The massive movement of young workers and students in the streets not only demands an end to corruption but for the end of the regime itself, with a new constitution and governing structure. Sabah Alnasseri joins Paul Jay on theAnalysis.news podcast.
Welcome to theAnalysis.news podcast. In Iraq, the new government must deal with the Covid crisis. A growing protest movement and a threat from a reorganized ISIS.
The newly elected prime minister is said to have been acceptable to both Iran and the United States.
Trump’s bellicose attitude towards Iran might again embroil Iraq in U.S. machinations in the region. Now joining us to analyze the situation in Iraq and around Iraq is Professor Sabah Alnasseri. He was born in Basra, Iraq, and earned his doctorate in Frankfurt, Germany. Sabah teaches Middle East politics at the Department of Politics at York University in Toronto. Thanks for joining us, Sabah. Good to be with you, Paul. First of all, how is the Covid pandemic affecting Iraq?
And I assume the economy is to some extent closed down. Right. And so in countries that have such a weak health care system and particularly Iraq’s ravaged by war, I think there was a much better health care system under Saddam than there probably is now. Right. So so how are they dealing with all this?
Well, luckily, I don’t know. I can’t explain it. I mean, the rate is very low compared to other countries.
But is that just because there’s not much testing going on.
Maybe. Yeah, maybe. But even the death rate is very low. I mean, the mistake was at the beginning when Iraq kept the border to Iran open. They didn’t shut down the border, although they knew there was a high rate of infections and so on in Iran. So it moved from Iran to Iraq about time. And after that, the government shut down the border and then things got better.
They got a situation to control. But still, as you said, maybe because they don’t have enough testing. We don’t know the scope of the pandemic in Iraq, but generally the region like Jordan, Kuwait, Iraq, etc., Syria, even Yemen, it is remarkably less than other countries, let’s say, in Iran or Turkey, the border country.
And is there any explaining that they tried?
I’m not to the first few days when they kept the border open and then they realized there’s a problem. They stopped taking that that the right approach. And remarkably, the people really collaborated with the government. They stayed home despite, you know, the crisis, despite lack of resources, despite a lack of survival. The biggest chunk of the Iraqi population let live from day to day so they don’t actually work for the day. They cannot survive. But still, because you know that they cooperate with the government, they staid at home.
They and the most remarkable, remarkable thing was not from the government, but from the people themselves. People started especially activists, organizing food, logistics, and so on. For the families in need in all the provinces of Iraq. And that worked very well. That supported, you know, millions of people who couldn’t survive otherwise.
I would think that there’s probably a lack of reporting on deaths connected with Covid, given there’s so much lack of reporting that even in some of the more advanced countries, especially the United States, Canada is just catching up with with the stats.
Right, though, in Iraq, I mean, especially because of you can say the religious dimension of it. There are two ways Islamic speaking of either the Shiite or the Sunni way. So it is very obvious that people are not, you know, buried in these two ways. There’s something wrong here, something suspicious. So as people start documenting how Covid 19, affected people or that they died and how they were buried.
So they documented it because they had to be very cautious and how to do this. So I think they can not hide it. That right. But they can hide the infection rate because they don’t do testing.
Tell us a bit about who this new prime minister is, what the new government is, and what is the alignment of forces. Right.
So, as you know, polls since, since the advent of the mandate, the ex-prime minister resigned on November twenty-nine thousand nineteen, almost seven months. The governing parties, they didn’t manage to bring a candidate. So they. No money. Few of them, but they were immediately rejected by the Tahrir Square, by the people on the streets. Despite the pressure from sometimes get on at other times to the US, they could not pass these candidates.
And even the president of the republic hesitated to accept this nomination because he knew if he would nominate them to the post of the prime minister, he would have the whole streets against the president.
When you say streets, who’s in those streets? What what are the political forces that are in the streets?
I’ll come to that. I’m just saying about the scope and the effect of the protest movement in Iraq throughout the middle of the southern provinces in Iraq and in the meantime, also in the north of Iraq and Sulimani as its few days, a huge protest going on. So I’ll come back to that in a minute. But this shows that the inability of nominating a candidate for about six or seven months shows the depth of the crisis of governing class, not only the economic crisis but the political crisis.
