Iraq’s revolution continues after state violence leads to prime minister’s ouster

On December 6, dozens of vehicles carrying unidentified armed forces entered Tahrir Square in the heart of the capital Baghdad, where revolutionaries have been holding a mass protest encampment for the past three months. They arrived in vehicles driving in from Abu Nawas Street that runs parallel to the Tigris, near Sinak Garage, and immediately opened fire indiscriminately on the crowds in Tahrir and in the nearby Khulani Square, according to eyewitnesses.

Dozens of people were wounded in the initial moments of the attack. Paramedics fled from medical tents to safety, as did many demonstrators on the outskirts of Tahrir — areas that had been relatively safe over the past several weeks. The gunmen set fire to the stairs leading out of Sinak Garage — a key multistory building that demonstrators had been occupying for weeks — trapping hundreds of protesters inside. Several were killed in the building and others kidnapped by the attackers.

The brutal attack continued throughout the night, finally ending in the early hours of December 7, when the gunmen pulled back to Abu Nawas Street. 

Hospitals in Baghdad were flooded with casualties. Estimates range between 29 and 80 people killed and 137 injured, according to Human Rights Watch. Revolutionaries accused the police and military forces of complicity for withdrawing as the unidentified gunmen began shooting. Electricity to the area was cut during the attack, making it harder for protesters to identify the killers and flee to safety, according to Human Rights Watch.

As the gunmen entered the square, the so-called ‘Blue Hats’ intervened. The Blue Hats are an unarmed civilian group linked to Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who called on them to protect demonstrators on October 25. Sadr is an influential politician and leader of the Sadrist movement, the largest movement in Baghdad and in the southern governorates. According to revolutionaries, one of the Blue Hats was killed and dozens were wounded as they stood as human shields to try and protect demonstrators from the attack. 

The violent response by the regime to the mass uprising that began on October 1 has left more than 400 dead and hundreds wounded. The demonstrations rose up against a political order that emerged following the 2003 US invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein — one marked by dysfunction, corruption, and informally based on sectarian quotas with Shia political blocs emerging as the primary power brokers in the country. Meanwhile, in 2017, the war against the Islamic State succeeded in defeating the militant group, though it did little to bring about any positive change for Iraqis.

The mass protest movement has crossed sectarian lines and has spread to cities across the country. In Baghdad, protesters have moved to occupy additional areas around Tahrir Square over the past three months.

Several weeks ago, demonstrators took control of a concrete wall erected by security forces in the middle of Sinak Bridge. After that, protesters turned the adjacent Sinak Garage, a multi-story building that overlooks the bridge and the Green Zone on the opposite bank of the river, into a revolutionary stronghold.

The prominence of the Sinak Garage to the protest movement is similar to the iconic Turkish Restaurant building in Tahrir square, which overlooks Jumhuriya Bridge and the Green Zone, which has been transformed from an abandoned building into a symbol of the revolution. Graffiti artwork adorns the carpark’s walls and the building has been renamed the “Tahrir Martyrs’ Mountain.”

“Our peaceful fight against the security forces is similar to the fight to liberate cities from terrorism,” says Karar Youssef, the 29-year-old protester manning the main entrance to Sinak Garage prior to the December 6 attack. “We advance on a strategic building and force the security forces to retreat to the point that we take it over, expanding the size of the protest area. We took the Sinak garage so that the snipers wouldn’t be able to take advantage of its elevated position overlooking a large area of Tahrir and Khulani squares.”

Yet despite the continued momentum of the uprising, security forces and unidentified gunmen have continued to attack protesters.

Revolutionaries said the gunmen who attacked the encampment on December 6 were affiliated with Hezbollah, an Iraqi Shia militia linked to Iran and unaffiliated to the Lebanese group of the same name, but the identity of the attackers remains unconfirmed.

Two days after the incident, protesters were taken aback by an official statement issued by the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), an umbrella organization of several armed Shia militias, affirming they took part in the attack, claiming they sought to free hostages detained by demonstrators inside Sinak Garage. Protesters considered the statement an explicit claim of responsibility for killing protesters. 

PMF leaders quickly disavowed the statement as false, claiming their website had been hacked. In response, the Hezbollah militia issued a statement disputing the PMF’s claims of hacking.

The December 6 attack came soon after a bloody assault in the holy city of Najaf, an incident that is widely considered to have directly led to the resignation of Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi.

During the entire first month of demonstrations in Najaf — a place of great religious significance in Shia Islam — not a single demonstrator was killed or wounded, and the city stood as a shining example of peaceful protest. That changed on November 27, when some demonstrators joined by masked men headed towards the old city, home to the shrine of Imam Ali bin Abi Talib and the residence of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most senior Shia cleric. The aim was to protest in front of Sistani’s home as a way to pressure the government to take a stronger stance against Abdul Mahdi. This was also the night when revolutionaries burned down the Iranian consulate in Najaf. 

