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Iraqi protesters need lasting, not interim, solutions

An Iraqi protester waves a national flag while demonstrating outside the burnt-down local government headquarters in the southern city of Basra on September 7, 2018 during demonstrations over poor public services. [HAIDAR MOHAMMED ALI/AFP via Getty Images]
An Iraqi protester waves a national flag while demonstrating outside the burnt-down local government headquarters in Iraq on 7 September 2018 [HAIDAR MOHAMMED ALI/AFP/Getty Images]

The Iraqi government claims to be investigating the killing of peaceful protesters only from last month. It is thus ignoring the 800+ victims who have been killed since the outbreak of the protests in October last year. This reflects the government's attempt to buy time in order to ignore the wider problem of why we have seen a popular uprising which rejects the sectarian politics in Iraq, poor public services, youth unemployment and the presence of militias in everyday life.

This strategy is similar to the government's attempt to name a new prime minister and cabinet from January until May this year, whilst leaving the same political parties, same ethno-sectarian quota and same militias which are involved in rampant corruption in Iraq's public sector. To be fair, though, this is probably the first time that the Iraqi government has acknowledged publicly that protesters have been killed by the security forces. Blame is normally laid at the door of "third parties" to such an extent that the term is used sarcastically on social media.

Today's "third party" is usually a reference to the militias which are mainly the armed wings of the major political parties and most probably supported by and aligned with the pro-Iran interest group in Iraq. The protest movement's discourse is focused heavily on Iran's hegemonic and expansionist intervention in its neighbour.

READ: Iraq protesters storm Dhi Qar Governorate building over poor services

The October Uprising has challenged the entire political order Iraq, an order that is managed and militarised by political and religious parties that are utilising its diverse society through ethno-sectarian fragmentation in order to overshadow the theft of Iraq's public funds and ongoing corruption. This is all protected by international and regional powers who share certain common interests with such political groups.

Some of the political parties in today's Iraq started out as militias before transforming themselves into parties in order to get elected. They now control ministries and other public departments. Hence, the political establishment and its militant and regional networks will not give in to the largely youth-led protest movement which poses a threat to their organisational and institutional existence.

The opening session of New Iraqi Parliament held at the Parliament Building on 3 September 2018 in Baghdad, Iraq. [Haydar Karaalp - Anadolu Agency]

A parliamentary session at the Parliament Building in Baghdad, Iraq on 3 September 2018 [Haydar Karaalp/Anadolu Agency]

It is true that changing the cabinet and prime ministers over the past year due to public pressure is a symbolic achievement, as is pushing the new government to change the discourse about the killing of protesters from the so-called "third party" to the "security forces" this week. However, that does not solve Iraq's drastic economic, security and environmental issues. Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi himself claimed that his government cannot be responsible for the actions of his predecessors, so he must act and handle issues that have more of a long-term instead of a short-term impact.

For instance, corruption is viewed as the major obstacle to any of Iraq's state building initiatives. It is an issue that grew gradually during the US-led sanctions against Saddam Hussein's regime in the 1990s, particularly through the UN oil for food programme which was entangled in major fraud. It became established in a more evident and strong way, though, following the US-led invasion in 2003 up to the present day.

READ: Iraqi teenager mistreated by security forces freed from jail, meets PM

Bribery, fake projects and overpriced initiatives and procurements overshadow the country's electricity, oil and gas, defence and security, customs, judiciary and other sectors. In other words, corruption, like many other deficiencies in Iraq's political system, is a result of years of illegal processes, and so will need years of counteractions to produce the drastic reforms and changes that are essential. Instead of arresting two or three police officers who have still not been identified publically, for example, Iraq needs to restructure the leadership of the armed and police forces to ensure that they are free of party politics and the ethno-sectarian quota rule. This would be a good place to begin the process.

The fundamental demands of the protest movement are based upon an overhaul of the ethno-sectarian political system, tackling corruption, introducing economic reforms to enhance employability and putting an end to the political violence committed by militant groups. These are all issues that require radical institutional, economic and constitutional changes. Like the protesters, Iraq needs long-term, not interim, solutions.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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