised on the streets are proudly leaderless; they are a tech-savvy generation of millennials who bear little memory of historic grievances, uniting around core demands for better public services and an end to corrupt political parties. Occupying Tahrir Square in Baghdad, protesters providing medical and legal help are targeted by the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), with kidnappings, torture and extra-judicial killings common, especially of women. Saba al-Mahdawi, a 35-year-old accountant and volunteer medic, was kidnapped for 11 days, and since her release has maintained a forced silence. Ali Jaseb Hattab al-Heliji, a 29-year-old lawyer, was kidnapped by suspected PMF members for speaking out on social media about violence against protesters, and has not resurfaced.
The most-wanted: Abu Musab al-Zarqawi: The leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq during the US occupation, Zarqawi was one of the terrorist leaders most feared by both the West and the Arab world. With little evidence, Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State during the war, cited Zarqawi’s presence in Iraq as a link between Saddam Hussein and al–Qaeda. Zarkawi drew Sunni fighters from across the Middle East to join his insurgency, and his death from an American air strike in 2006 was a major turning point in the war.
The ‘caliph’: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Al-Baghdadi led Islamic State from its inception to its fall, and died in October 2019 during US operations in Syria. The pious Sunni cleric studied for various degrees in Islamic studies in Baghdad in the 1990s, and comprehensively radicalised a generation of fighters from inside a US prison camp during the occupation. In 2010, after Baghdadi was named the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, which had become Islamic State, he was known as ‘Caliph Ibrahim’ to followers. His televised sermons became famous for evoking the style of 1st-century Muslim preachers.
Their interests mesh with Iran’s. For Tehran, Iraq is the bridgehead to an “axis of resistance” running from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon. For Iraq’s Shia elite, Iran is where they fled to and regrouped during the Saddam years; where they trained and bonded in militias and exiled parties, and formed close personal relationships.
Of these, few were closer than the one between Qassim Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Quds force, and Abu Mehdi al-Muhandis, leader of Iraq’s Kataib Hezbollah militia. When they were killed in the same instant by a US drone strike on the airport road in January, it was well documented that they were working together to orchestrate the Iraqi crackdown on the protesters.
Soleimani’s death at the hands of the Americans was an affront to Iraqi sovereignty. For a while it muted the protesters’ anti-Iranian fervour – but only for a while.
The truth is the tortured history of the Iran-Iraq relationship means much less to the protesters than to their parents. Many of those taking insane risks against automatic weapons today were toddlers when sectarian carnage was ripping through Baghdad. Yet they are the majority now. At least two thirds of the Iraqi population are under 25.
“We want our nation back,” said Haidar, 19, dressed in a black hoodie and red sneakers, one of a group of protesters taking cover behind a concrete blast wall on the edge of Khilani Square. Wouldn’t it help if you had leaders to represent you? I asked. “If we did, [the militias] would just go and assassinate them,” another hooded protester replied.
Even for a country so used to bloodshed, it is astonishing that the protests have continued this long after so many deaths – not only in Baghdad, but in southern cities including Basra, Hillah and Nasiriya.
Simply surviving this long has been a victory for the protesters. Twenty were killed on their first Saturday on the streets. By the next Monday 106 were dead and more than 6,000 injured. Those who stayed despite the risks were infiltrated by the security forces, and many suffered mysterious stabbings. Medics have been targeted with “utter disregard” for their essential role, says Human Rights Watch. Lawyers and journalists have been singled out for intimidation as well. More than a few have been arrested and not heard from since.
There are fewer young people on the streets and in Tahrir Square now than last October, but they have shown their ability to persist and organise. Their medical tents are still well-stocked, and in early March they claimed another victory when the man appointed as interim prime minister, Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi, stepped down. The ruling parties had hoped he would be able to form a coalition to face down the protests.
“I tried by all possible means to save Iraq from drifting to the unknown,” Allawi said. But, he added, the country’s political class was not serious about the reforms demanded by the protesters and by a public that broadly supports them.
The Arab Spring, in 2011, passed Iraq by. The cradle of civilisation was a war zone at the time and remained one for six more years. If there is a new dawn in Baghdad now, it’s been a long time coming.
In November 2005 the Bush White House published a ‘National Strategy for Victory in Iraq’. It stated accurately that “what happens in Iraq will influence the fate of the Middle East for generations to come”.
Six years later the bulk of the US force deployed there since 2003 – the biggest expeditionary force fielded by any nation since the Vietnam war, numbering more than 170,000 at its peak – withdrew. As it did, President Obama flew in to declare America was leaving behind “a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq”.
It was none of these things; nor is it now. But sovereignty, stability and self-reliance are what the generation of the Iraq Spring yearns for, and their cause is not lost. Iraq is not the bastion of democracy that Bush’s acolytes envisioned, but for all its troubles it is the only Arab country other than Tunisia to have staged regular elections since 2011. Falling oil prices due to the coronavirus epidemic could further weaken the government and strengthen the protesters’ position. And if there is a moral high ground in Iraq, they hold it.
The 40 mm tear gas canisters they face for daring to demand a better life have been traced by Amnesty International to Iran and Serbia. The protesters have fought back, sometimes with violence. In December last year, unidentified demonstrators set fire to the Iranian consulate in the southern city of Najaf as anger at Tehran’s influence flared.
In Baghdad I watched demonstrators using Molotov cocktails, and catapults to fire marbles and other projectiles at the security forces. But for the most part the protesters’ challenge has been in their resilience and their presence, and with whistles, trumpets and music.
Dark forces loom. The state has shown its ruthlessness and the remnants of Isis are still at large in parts of Iraq, waiting to exploit any opportunity. But even if the government and its militia allies succeed in clearing the protesters from the streets to win this round, this uprising could easily revive.
An Iraqi friend reminded me of a popular old saying: “Yesterday is better than today, and today is better than tomorrow.” Translation: things could get much worse. And yet these people who have lost their fear have tasted an alternative. It’s possible that history is on their side.
(This story has been amended since publication and some names have been changed.)
Reporter: Andrew North
Researcher: Tom Goulding
Editors: Giles Whittell and Basia Cummings
Interactive: Michael Kowalski
Design: Jon Hill
Picture Editors: Jon Jones and Joe Mee
Illustrations: Andrew North
Photographs: Getty Images