Spontaneous Protests in Baghdad Green Zone Show Cracks in the Security Apparatus

Posted on by

Yves here. Readers may recall that we flagged the incursion of protestors into Iraq’s Green Zone, where both the US Embassy and Iraq’s Parliament had safely sat, well protected from citizens. The initial reports were that the occupiers appear to have been let in and were peaceful (only one politician injured and some damage to furniture in the Parliament). Most important, they did not want to overthrow the government but wanted an end to corruption, seeing it as necessary to get improved delivery of services to the population.

Lambert highlighted the minimal mainstream media coverage of this development and the lack of crisp talking points from sources close to the Administration. And the story appears to have dropped from the news radar.

This Real News Network segment gives the background on the protests. They’ve been underway for some time, are secular in nature, and to a significant degree, cross sectarian and ethnic lines.

SHARMINI PERIES, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER, TRNN: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

Iraq made headlines this past week, first when an American service member was killed on Tuesday just north of Mosul. Then, this past weekend, two suicide car bombs claimed by the Islamic State killed at least 32 people and injured 75 others in southern Iraq.

Then, on Saturday, protesters staged a sit-in at the Iraqi Parliament in the country’s green zone, which is an enclave for US military, Iraqi government offices and embassies. The protesters were demanding political reforms against corruption. These protests were targeting Iraqi Prime Minister al-Abadi, who is trying to appoint technocrats in ministerial positions as an anti-corruption measure, but the Iraqi Parliament has been in a deadlock on this issue due to ongoing debate.

On to discuss these developments is Sabah Alanasseri. He is associate professor and director of the graduate program in political science at York University in Canada. Sabah, thank you so much for joining us.

SABAH ALNASSERI: Good afternoon, Sharmini, [inaud.]

PERIES: Sabah, so, give us some details as to why these protesters are having a sit-in in Parliament, and I know they have disbanded for the time being, but they have promised to come back.

ALNASSERI: Yes. Well, these protests started, actually, last year in July, almost one year, and had three significant moments, ever since these protests started in July. The first one is that the protest movement was spontaneous. It was not organized by a party or a religious movement, or a religious figure. It was spontaneous and people went in on the street in different provinces of Iraq, especially in the so-called Shi’ite majority provinces, in Basrah, An-Najaf, Karbala, Baghdad, et cetera, and at first they were asking for better services, for electricity, clean water, et cetera.

It coincided at that time, as you remember, with protest movement in Beirut for the same reasons, against garbage collection, water, electricity and so on. So it was spontaneous at that time, and at that time minister president Abadi promised to introduce reform and to fight corruption and deliver better service to the people. Nothing happened, and the demands of the protesters then escalated from better services to anti-corruption. They wanted reform, to get rid of all these corrupt politicians and ministers within the state apparatus.

Then, the second significant moment, I would say, the religious and the so-called secular, I mean, I don’t use this term, secular, it’s problematic, but let me just, for the sake of the argument I will use this term secular–religious and secular forces within Iraq were forced, actually, to collaborate, to re-approach each other and side with the protesters. The second significant moment is not only the protester push the government and minister president Abadi to at least start some, or initiate some reform, but they forced all the religious and non-religious political forces in Iraq to come together and [inaud.] the protesters their demands.

The third significant moment in the formation of this protest movement is the non-sectarian, non-ethnic character of these movements. You have forces from our Sadrists, of Muqtada al-Sadr, their religious figure, but you have even Khomeinists among the protesters and liberal, et cetera. So, for the first time since the occupation of Iraq in 2003, the urban civil character of the Iraqi society has come to the fore against all these religious and sectarian, ethno-division of the country.

And I think it’s significant, because, for the first time, when I was listening to Muqtada al-Sadr’s speeches since March 2016 in front of the Green Zone, for the first time he not only did not differentiate between a Kurd and an Arab, and a Shi’ite and a Sunni, but for the first time he made a statement that there is no difference between a religious Iraqi and non-religious Iraqi, and I think this is significant because he realizes that the nature of the Iraqi societies, which is different than, let’s say, Iran, or Lebanon, for that matter, is so heterogenous, it has such a long history of non-radical, non-extremist, non-religious, mostly civil, urban character, that this is the only way forward against the entrenched interests of corrupt political parties and politicians.

