Days of deadly anti-government protests in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities brought few real concessions but when bloodshed spread to a particular poor, restive Baghdad district, they responded.
After protesters were killed in Sadr City, the military ordered an army withdrawal and security forces admitted using excessive force, promising to hold those involved in violence against civilians to account.
Money has been promised to help the poor.
Signs of an escalation in the sprawling residential district, from where Shi’ite insurgents once attacked US forces after the 2003 invasion, spooked government as it could mean serious trouble for Iraq and bloodier unrest, security forces, local leaders, lawmakers and analysts said.
“There will be angry people who lost a brother or a relative – they’ll want revenge through tribes,” said Sheikh Shiyaa al-Bahadli, a local tribal leader.
“We’ve been trying to calm things, talking to protesters who are all our kin, because if things move to the use of weapons or parties get involved, Iraq will spiral out of control and there will be more bloodshed.”
He warned government must enact real reform, blaming corrupt authorities for the unrest or protests would continue.
Some analysts agree government reforms are unlikely to satisfy many Iraqis, who want an overhaul of the entire political system and a despised ruling class they say has kept life miserable for most Iraqis even in peacetime.
FEARS OF SPIRAL
The protests, which started in central Baghdad last week and spread to southern cities, reached Sadr City on Sunday. More than a dozen deaths brought the total number killed to at least 110, mostly protesters.
The unrest shattered nearly two years of relative stability in Iraq, which lived through foreign occupation, civil war and an Islamic State (IS) insurgency between 2003 and 2017. It is the biggest challenge to security since IS was declared beaten.
Many protesters are young men from the sprawling suburb, a symbol of poor services, lack of jobs and endemic government corruption that sparked public anger – and home to armed supporters of powerful cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
Sadr with a revered Shi’ite heritage who can mobilise thousands of supporters, sided with demonstrators last week and demanded government resign and call elections, showing his opposition to a government and parliament dominated by Iran-backed political and paramilitary forces. He stopped short of urging street action.
State television reported Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi was meeting influential religious and tribal leaders to seek a way out of the crisis.
Underscoring the risks of a spiral of violence in Baghdad a security force member was killed overnight and four wounded by gunfire from protesters including families of those killed in Sadr City police said.
Government initially proposed handouts for the poor and greater job opportunities for graduates. In Baghdad on Tuesday, people queued outside the labour ministry hoping to receive the promised stipend.
A lawmaker from a grouping of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), a umbrella group of Iran-backed paramilitaries, said moves could now include sacking security chiefs in Baghdad and provinces where violence broke out
“Government is compensating the families of those killed – both protesters and security personnel,” Abdul Amir al-Taiban said.
WARNINGS OF BIGGER CRACKDOWN
Initial response to the protests was fierce.
Reuters journalists witnessed protesters being killed and wounded by snipers firing into crowds from rooftops though the interior ministry denies government forces shot at protesters.
Violence in Sadr City, whose narrow streets are home to a third of Baghdad’s eight million people, pushed politicians to at least appear to act more meaningfully to address protesters’ concerns, said Professor Toby Dodge of the London School of Economics.
“Sadr City always looms large as the uncontrollable spectre on the fringes of the city. Killing large numbers of people there will trigger a cycle of death and revenge,” he said.
“Sadr City comes into play and the high level of violence used triggered this apology,” he said, referring to official statements admitting security forces erred.
Hawkish pro-Iran figures blamed the violence on alleged infiltrators backed by foreign enemies, warning while reform is enacted further demonstrations could be met with more force.
“Some say the protests were a surprise and spontaneous, but we had other intelligence indications,” PMF chief Falih al-Fayyadh said, without elaborating.
“Our response to those who want ill for the country will be clear and precise by the state and its instruments. There will be no chance for a coup or rebellion” he said, adding foreign powers sought to benefit from chaos in Iraq – a nod to Iran’s enemies Saudi Arabia and the United States.
Dodge said that for all promises of reform, authorities would rely on force to maintain the status quo.
“There’s a formula – you start with a crackdown, then you promise heaven and earth in the hope everyone will forget the promises and start again when the weather cools down,” he said.
“The way the ruling elite dealt with this upsurge in popular protest is coercive. Turning off the internet, targeting journalists – that is a step to authoritarianism.”