And Al-Kadhimi, the current prime minister, was a compromise between actually the U.S. and Iran. And I called him the de-escalation candidate. His function is to de-escalate the conflict between the U.S. and Iran on the one hand, and between the government and the protest movement. Iraq on the other hand. That’s not an easy task to do. He was the head of the counter-intelligence of Iraq for years. He knew actually who killed and incarcerated and tortured and kidnapped the protesters.
And that’s a card I think he’s using against especially the militias and some of them are backed by Iran who committed these crimes. I think he’s using these dates, this file against these militias, calm them down to de-escalate from the attack, let’s say, on the U.S. So he’s playing these cards.
To de-escalate the conflict and to prepare the ground for some sort of negotiation, indirect negotiation with the US and Iran. And the reason why I think they both accepted the Al-Kadhimi, because both the US and Iran are going through hard times, the Trump administration going through hard times of containing the protest movement and the US due to the killing of actually the assassination of George Floyd. And at the same time, the election in Iran is going through a harsh economic crisis due to the sanctions and also some protest since November last year.
So the regime there faces to some sort of crisis, one economic. And the second one is political within Iran, but also setbacks in Iraq and Lebanon and Syria against forces, political forces, military forces, militias supported by Iran. There’s a setback and a protest against them. So both the US and Iran were and, you know, in need of a figure that helped to de-escalate the situation and set up the stage for some sort of negotiation between the two.
Now, if you want to if you want me to go back to the political forces on the streets, I can say something about that. Yes, please do. Yes. So we can say I mean, generally speaking, the way I observe it, we have three types of forces. The first one is the spontaneous youth-driven movement throughout the middle and the southern provinces of Iraq, from Baghdad up to down to Basra. Most of these young people are either from an extremely poor working-class families or they are graduate, you know, especially in higher education, who can’t find a job as he has, even though they graduated six years.
And then some exceptional candidates among them. But they can’t find a job due to the corruption within the state institutions. So if you look at the state institutions, civil or military alike, you will see most of the employees there are hired by the political parties or the militias, not due to their experience or skills, etc., just because of their affiliation with these parties and militias.
The public institutions are in a desperate situation is no efficiency. There is no experience there. So there’s a lack of services at all levels. So that’s the first force. And the majority of them actually were not politicized before. Some of them joined the protest movement in 2017, or 2014. But generally, they were not politicized through parties or some or some or religious figure, et cetera. So that’s the biggest force on the ground.
And it is mostly put it in neutral terms. It’s a secular in its orientation. It’s it’s fought against the political system and corruption at the same time against the dominance of religion and sect on the economic scene in Iraq, that’s the first force. The second one is mostly driven by the religious figure of Muqtada al-Sadr, he has a lot of supporters in Iraq. And to the biggest part of the protest, which I call the October Revolution because started in October last year, until January actually there was supportive of this does and actually protecting them from other militias, et cetera.
But then by the end of January, especially after the killing of Iranian General Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis Iran lost its influence in Iraq because it Muhandis and Soleimani were both the one who controlled the militias and both the Shiite political parties in Iraq, they organized and negotiated candidates. They, you know, mostly intervene in the in the political decision making in Iraq. So both were killed. So Iran was in need of a new figure to fill the gap.
And they picked Muqtada al-Sadr. Now, they picked Muqtada al-Sadr to pursue Iran’s interests within Iraq, there was a conflict with Iran and the protest movement in Iraq. And you saw this by the end of January when Allawi, one of the candidates, was nominated, the Presidency, supported by Sadr. The protest movement on the street in Tahir Square was against this candidate. So there was a conflict between the Sadrists and the secular current.
And there were clashes on the streets. Some of the protesters were killed. And so on. So there was a fall out between the Sadrists movement and the protest movement ever since January. And still, you can see the conflicts going on not so much as it was in January, but still, you can see the conflict there.
Now, when you’re talking about Muqtada al-Sadr, we know for years he’s been the head of a very big movement amongst the Shia. But if you’re saying there is now a contradiction between the Sadr movement and the protest movement, what organizations are there of this protest movement? You said it’s young workers and such, but they must be organized, are they not?
Yes, they are. They are. They are organized and you can say at the province level. So each province, let’s say Basra has its own coordination committee and this coordination committee organized within the province, but also across provinces with other committees and other provinces in Iraq. And I’m sorry about that. And there’s also this, that these coordination committees, they are groups of, you know, politician, intellectual, civil rights figures who also organize and be a public voice of this protest movement throughout the country.
Well, there’s some sort of organization, although there is a lack of leadership. And that’s one of the problems I talked about many times on Twitter with the activists that I was saying that you know, the demands to have an early election, demand to have an electoral law, the demands to have a party law, et cetera, doesn’t make sense if the protesters don’t form a political party that represents the people and join in this new election within this new framework of party law and tries to win a majority in the election.
And then, you know, reform the Constitution, et cetera. But you cannot demand election and party laws, et cetera, and your views to form a political party or some sort of political organization. I think the reason why, until now, at least until now, things are going to change now, because I’m working on this since this month and until now, I can understand why more than the absolute majority of these young people were against political parties, because what they see, all the political parties in Iraq, be them Kurds or Shia or Sunni, you name them, they are all corrupt.
They are all in represent either themselves and some sort of links and clans around them all. They represent interests from also regionally or internationally. They pursue regional or international agenda so that the term political party and the term leadership has a negative connotation within the protest movement until now. I think now things start to change. But that was one obvious thing that made it easy for the governing class and the militias to contain or suppress the movement because there was no strong leadership that, you know, set up the stage for transforming the movement from what I call a civil society to a political movement or a political society.
This is lacking until now. But I think things are shifting toward this movement from civil society.
What is going on with the Iraqi economy? I mean, it was primarily an oil-based economy. The price of oil has tanked. How much is there of economic activity outside of oil?
And now with the Covid crisis, many countries have practically had to close down production. As you said, most people are living day to day and can’t do that. But still, what? What is there to live on there?
I mean, this is the tragedy of Iraq, because on the one hand, of course, you know, the effect of the oil prices was so much that they didn’t even actually postpone the budget of twenty twenty-two, twenty one because they projected, I think something like fifty-six dollars a barrel in the 2020 budget. But then the price went down to ten dollars or something like that. So there was an 80 percent gap in the budget.
But that’s not the biggest problem. The biggest problem of Iraq, I would say tragedy actually, Iraq can support even without oil. I mean, the agriculture in Iraq alone can feed the whole country. And there are other resources. Iraq has one instance. I think the 7th of gas in the war, but they don’t use it. They import gas from Iran. They import even oil from Iran. They don’t process it in Iraq.
The process in Iran. And that’s because of the corruption, corruption and the affiliation of the Shiite political party with Iran that opened up the space in Iraq for trade and finance and agriculture and so on, for Iranian exports to Iraq would destroy the infrastructure in Iraq since. Yes. And again, for instance, along the border, the customs tariffs and so on in Iraq as it is, is it could be more than one-fifth of the budget of Iraq, but yet it is controlled by political party leaders, be that in Kurdistan or in the South, by Shiite political parties and militias, each one of them controls one of this border and an appropriate the income of the revenue of customs revenues.
So there is wide structurally institutionalized corruption that plunders the wealth of the nation and drives the absolute majority of the population below the poverty line. So that’s the tragedy of Iraq because Iraq can actually survive even without oil. But because of the corruption and the undue and the depletion of the of the country’s resources, people live almost 40% under the poverty line and unemployment. I estimated 40 to 45 percent and especially among young people.
So there you have for years, a polarized society on the one hand, you have a minority of extremely rich figures of some political parties or militias who owns billions of dollars. And on the other hand, the absolute majority of the population. And that applies to the south, but also in the north, in Kurdistan, to the Kurds who live either on or below the poverty line. And that’s the biggest strategy for Iraq.
And now that covid19 hits and impose a restriction on the movement of people. most of the people, especially in the south and the so-called Shiite provinces, and that’s the tragedy., you know, we have an executive dominated by a Shiite political party. Yet the Shiite population in the southern countries are the poorest in the country. And the Shiite political parties, the militia, are the richest in the country. You didn’t have it under Saddam Hussein or Ahmed Hassan or the or the King, in 1958. And that’s a tragedy for the Shiite society in Iraq, that those who represent them are the most corrupt in the history of Iraq. And that’s why people were outraged after a few days because they couldn’t go about their everyday living. And the government was not supporting them. And thanks to the activist, these young people who are themselves poor, but they organized donation from, you know, well-off families or some other institution or from some, you know, merchants and so on who donated foods and clothes and so on, produce beer to those poor people.
And these young activists organized the logistics to support these families. Now, I think that the protest had to stop now, but it will go on mostly by the end of the month, will be even more intense and wider in scope than the few once before, because now you have besides these unemployed young graduates or working-class kids. You have these so-called informal sectors, families who survive in everyday life. But their existence was destroyed by the Covid 19 and lack support of the government.
That’s why I expect even more intense and wide protests within the next few days and weeks in Iraq.
What are the demands of the protesters?
Well, at the beginning, you can say the demand was mostly service-oriented against corruption and so on. But because the government of many reacted, you know, in a brutal and violent way against these protests that have snipers at the beginning of the revolution in October, they have snipers over the building shooting these young kids, 16, 17, 18 in the ahead shoot to kill. That brought the whole protest movement to a higher level. Now they start asking for and not only the end of corruption but end of the regime.
They don’t want the political parties. They don’t want the government. They don’t want the parliaments. They want a new constitution with a new governing structure. And so they became radicalized. And that puts enormous pressure on the governing class of governing cliques in Iraq and their militias because they were not expecting this. Why? Because they get used to this a protest movement ever since 2004 and 2005 that goes on for a few days and ask for some sort of services and that’s it.
But this time it was different. And the fact that it’s still going on since almost now, since October, we are in month eight this is something they never dealt with before. They don’t know how to deal with it. And that drove them to this organic crisis. They are an organic crisis. And I think if things go on the way I expect them to go, we will expect a radical change in Iraq within the next few months.
What size are these protests?
Well, as I said, I mean, at the beginning, you can see small groups in Tahrir Square, Liberation Square, still across the provinces in Iraq, protesting mostly either locally or provincially against, let’s say, the mayor or against the governor of that province, against some sort of the civil servants, et cetera. But then because of the brutal reaction of the government and also the provinces, the province councils with their militias. I guess the protesters, they did the number and the quality of the protest increase proportionately.
So what one at some stage there are millions of people on the streets in Iraq
Yes, especially in Tahrir Square. I mean that just before Covid 19, especially when the student movement joined the protest movement, that gave them an enormous push in number and scope on also the quality of this movement. So you have now, what I call the nucleus of civil societies in Iraq. Tahrir Square became like a small state, where you have healthcare, social benefits, education, all sort of the, you know, tasks that normally the public sector or the state perform.
These actors were performing the Tahrir Square that attracts so many people, especially poor families who are not part of the movement or maybe not effected by the policies of the government because some of them were affiliated with these political parties or religious institutions. And yet they joined the movement because they saw on it, you know, an alternative, but as tentative. And so I believe that now with the biggest, you know, social categories within the Iraqi population, especially the working-class population, those who live from day to day live on a subsistence economy, they will definitely join the protest movement now.
And that’s why they the government and the militias and the security apparatus not taking so, you know, preemptive measure, kidnapping and arresting some prominent candidate, to intimidate the people, not to go in and not protest.
In the past, the Communist Party of Iraq was one of the largest parties in the country. The trade unions were strong and had even after the fall of the Saddam Hussein, the trade unions had a lot to say.
I remember stories about the trade unions opposing privatization and such. How? To what extent does this protest movement have a socialist character in its demands?
I wouldn’t say socialist, you can say social democratic demands, social justice, healthcare for all, education for all, employment for all. So social democratic demand and different unions, be them the lawyers or workers, especially in the oil industry or the teacher unions. So all of them supported the protest movement and especially the lawyer syndicate. I must say they played a significant role, legally speaking, by defending the protesters and trying to reduce the incarcerations for free.
So the unions are playing a positive role and from the beginning of the movement supporting the movement, and especially in the oil sector, especially in the south. And in Basram the oil union supported the protesters. But as I said, I mean, this Covid 19 since March, you know, threw the movement a bit backward. But I believe that it will regain momentum within and actually starts since yesterday, the protesters went on to Tahrir square and they went to the governing council of the provinces.
