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February 24, 2011 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 671

Iraq Enters a State of Turmoil; Mass Demonstration Planned for 'Friday of Rage'

February 24, 2011 | By Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli
Iraq | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 671

Introduction

Recent events in the Middle East and, in particular, the ongoing violent suppression by the Qadhafi regime of the revolt in Libya, have attracted most of recent media attention, while the brewing turmoil in Iraq appears to have remained below the radar. But a big shock may be in the offing.

Throughout February, there have almost been daily demonstrations in many Iraqi cities, , mostly nonviolent, except for the demonstrations in the last few days in the city of Suleimaniya in the province of Kurdistan in which two have died and 124 have been injured. All the as-yet-local demonstrations were against the widespread corruption at all levels of government and the security forces; high unemployment; rising prices of food supplies; and poor public services, particularly the severe shortage of electricity and inadequate supply of potable water.

Corruption in Iraq has become legendary. A week ago, the Integrity Commission announced that it was suing hundreds of government employees for embezzlement of $30 billion. Shortly thereafter, the Iraqi Parliament appointed two special committees to investigate the "disappearance" of $41 billion from the Iraqi Development Fund.[1] It is possible that elements of the two figures overlap, but the order of magnitude of the corruption is stirring the Iraqi street, which is clamoring for change.

Marching on Baghdad – One Million Marchers

In "Proclamation No. 1," issued February 20, organizers referring to themselves as "the Youth of February 25" but remaining unnamed are calling for a one-million-marcher demonstration, planned for Friday, February 25 (the day of rage). The date chosen by the youth movement may have to do with the "January 25 Revolution" in Egypt.[2] The idea of Proclamation No. 1 is also significant. In the long turbulent history of the Middle East, "Proclamation No. 1" usually signals the launch of a coup by the military; it was also the tool used by the Egyptian High Command to announce their takeover the government of Egypt upon the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak.

The February 20 Proclamation No. 1 calls on the Iraqi population to support the uprising [intifada] of the youth for a brighter future for the Iraqis, and for bringing to trial those who stole the nation's wealth. The proclamation insists that Iraq will become "neither a Taliban state nor wilayat al-faqih [the "rule of the jurisprudent – a reference to the clerical regime in Iran.] Most notable is the appeal to the security forces not to direct their weapons against "your sons and brothers. Defend them and support them. They are your future." The organizers said that all the banners carried by the demonstrators will be in support of an independent and unified Iraq and will be devoid of sectarianism.

Clergy Support for the Demonstration

The support of the clergy, both Shi'a and Sunni, began to galvanize in the February 18 Friday sermons in the mosques by clerics and preachers who came out strongly in favor of Iraqis' right to demonstrate. Leading the way was Abd al-Mahdi al-Karbala'i, the special representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Speaking at the Great Mosque in the holy city of Najaf, Al-Karbala'i expressed his support for the legitimate right of the people "to protest and demonstrate" to demand their basic needs, to raise their standard of living, and to reduce their suffering.

Another cleric, Sayyed Sadr al-din al-Qabanchi of the Supreme Islamic Council, offered to take to the streets "to secure the legitimate demands of the people." He denounced those who argued that the demonstrators are politically motivated and insisted that they are protesting in the streets against corruption and poor public services. He added pointedly that he had in his possession documents that implicate high-level judges in acts of corruption. He also accused the Iraqi ministers of electricity and trade of wasting billions of dollars on fictitious deals.[3]

The big boost for the organizers was delivered by al-Sistani himself as well as by Sunni clerics, labor unions, tribal chiefs and civil societies. Al-Sistani confirmed the rights of Iraqis to demonstrate against corruption and the lack of public services, and issued instructions to his representatives in all of the provinces to support the demonstrators provided they remain peaceful and avoid harming public or private property. Sheikh Assaf al-Duleimi, a Sunni cleric, hailed al-Sistani's position which, al Duleimi said, is consistent with the national and popular position.[4]

A Frightened Government Makes Promises

Fearing that the mass demonstration, referred to in the Iraqi press as "the Great Iraqi Revolution," "the Internet Demonstration," or "the Bread Revolution," could turn into a popular uprising against the government, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has resorted to a combination of promises and threats. By next summer, al-Maliki intoned, small towns and villages will be supplied with their own generators and will be cut off from the national grid to free up more power for the city dwellers. He said within a year and a half, Iraq will be an exporter rather an importer of electricity. He also promised to ensure the uninterrupted availability of food supplies for food ration card holders. To that effect, the government has decided to cancel the purchase of a squadron of F16 fighter jets and, instead, reallocate the money to purchase food commodities. It has also indefinitely suspended earlier regulations that would have levied tariffs, as high as 80% in some cases, on imported goods and commodities.

Earlier in the month, the government decided to grant every Iraqi a cash allowance equivalent of $12 to compensate for the shortage of subsidized food items supplied under the rationing system.[5]

Warnings to Demonstrators

Al-Maliki also delivered a warning. At a meeting with tribal chiefs and, later, with teachers on February 22, al-Maliki warned that some political groups which he did not name might take advantage of the demonstrations to bring down the regime [which he referred to as the political process], accusing websites that "glorify and promote the ancien regime." He was referring to Facebook and Twitter, used by the organizers to mobilize the youth.