These are three significant moments and I think they can help us understand that why, for instance, for the first time the protesters were actually protected by the Sadrist militias. This is the first time you have such a massive mass movement in Iraq, probably since 1958, since the revolution in Iraq, where the militias of the political parties and the interior ministry didn’t dare shoot at the people just like they used to before because they were protected this time by the Sadrist militia.

And the second thing which also indicates cracks within the security apparatus of the state is that when the people tore down these concrete walls, which reminds me, by the way, of 1989 in Germany when people tore down the wall between east and west, a similar moment happens in Baghdad last week. So, when people tore down these concrete walls, the security forces not only, especially the police, not only did not stop them or shoot at them. They de facto supported them to enter the Parliament, occupy the Parliament and other offices of the ministers and the MP.

This is significant, when you have a crack within security apparatus. Think about Tunisia and Egypt when the army refused to shoot at the people, and so on. It was significant that it contributed to the momentum of the protest movement.

PERIES: Right. Sabah, there’s a lot to be discussed here, particularly Muqtada al-Sadr and–


PERIS: –His back story, in terms of why most of the reporting that has been taking place on what happened in terms of the sit-in. A lot of the media outlets reported that this was enticed by him and a speech he gave, quite contrary to what you’re saying. But we would like to have a back story on who he is, but let’s do that in our second segment, enticing people to continue to listen to us.

Thank you so much for joining us, Sabah.

ALNASSERI: My pleasure.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us. Please come back to part two with Sabah Alnasseri.

Part 2

SHARMINI PERIES, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome back. I’m speaking with Sabah Alnasseri from York University in Toronto. We’re talking about Iraq and the most recent developments there.

So, Sabah, when we were speaking in the earliest segment we were speaking about Muqtada al-Sadr. Now, a lot of the media reported, as at the sit-in in the Green Zone and in front of the Parliament was being agitated by him, and that after listening to a speech he had given people just, you know, crossed the Green Zone, jumped over walls to get to the Green Zone and occupy the Parliament. How accurate is that reporting?

SABAH ALNASSERI: Well, the movement started spontaneous and of course, as I said, this spontaneous movement forced not only the MPs and the government to debate some reforms, but also imposes on the existing and non-religious forces in Iraq a form of [reapportionment] because they realized if they don’t associate themselves with this protest movement they will be marginalized, so you can see Muqtada al-Sadr and other political forces in Iraq, they are [riding] on this wave of this protest movement. They did not cause them, nor they initiated them.

But, it’s true that when the al-Sadrists joined the movement [inaud.] enormous potential on supporters of all of Iraq so, yes, Muqtada al-Sadr became a significant figure within the movement and that’s for a good reason. What we are witnessing in Iraq with this protest movement is an intra-Shi’ite conflict of a political power, because what Muqtada al-Sadr is trying to push back. He’s against other Shi’ite forces within the Parliament and within the government, especially [the al-Da’wa Party], and here we can see that that’s why Muqtada al-Sadr actually invoked an Iraqi nationalist card and not a sectarian and Shi’ite one. So–

PERIES: –And tell us about Muqtada al-Sadr and, sort of, his bloody history in Iraq as well.

ALNASSERI: Yeah. Well, you know, al-Sadr family is totally one of the most prominent Shi’ite, Arab families in Iraq, and that’s why you can see Muqtada al-Sadr, just like his father and grandfather, he’ll always invoke the Arab nationalist card compared to other religious figure in the religious institution in Iraq like al-Sistani and so on, who have a different ethnic background. So he come from an Arab Shi’ite families within these religious institutions, and that’s why even Saddam Hussein in 1990 appointed his father to be the head of the religious institution in Iraq precisely because he’s an Arab, because of this nationalist card.

And, historically, this other family, if you compare them, let’s say, to an [inaud.] family, they were always closer to the popular classes in Iraq, especially the peasants, the unemployed and so on, whereas other Shi’ite families and religious figures within the institution, they were the speaker and the intellectual of their own classes, at that time the landlords, so you can see the al-Sadr family, historically, has much more credibility among the popular classes, the peasant worker and the unemployed, than other Shi’ite forces.

