Iraqi civilians in the firing line

Of all the protests currently in progress around the world, those in Iraq have been the most deadly. But just who exactly is firing on the demonstrators? The question is difficult to answer – and constitutes political dynamite. Birgit Svensson reports from Baghdad

By Birgit Svensson

The air is bad in Baghdad. In both senses. On the one hand, new winter fog is pushing deep down into the lower strata of the atmosphere and mingling with the smog made up of tear gas and burning car tyres. And on the other, the bitter battles of recent days that left so many people dead and injured have stirred up the city at the same time as paralysing it.

Young demonstrators with thick bandages limp along Tahrir Square. You no longer hear any shots being fired, but the ambulance sirens are all the more audible. The mood is somewhere between resignation and "now more than ever". For fear of being caught in the crossfire, it's primarily families and women who are currently staying at home.

And that is probably the aim of the violent operation ordered by the government. It wants to put an end to the uprising. For the second time since the start of protests in Iraq six weeks ago, Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi is allowing demonstrators to be fired upon. This much we know: of all the protests and rebellions currently going on in the world, the ones in Iraq are the bloodiest.

Who is firing the shots?

As the municipal rubbish trucks remove the rubble and excavator shovels pick up the paving stones used by demonstrators as projectiles, there is still no foreseeable end to the political heap of rubble that provoked these protests and that was also brought to light by the rallies. Whoever authorised the use of live ammunition at the protests as well as tear gas, thereby bearing the responsibility for the deaths of largely peaceful demonstrators, is beyond dispute. The UN's Human Rights Commission now says 330 people have been killed since the start of protests in early October and around 18,000 injured. What is however unclear, is exactly who fired the shots.

Iraqi teachers demonstrate on Tahrir Square in Baghdad (photo: Birgit Svensson)
Fed up with years of mismanagement, corruption and abuse of political power: Iraqis have been protesting against the central government under Adel Abdul Mahdi since the beginning of October – as seen here on Tahrir Square in Baghdad. It is an uprising that has to date cost 330 people their lives

Dheyaa al-Saadi receives visitors in his office at the Iraqi bar association on the other side of the Tigris, opposite Tahrir Square. The government quarter is located in Karkh, which is the western half of the city. Many ministries are situated here, including the office of the Prime Minister. The demonstrators on Tahrir Square were fired on from Karkh.

The chairman of the Iraqi Bar Association is used to people arriving at his office late if they're coming from the other side of the Tigris. Of the four Tigris bridges still occupied a week ago by the protest movement, three have now been cleared by security forces but not yet opened for traffic. To travel from Rusafa to Karkh, you need to make a major detour and that takes time.

Saadi is a small, prudent man who thinks long and hard before answering. He is at pains to emphasise that the bar association is an independent organisation founded in 1933 and that he himself was elected to his post as an independent candidate. And that was not easy, as Iraqi politicians try and interfere in everything.

Erupting protests

"The order for both operations against the demonstrators was issued by the Supreme Commander of the security forces, the Prime Minister," the senior lawyer says with certainty. Adel Abdul Mahdi bears the responsibility for the deaths and injuries, he adds. Back in mid-October in Baghdad and the southern provinces of Iraq, where protests are also raging, security forces intervened using violent means leaving more than 100 dead. The demonstrations ebbed away for a few weeks before erupting again with even greater force.

In Baghdad, this is evinced by the spread of the protest camp. Whereas in early October, the tents were restricted to Tahrir Square, now they are spilling over into the surrounding streets. Saadi is certain that this second operation will not be the last. But just who is firing on the people?

Many soldiers from the army are in the protest camp; many police officers are also coming out in support of the demonstrators. You can see them driving through the city flying the Iraqi flag – a clear expression of sympathy. That's also thanks to the bar association, says its chairman. "The lawyers of our association have also positioned themselves on the side of the protest movement," says Saadi. "We've got two stands on Tahrir, we engage people in conversation, we have a group of lawyers looking after detained demonstrators." He proudly relates that they have already managed to secure the freedom of more than 100 of those arrested.

Dheyaa al-Saadi in front of the Iraqi bar association (photo: Birgit Svensson)
Die irakische Regierung verletzt die Verfassung“, glaubt Dhia al-Saadi von der irakischen Rechtsanwaltskammer. Artikel 9 der 2005 in Kraft getretenen irakischen Verfassung verbietet den Einsatz der Sicherheitskräfte gegen die Bevölkerung, für deren Schutz sie verantwortlich seien. Wörtlich heißt es: Irakische Armee und Polizei dürfen nicht als Instrument gegen das irakische Volk eingesetzt werden.

They are working hard to convince soldiers and police officers not to take action against demonstrators and not allow themselves to be made into instruments of the government. Article 9 of the Iraqi constitution, which took effect in 2005, prohibits the deployment of security forces against the population – the protection of which they are responsible for. Literally, this means: the Iraqi army and police cannot be deployed as an instrument against the Iraqi people. But this is exactly what is happening. "The Iraqi government is violating the constitution," concludes Dheyaa al-Saadi.

"I want my rights!"

"Destour", the Arabic word for constitution, is one you'll hear frequently on Tahrir Square at the present time. The demonstrators are talking about their constitutional right and demanding this. In general, these protest rallies are also about civil and human rights. "We want the politicians to adhere to our constitution," demands a group of female teachers gathered on Tahrir holding up pamphlets. The rallies are also about the constitutional right to education – one that the women say is not being sufficiently fulfilled. T-shirts are available for purchase with the slogan: "I want my rights!"

The demonstrators on Tahrir Square are also not entirely sure who is firing on them. Some of the shooters wore Iraqi army uniforms, others were in jeans and T-shirts and yet more were clad in black. The shots were aimed, says bar association president Al-Saadi. The hard tear gas canisters were fired at the demonstrators' temples and chests. "Their intention is to kill," he adds.


All this points to a special unit known as the "Golden Division", trained in counter-terrorism and on the frontline in the battle to liberate Mosul from the clutches of IS. The unit's snipers are notorious and are thought to be involved in the protests in Karbala and other southern cities, according to eye-witness reports.

A proxy war between two arch enemies?

The demonstrators in Baghdad are also talking about the presidential guard, which despite its name answers to the Prime Minister. This unit is made up of elements of the Shia militias trained and commanded by Iran and integrated into the Iraqi security apparatus following the purported victory over the Islamic State terror group. Deeply sceptical over their loyalty, Abdul Mahdi's predecessor Haider al-Abadi placed them under his orders. Right from the outset, there were considerable doubts as to whose orders this unit would actually follow.

"We shouldn't underestimate the confrontation between Iran and the U.S. in this conflict," says Dheyaa al-Saadi. So do the demonstrations represent a proxy war between the two arch enemies? He wouldn't go that far, says the lawyer with caution. But they will doubtless have a knock-on effect.

Tehran in any case maintains that the protests are being steered by the U.S. and Israel and perceives the Iraqi government response as an anti-terror campaign. "By saying this, they are justifying the shootings and the deaths," says Saadi. He and his colleagues fear that the situation could escalate further and become a military putsch – like Yemen, for example. There, