Former Iraqi activists dismayed as powerful groups use protest tactics

·4 min read
Supporters of Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr sleep on the ground during a sit-in at the Iraqi parliament building complex, amid a political crisis, in Baghdad

By John Davison

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi activists who demonstrated three years ago against powerful parties and militias that run the country have watched with resentment as those same groups now use street protests to exert political pressure on each other, with impunity.

They say it makes a mockery of the demonstrations in 2019 which called for the downfall of a political class whose corruption and mismanagement have kept Iraq mired in dysfunction despite its vast oil wealth and relative peace in recent years.

A political deadlock that pits the populist Shi'ite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr against Shi'ite rivals, mostly groups aligned with Iran, has kept the country without a government for nearly 10 months as both sides compete for power.

Ali Saad, a former activist, watched one protest on Monday, where demonstrators linked with pro-Iran militia groups tore down concrete barriers and pelted security forces with stones, without much resistance from police.

During the 2019 protests, hundreds of demonstrators were shot dead for less by security forces and militiamen from the same groups that took to the streets this week, he said.

"Let them fight it out among themselves. At least we'll see some action," Saad said. "I gave up civil disobedience years ago. They killed so many of my friends."

Thousands of followers of Sadr stormed Baghdad's Green Zone last week, taking over the parliament building to prevent his opponents - mostly Iran-aligned parties - from forming a government.

Sadr's rivals then staged Monday's counter-protest outside the Green Zone calling his moves a coup and demanding his supporters leave parliament.

Each side is backed by heavily-armed paramilitaries, making the rival protests a dangerous prospect for Iraq and threatening to drag it into more violence.

Government officials and spokespeople for the parties protesting did not immediately respond to requests for comment for this story. They have previously denied any involvement in corruption and mismanagement, and privately blame each other.

The protests by each camp look almost identical.

Demonstrators march outside government buildings, careful to wave only Iraqi national or Shi'ite religious flags. They chant against corruption and say they represent the country and its people.

They are well supplied with water in the sweltering Baghdad summer heat, and provide transport to supporters making the journey from Shi'ite-majority southern Iraq.

"This group chants against corruption, that group chants against corruption - this group says it represents all Iraqis, that group says it represents all Iraqis. They're all thieves," Saad said.

TAKING POWER BY FORCE

Sadr's social-political Sadrist Movement has long run some of Iraq's worst-managed government departments.

His Iran-backed opponents, including former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki who helped stir up Monday's counter-demonstration, are widely accused of corruption and nepotism that sent Iraq into chaos as Islamic State took over a third of the country in 2014.

Iraq's main Shi'ite leaders, who share power with large but less influential Sunni and Kurdish parties which Iraqis say are just as guilty of corruption, all deny they have mismanaged state institutions and stolen money.

Iraqi forces and a U.S.-led military coalition defeated Islamic State in 2017. Two years later, protests broke out against the political class, accusing it of continuing to squander the country's vast oil wealth and failing to improve their lives, grant jobs or provide adequate water and power.

Security forces and armed groups allegedly linked to parties in power shot some 600 demonstrators dead in the 2019 protests.

Sadr's supporters joined those protests, swelling their numbers, but turned on the pro-democracy demonstrators on Sadr's orders, and the protests fizzled out.

The people who participated say they were killed by Iran-aligned groups and betrayed by Sadr - both sides which continue to wield power across government ministries.

"Sadr has decided that he'll try to take more (power) by force, through unrest," said Ahmed Majed, an activist who participated in the 2019 demonstrations.

Sadr emerged as the biggest winner from an October election, but withdrew his lawmakers from parliament after failing to select a government of his choice.

"In many countries, mass unrest would normally lead at least to some kind of reform, some response from those in power," Majed said. "But if there's an eventual agreement between the two sides, things will never change," Majed said.

(Reporting by John Davison; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)

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