And the third movement, I think why al-Sadr became so significant and has much more credibility to be a prominent figure within the movement, because he distanced himself in the last three years from Iran and he opposed the US occupation, and he is invoking a united Iraq against the fraction of Iraq in ethnic-sectarian terms, Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds. And he can rely on this historical, you know, record of his family as being a national, popular force within the Iraqi societies, so he has much more credibility when he talks to the people and gives a speech in front of the Green Zone saying that, if the government will not implement the reform, will not respond to the demands of the people, then people would occupy the Green Zone, and he starts speaking of a popular revolution.

So there are historical, social and, especially since the occupation of Iraq, political, ideological movements that give much more credibility to Muqtada al-Sadr and his, you know, speeches to the popular classes in Iraq than other Shi’ite political parties. Think, on instance, one of his rivals, al-Maliki, the ex-minister president. Al-Maliki, when he saw the protests and saw al-Sadr, you know, heading the protests in the last few weeks, he starts speaking of an attack on the Islamic project, and the forces, he did not name al-Sadr, but he implies that al-Sadr is trying to bring back the secular, urban, civil character of the Iraqi societies against the Islamic project, and he starts threatening with some kind of civil war rhetoric.

So, you can see there’s an inter-Shi’ite conflict of political power about which we, by the way, we talk many times on the Real News since years that the main struggle in Iraq is not inter- but intra-sectarian.

PERIES: Right. And, Sabah, the crisis in governance is going on, but add to that the massive budgetary deficit also being experienced as a result of the declining oil prices giving away to further instability. What impact is that going to have on what’s happening, in terms of the political destabilization going on?

ALNASSERI: Yes. Partly, you know, affected and caused, but only partly, the protest movement and the conflict within the Parliament and the ministry itself, because the almost 20 percent reduction in states’ income due to the low oil prices, which we talked about in January of last year, we anticipated on the Real News that this will happen.

That created not only difficulties for the government to introduce reforms, but and also, and worse still, to introduce austerity measures which created a lot of conflict within the state ministries because most of these bureaucrats are the client list pf the Shi’ite political parties, so it creates conflict among these ministries, who gets what and how much? How much reduction to this ministry vis-a-vis the other. That created internal conflict over the redistribution of income and, of course, makes difficult for the government to introduce services for the people. So it caused, partly, the protest movement but it’s not the real cause of the protest movement.

As I said, we have this wave of protests in Iraq since years, but for the first time, and due to the different circumstances, this, you know, sporadic, spontaneous protest moment evolved into a massive popular force that present as a serious crisis, not only for the political regime but for the whole state itself, because I think people start realizing, and that’s why their demand escalated compared to July 2015. People realized that even if al-Abadi introduced reform and he reshuffled the cabinet and, you know, bring in independent politicians not affiliated with party, et cetera, this will not change anything of the current situation because all the ministries, all these apparatus of the states are occupied according to this so-called muhassasa, the quarter system, the ethno-sectarian system.

That means if you bring an independent minister, even if he, you know, he or she is a good person, try to introduce reform, the whole ministry, the undersecretaries, the managers, the bureaucrat are all affiliated with the Shi’ite party, so they’ll make it almost impossible for any government to introduce any reform under the current structure of the state. And I think this is becoming much more clear to the people, that, you know, a simple reshuffling or personal shifts or changes will not change anything on [inaud.] on ground, will not satisfy the demand of the people, and I think the demands of the people will get more radical in the next few weeks and month.

PERIES: All right. We’ll be looking out as I’m sure you will be, Saba. Thank you so much for joining us, and we hope to have you back very soon.

ALNASSERI: My pleasure, and thanks for having me.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. OpenThePodBayDoorsHAL

    Um…isn’t this the part where Obama puts on a flight jacket, lands on an aircraft carrier, and says “Mission Accomplished!”
    Or maybe this is what Hilary meant when she scolded Americans that “you should be looking at Iraq as a business opportunity”?
    It may take years or even decades, or maybe it just happens in the afterlife…but retribution for America’s war crimes will come. It will be richly deserved.

    1. NotTimothyGeithner

      Obama sipped water nominally from Flint and declared the Flint water safe for anyone over the age of six. What more do you want from the guy? If Obama has to deal with this, he might not get in the back nine.

      1. PGL

        On the nightly news, they made sure to mention, “If the water is filtered properly, it has been declared safe to drink.” Go long Brita.

  2. Dub

    “so-called secular, I mean, I don’t use this term, secular, it’s problematic, but let me just, for the sake of the argument I will use this term secular–religious and secular forces within Iraq”

    Does anyone know the context for this? I just cannot parse ‘secular’ as a problematic term.