They occupied houses and the provincial councils and so on because they want to escalate now. And that’s one of the things I was saying because next week we’ll have a good strategic negotiation between the Trump administration and the OK, the Iraqi government on June 10th. And I was advising activists in Iraq to escalate the protest because if they don’t, that they know the negotiation will be behind the back of the revolution. And Iraq will be the prize for the de-escalation between the US and Iran, not Iran, not the U.S., Iraq will be the place. So I was saying for the revolution to be a difficult number in this equation and to impose itself on the negotiation without being on the negotiation table, they have to escalate and show visibilities on the streets of other provinces so that if the U.S. team come to Iraq to negotiate with the Iraqi government, they can not ignore the presence of the revolution in Iraq has to be a no means of pressure to set up the stage for some demands of the revolution to be fulfilled by this government.
What are they negotiating? What does the United States want?
Yes, I mean, it happened a few months ago when Iran allied parties and militias pushed for a law within the parliament to ask the executive that the US troops should withdraw from Iraq so that, you know, started the whole thinking about renewing the strategic agreement between Iraq and the United States. There’s one from 2008 and nine and the one from 2000. So they want to renegotiate it again because what happens after, you know, they push this law through the parliament.
There were a few attacks from these militias on U.S. military bases, but also on the U.S. embassy, etc. So they tried to escalate the conflict with the U.S. troops in Iraq. So that pushed the United States and the Iraqi government not to renegotiate these strategic agreements. And, of course, it’s not only the military, but it’s also political, it’s economic, et cetera. And I think that these are a golden opportunity for the revolution to be utilized by the revolutionaries to push for their own agenda this time.
And don’t let the field, you know, be occupied just by the U.S. negotiators and the Iraq one and behind door Iran, because the whole negotiation, the way I see it, is indirectly between the U.S. and Iran to de-escalate, at least until the election and give Iran some sort of concession. And one of these concessions Iran was doing, you know, the release of the of Michael White a few days ago, he was incarcerated for some something like 683 days.
That’s a nice gesture from Iran to the Trump administration to negotiate and give some concession to Iran. So I was saying we shouldn’t play. Let them play this game in Baghdad at the cost of the revolution. The revolution should be a major player in these negotiations.
The Iranians, I can see, might want to de-escalate, but a lot of people think the Americans might want to escalate. They may want a real provocation with Iran before the election. So Trump can be his wartime president.
And I don’t think so because the US push for Al-Kadhimi and Al-Kadhimi was accepted by Iran. Even before he was nominated and nominated, I was saying this is a government of de-escalation because the next few months before the election, things might get out of control of the United States. And they don’t want to take this risk. They want to de-escalate within Iraq and with Iran and at least until the end of the election. And that’s why Iran also accepted Al-Kadhimi, Iran thinks that Al-Kadhimi much closer to the U.S. than to Iran. But they accept Al-Kadhim with the assumption that he will de-escalate and he’s ever since he was nominated, he’s is trying to deescalate. Within Iraq with them, within the popular opposition, the mobilizing mobilization units that and with the militias, but also the protests on the streets. On the one hand and between Iran and the US. And I think both of them, they want to use this opportunity, this three month to have some concessions sort of concession that was Iran and the United States.
Al-Kadhimi can organize this. And that’s why I’m saying that it is a golden opportunity for the revolution because neither the U.S. nor Iran want to escalate now. So if the revolution escalates, it will, you know, put it up a difficult pressure on the negotiating table. Make all of them take the demand of revolution seriously if they want to don’t want to escalate.
When Trump pulled back support for the Kurds in Syria near the Turkish border.
What has actually happened? It was so at the forefront of the news and now it’s kind of disappeared from North American news,
I believe and we can see it recently. I believe that that deal was that Russia will, you know, have the most say in Syrian and for that, the U.S. but also Iran should have less presence in Syria. So the Russians are pushing now for some changes and reform within Syria. And I heard the last few days they weren’t even asking Bashar al-Assad to resign and push back again against also Iran, president Syria. So I think that was the compromise between the U.S. and Russia and Israel and indirectly that they should be less Iranian president in Syria.