Nevertheless, he assured the demonstrators that the security forces would protect them. His promise came in the wake of an attack launched a night earlier by about 60 knife wielding individuals on demonstrators who were camping at Tahrir (Liberation) Square in the center of Baghdad; in that attack, one person was killed and a number of others were wounded.

Some observers have warned that the Iraqi society is tribal and that if similar events occur during the planned mass demonstration, the political process will become bloody or may even collapse.[6]

In the meantime, the government decided to close most roads leading from Anbar province, on the Syrian border, because of a real concern that Al-Qaeda elements might do harm to the demonstrators. Otherwise, no curfew was planned for Friday.[7] 'Ali Al-Dabbagh, spokesman for the prime minister, said that the government "is not afraid of the demonstrations; it fears for the lives of the demonstrators."[8]

To discourage the demonstrators, or frighten them off, the Ministry of Interior, which is in charge of the national police, issued a statement that, based on intelligence information, Al-Qaeda and elements of the Ba'th Party will be using suicide bombers and car bombs to inflict the largest number of casualties among the demonstrators. In the same vein, the senior military officer who is charge of the military operations in Baghdad has issued orders preventing the media from directly covering the demonstration.[9] The government has also closed roads leading to Liberation Square, which suggests that it is actively engaged in placing obstacles in front of the demonstrators, despite its alleged commitment to the people's right to protest and demonstrate as guaranteed by the constitution.

Ministers, MPs Take to the Airport

Fearing the rage directed against highly pampered and often corrupt politicians, many MPs and ministers have left Iraq with their families in the last two days for neighboring countries, on the pretext of conducting official business abroad. Other MPs are visiting their provinces to talk to young people who are preparing to participate in "the Friday of Rage."[10]

In anticipation of what could be an extended conflict, Iraqis have been hoarding food fearing, as one woman said, that it will be like Egypt and people will sleep in the streets. There is also a genuine concern that instability could return to Iraq. In the meantime, prices are spiking.[11]

The Iranian Connection

The organizers' call for a state that will not be patterned after wilayat al-faqih appears to have an underlying secular, if not anti-Iranian, tone. Not surprisingly, two of the staunchest supporters of Iran in Iraq – Sadrist movement leader Muqtada al-Sadr, who is the most anti-American politician in Iraq, and Supreme Islamic Council head Ammar al-Hakim – have called on the organizers to give the government time to live up to its commitments. The call has gone unheeded.

Al-Sadr, who returned last night from Iran as suddenly as he had left Iraq for Iran in January, ordered his supporters to conduct a referendum to measure the degree of the people's dissatisfaction with the level of services; only after the results are in would he support a peaceful demonstration. This is in contrast to Al-Sistani, who took a completely different path by openly supporting the demonstration; he may not have a choice if he wishes to remain relevant.

Conclusion

Given the history of Iraq, with its occasional bursts of violence, a mass demonstration like the one planned for Friday could easily get out of control and deteriorate into massive looting and breakdown of public order. The concern about the future of the political process in Iraq appears to be fully justified.

The organizers themselves, mainly university students, are not of one mind about what they hope to accomplish. The central issue has been reform of government or regime change, and, if the latter, change to what form. The government is warning against provocateurs, but it may send its supporters with their banners to cause confusion.

Right now, everything is fluid; by tomorrow, anything is possible. Taking no risks, Green Zone security is on high alert, and the Central Bank is rumored to have moved its valuables and foreign currency to safer grounds. [12]

While professing loyalty to the constitution and to the right of the Iraqi people to demonstrate, the Iraqi government is sparing no effort – including banning mobile TV trucks from the scene and closing roads leading to Liberation Square – to undermine the organizers' efforts to stage a huge demonstration tomorrow. The organizers' efforts to stage the huge demonstration, and the government's counter-efforts to prevent it, will be put to the test tomorrow – and Iraq will either witness a huge gathering of youth demonstrating peacefully , as in Egypt, or a descent into violence, in keeping with the Iraqi political tradition.

Annex: First Part of Proclamation No. 1

ادعموا انتفاضة شبابكم من اجل مستقبل افضل للعراقيين

بيان رقم1

التأريخ 20 شباط2011

ادعموا انتفاضة شبابكم من اجل مستقبل افضل للعراقيين

نعم...نعم ...نعم للحريات والف لا لكتم الافواه

حاسبوا سراق ثرواتكم واقيموا دولة العدالة والمساواة

لا لن يكون العراق دولة لطالبان ولا ولاية للفقيه

المجد للعراق ...والنصر لشبابه المنتفض

شباب 25 شباط

جمهورية العراق - بغداد

* Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli is a senior analyst at MEMRI.

Endnotes:

[1] Al-Zaman, Iraq, February 22, 2011.

[2] The first part of the proclamation is in the annex.

[3] Al-Hayat, London, February 19, 2011.

[4] Al-Hayat, Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, London, February 22, 2011.

[5] Alsumarianews.com, February 22, 2011.

[6] Alsumarianews.com, February 22, 2011; Ikhnews.com, February 22, 2011.

[7] Al-Mada, Iraq, February 23, 2011.

[8] Al-Sabah al-Jadid, Iraq, February 23, 2011.

[9] Al-Zaman, Iraq, February 24, 2011.

[10] Ikhnews.com, February 22, 2011.

[11] Alsumaria.tv, February 23, 2011.

[12] Al-Hayat, February 24, 2011.

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