    1. Andrew Watts

      You don’t understand this because you grew up in a western society where Jesus, among other people, made a clear distinction between church and state. (“Render unto Caesar”) Thus the political arena is separate from the religious realm. The things that matter in the countries of the Middle East are tribe, ethnicity, and religion. Not necessarily in that order. There isn’t a similar tradition of secularism beyond the short-lived period of pan-Arabism and communist-influenced ideologies like Baathism. Thus using the secular label is unrealistically problematic to apply to any significant cohort of society in most Arab countries beyond a handful of western-educated people.

      For example, Muqtada al-Sadr is both a political and military leader alongside his spiritual duties and imo his follower’s loyalty is tribal in nature. As his personal following is more than a cult of personality and was inherited through the two preceding generational patriachs of his family.

      1. SufferinSuccotash

        You understand, of course, that political and/or social movements in the West are and always have been totally without a religious element.
        /snark off…

        1. Andrew Watts

          I was speaking in the context of political governance. During the Roman/Greek era of history civic officials were religious figures conducting public business alongside their religious duties. There isn’t a modern comparison in western countries where the political lines are blurred in the same fashion.

          1. NotTimothyGeithner

            Most states are smaller and more homogenous than the U.S. Elizabeth II is the head of state and the head of the church of England. The UK Prime Minister can’t be Catholic. The Georges’ family is Catholic. It’s why their reign ended. The French aren’t much better. The Catholic Church had free reign in Quebec until the 1960s. The Pope only became Infallible when he was stripped of the Papal States by a united Italy. Spain is just the worst. Mexico, yeesh.

            The U.S. was dominated by two states with populations from different parts of Britain who stopped immigrating in 1700 to be replaced by immigrants from all over Europe. When the U.S. ultimately separated, it was too large and diverse to tolerate religion in the public space. There were simply too many people who weren’t in the same religion, and the lack of structured legal systems as one moved West gave itinerant ministers opportunities to work where the would be snuffed out by the state or at least angry crowds. Portuguese, French, Jews, assimilated Natives, Spanish, Blacks, Mullattos, Germans, Dutch, Catholics in Protestant countries, Protestants in Catholic countries, Mediterranean types, Jim Webb’s Scott Irish, they were all coming to America.

            Enforcing religious rule would never fly as time progressed. The Salem witch trials are part of the 17th century and a homogenous immigration pattern. When their world became larger, they had to drop this stuff. Mormons had to flee to Salt Lake to be weirdos.

            1. Andrew Watts

              Please note we’re talking about the following passage.

              Then, the second significant moment, I would say, the religious and the so-called secular, I mean, I don’t use this term, secular, it’s problematic, but let me just, for the sake of the argument I will use this term secular–religious and secular forces within Iraq were forced, actually, to collaborate, to re-approach each other and side with the protesters. The second significant moment is not only the protester push the government and minister president Abadi to at least start some, or initiate some reform, but they forced all the religious and non-religious political forces in Iraq to come together and [inaud.] the protesters their demands.

              Professor Alanasseri is bending over backwards to try to explain the Iraqi political scene. The “secular-religious” and “secular” forces he’s talking about are nothing of the sort and he even admits that. To be specific Abadi’s rival faction of the Dawa party are dedicated to the Islamic political project along the lines of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Moreover the various political blocs vote along sectarian lines with a few exceptions like the recent ousting of a Sunni officeholder or the on/off again Shia rivalry between al-Sadr and Abadi’s loyalist faction of the Dawa party.

    2. Nick

      The context is the debate over secularization within the field known as “political theology” (Walter Benjamin, Carl Schmitt, . . . , Giorgio Agamben):

      It is well known that this concept [of secularization] has performed a strategic function in modern culture — in the sense that it is a concept that belongs to the “politics of ideas,” meaning that “in the realm of ideas, [it] has always already found an enemy with whom to fight for dominance” (Lubbe, Sakularisierung). This is equally true for secularization in a strictly juridical sense — which, in reviving a term (saecularisatio) designating the return of the religious man into the world, became in nineteenth-century Europe the rallying cry of the conflict between the State and the Church over the expropriation of ecclesiastic goods — and its metaphoric use in the history of ideas. When Max Weber formulates his famous thesis about the secularization of Puritan asceticism in the capitalist ethics of work (Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism), the apparent neutrality of his diagnosis cannot hide its function in the battle he was fighting against the fanatics and false prophets for the disenchantment of the world. . . . What then is the meaning of the Schmittian thesis [according to which “All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts” (Carl Schmitt, Political Theology)] in this context? Schmitt’s strategy is, in a certain sense, the opposite of Weber’s. Whereas, for Weber, secularization was an aspect of the growing process of disenchantment and detheologization of the modern world, for Schmitt it shows on the contrary that, in modernity, theology continues to be present and active in an eminent way. This does not necessarily imply a substantial identity between theology and modernity, or a perfect identity of meaning between theological and political concepts, rather it concerns a particular strategic relation that marks political concepts and refers them back to their theological origin. In other words, secularization is not a concept but a signatura . . . , that is, something that in a sign or concept marks and exceeds such a sign or concept referring it back to a determinate interpretation or field, without for this reason leaving the semiotic to constitute a new meaning or a new concept. Signaturae move and displace concepts and signs from one field to another (in this case, from sacred to profane, and vice versa) without redefining them semantically. Many pseudoconcepts belonging to the philosophical tradition are, in this sense, signaturae, which, like the “secret indexes” [Walter] Benjamin speaks of, carry out a vital and determinate strategic function, imparting a lasting valence to the interpretation of a sign.

      Insofar as they connect different times and fields, signatures operate, as it were, as pure historical elements. . . . If we are not able to perceive signatures and follow the displacements and movements they operate in the tradition of ideas, the mere history of concepts can, at times, end up being entirely insufficient. In this sense, secularization operates in the conceptual system of modernity as a signature that refers it back to theology: just as, according to canon law, the secularized priest had to wear a sign of the religious order he had once belonged to, so does the secularized concept exhibit like a signature its past belonging to the theological sphere. The way in which the reference operated by the theological signature is understood is decisive at every turn. Thus, secularization can also be understood . . . as a specific performance of Christian faith that, for the first time, opens the world to man in its worldliness and historicity. The theological signature operates here as a sort of trompe l’oeil in which the very secularization of the world becomes the mark that identifies it as belonging to a divine oikonomia (economy).

      (From Giorgio Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government)

  3. tegnost

    just started the article, but am impelled to point out that there seems to be a general connection between “technocrats” and corruption, why would anyone want to be led by a technocrat? Is it just a sneaky way of saying goldmine sacks?

    “These protests were targeting Iraqi Prime Minister al-Abadi, who is trying to appoint technocrats in ministerial positions as an anti-corruption measure”
    says here technocrats are going to halt corruption….hmmmm.

    1. Andrew Watts

      I don’t think these protests or the proposed reforms are likely to lessen political corruption either. The Iraqi government is built on the back of a system of client-patronage. A technocratic cabinet would likely expunge most of the remaining influence peddling that the Sunni, Kurds, and Turkmen still possess. The quota system was meant to give every ethnic/sectarian group a stake in the government and abolishing it could have dire consequences.

  4. Guglielmo Tell

    What it shows is a disastrous divorce between this fictional “Govt” and the people. There is no “democracy” in Iraq (don’t make me laugh), but a Viceroy authority run by the US Embassy. When the US had to withdraw from Vietnam, NOT A SINGLE AMERICAN stayed there. Another Vietnam/Iran will happen in Iraq when Moqtada al-Sadr will lead a Revolution for TRUE independence of the country, conquer the country back to its own people and will sue the US for reparations: life-onng payments to the families of 1-1,5 million people massacred with everything up to nuclear weapons such as depleted uranium, the clean up of DU-contamination from the rivers and everywhere, etc. And if there IS a bit of justice in America, all of it is to be billed on the warmongers and their supporters, not on America’s poor, unemployed and homeless.

  5. Emma

    “Lambert highlighted the minimal mainstream media coverage of this development and the lack of crisp talking points from sources close to the Administration. And the story appears to have dropped from the news radar.”
    Perhaps because the EU referendum in the UK is on June 23? Perhaps because the “Democratic” Party Presidential Primaries/Caucuses in the US now appear to conclude June 14 as opposed to an earlier date? It’s worthwhile noting too, that The Chilcot report will not be released until after the referendum in the UK. And then there’s that small matter with Syria…….

Comments are closed.