Protesters clashed with security forces in the old city for two hours before finally reaching Sistani’s residence. Afterward, they returned to the main sit-in in the square. In response, Qais Khazali, the leader of the Shia militia group Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (League of the Righteous), tweeted threateningly that he and his members would confront anyone who tried to harm Sistani. He was followed by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy head of the PMF, who issued a statement denouncing any attempt to protest near Sistani and similarly announced his willingness to defend the religious leader.

Hours later, masked men headed from the square to the tomb of prominent Shia cleric and politician Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim, who opposed Saddam Hussein in the 1980s and led the Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq (Hakim’s son, Ammar al-Hakim, is the leader of the National Wisdom Movement, a successor to the Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq.) After attempting to burn the tomb, seven people were killed by gunmen protecting the area.

Meanwhile, on the same day, security forces entered the Dhi Qar governorate in southern Iraq in an attempt to regain control after a night of confrontations in the city between protesters and riot police on the New Force bridge. The resulting clashes left 48 people dead, according to Dhi Qar Health Department. Local tribes then became involved, with some members taking up arms and declaring that one of Abdul Mahdi’s men, Jamil al-Shammari, was responsible for the bloodshed and was now a target. Shammari had previously been accused of killing protesters in Basra in protests last year. When the tribes held him responsible, Abdul Mahdi removed al-Shammari from his post in Dhi Qar and redeployed his force in Baghdad.

In the wake of the bloodshed in Najaf and Dhi Qar, mass protests took place two days later, November 29, in cities across the country dubbed the “Friday of delegitimizing the government.” During the prayer sermons, representatives of the Supreme Religious Authority (Sistani) did not comment on the attempt of some in Najaf to protest in front of Sistani’s residence and made no mention of the statements by Muhandis and Khazali, who had pledged to confront anyone who harmed Sistani. Instead, the sermons called on revolutionaries to expel any infiltrators and maintain the peaceful nature of the protests.

The speeches also affirmed the need for parliament to take a firm position to help resolve the crisis. It quickly became clear that Abdul Mahdi would be forced out. The prime minister’s excessive use of force had angered the Shia tribes, paving the way for Sistani to back demands for Abdul Mahdi’s ouster.

Three hours after the Friday sermons, Abdul Mahdi declared his intention to resign. In a statement, Abdul Mahdi said he would submit a resignation request to parliament “to consider its options, with the knowledge that those near and far are aware that I had already made this decision known.” He added that his resignation was in response to the Friday sermon.

The announcement was met with scenes of jubilation in Tahrir Square. An announcer on the pirate radio station set up by revolutionaries in the square congratulated the martyrs who fell in Baghdad, Nasiriyah, Maysan, Najaf, Karbala and all the other governorates that took part in the uprising.

“This a historic moment in modern-day Iraq,” said Ali Jassim, a 24-year-old undergraduate literature student, at the time. “The criminal resigned because of the blood spilled by victims and martyrs and neither the [religious] authority nor anyone else gets any credit for this resignation. We won’t accept this resignation alone. We’d rather take [Abdul Mahdi] to court to hold him accountable for what he and his militias have done.”

Another protester, 50-year-old Um Zaman, cried for those who had lost their lives. “If the butcher had resigned two months ago we would have spared so many of our children,” she said. “They could have been celebrating now with us, but he killed them in cold blood.”

On December 1, the Iraqi parliament voted to accept the resignation of Abdul Mahdi and his government. 

Another important factor in the continued momentum of the protest movement has been the widespread participation of students in the demonstrations. For the first time, school and university students are taking part in the protests in a well-defined and organized manner, joining sit-ins and announcing calls for civil disobedience, in a movement dubbed the “White Shirts revolution.” The movement prompted the Iraqi Teachers Syndicate to join in calls for civil disobedience until protesters’ demands are met and their participation has continued unabated despite threats by the government to use anti-terror laws against them.

The size of the crowds in Tahrir Square fluctuates during the work week but typically gets more crowded on Thursday evenings, Fridays and Saturdays, and on Sunday mornings when students walk out of class every week to join the sit-in.

“The White Shirts revolution that was organized by the university and school students is the best bet of the October revolution,” says Galal Amin, a 52-year-old member of the teachers union. “History tells us that revolutions succeed only when students participate, and the examples are many. As for our union, the Iraqi Teachers Syndicate, it is a legitimate cover for the students’ sit-in. We do not care about government threats because their threats are simply illegal.”

Today, nearly four months after the mass uprising began and despite Abdul Mahdi’s resignation, the protests continue unabated. Demands go well beyond the prime minister’s ouster to challenge the entire political system, including calling for amendments to the electoral system, the resignation of parliamentary speaker Salim al-Jabouri, and the formation of a new elections committee that has both integrity and independence. Protesters are also demanding retribution for the killing of more than 400 people since the uprising began and have begun coordinating with the Iraqi Lawyers Syndicate to file lawsuits against the politicians and security leaders responsible.

Ahmed Youssef 

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