And that’s what they are doing now. And that opened up space, actually, for the protest in Lebanon and in Iraq. If you recall, the protest movement in Lebanon, in Iraq stopped almost at the same time in October last year. And it’s still going on. And then unfortunately or tragically, last night, the night before, there were clashes in Beirut. And I think one activist was killed, et cetera.
So you have an opening up of this political space in Lebanon and Iraq to ask for radical reform against the so-called Morehouse’s system, which is a sectarian-based power-sharing formula in Lebanon and Iraq. And I’m here, I can see that that change within Syria and Lebanon and Iraq. If it goes this way, that the power-sharing formula collapses and instead may be a much more representative regime is established, then Iran will lose.
What happened to the Kurdish fighters and the community? They had a very leftist character. There were a lot of predictions there would be a real slaughter. But what happened?
I don’t know this yet, but we will see it probably next week when we have the negotiation next week in Baghdad on June 10th between the U.S. and Iraq. I can assure you some representatives of the Kurdish movement in Syria would be also present in Iraq. I think the U.S. wants to approach it this way. Not only they want to contain or push back a bit against the influence of Iran in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.
So that means in order to do that, they want some sort of coordination between Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. And that’s why I think representative of the Kurdish movement, especially on the security military side, will be present at the strategic negotiation next week in Iraq. We will see. I just, you know, assume this. But I think it has, you know, a lot of factual truth to it because the U.S. cannot, you know, pursue its strategy in Iraq alone, has to do it within this context of Syria, Iraq, Iran.
And but by extension, given what happened with the Turkish attack on the Kurds that the Kurds pulled back. Were they able to resist it? Well, Turkey is pushing forward not only in northern Syria, but also shows the presence in northern Iraq. It can see also Turkish troops in northern Iraq. So they want to create some sort of corridor between Syria or Iraq and Turkey to cut off the Kurds from there with the Kurds and Turkey. And, of course, that there was a lot of pushback against the Kurdish forces in Syria.
They were pushed out from the border cities. And I think the U.S. tried to incorporate them now within this of all strata negotiation in Iraq to probably work for some sort of autonomy, just like the Kurds in Iraq and Syria. And that cannot be done without also the negotiation with Turkey. But that’ll be the second step as well.
So so just concretely, the Kurds are under Turkish attack. And there was a lot of question about whether they could resist it. What would they have to withdraw? So what exactly happened?
Well, the Kurds were pushed from the northwest border between Turkey and Syria to that to the northeast and southwards. Because Turkey wanted this area, the northwest corridor between Turkey and Syria. So the Kurds move eastwards and east southwards. And the was, of course, and they tried to try to renegotiate with the U.S. government to have some sort of, you know, unified force to push against Turkey.
But it didn’t materialize. Well, the U.S. tried to now use these forces, a, against ISIS in Syria, especially at the border between Iraq and Syria, to engage them against ISIS, which they did. But at the same time, they want to include them. And this why the strategy of the U.S. and Iraq, Syria and Lebanon against Iran. And I think what they are working for them, you know, the scenario would be similar to Iraq, where you have some sort of autonomy for the Kurds and Syria, similar to Kurdistan, Iraq.
So I don’t think things will escalate further between Turkey and the Kurds as long as the Turks control this border area on the northwest of Syria. But, you know, I don’t know. I mean, things might shift to some other type of conflict and Turkish to show some sort of military presence in northern Iraq, too, in order to cut off the support of the movement of this Kurds in Syria to Iraq because, you know, they move in Syria and Iraq and especially the PKK.
Turkey, try to have a corridor from the northwest of Iraq, then to the northwest of Syria and push the Kurds downwards.
Well, let’s talk again after these negotiations take place in Baghdad.
Yes. And I think they are significant for a few months, at least for the much that the next three months to come, both for the U.S. and Iran, but also and above all, what I’m interested in, in the October revolution, in Iraq, I think that revolution can maneuver and utilize this moment to push forward with its strategical agenda. And I think they are good chances. That’s not everything. But the biggest chunk of this agenda can’t be materialized and that this current government, because it needs as I said, it needs some sort of de-escalation order to push through with this negotiation and until the whatever planned election next year.
Thanks for joining us, Sabah.
Thanks, Paul. Thanks for having me.
And thank you for joining us on theAnalysis.news podcast.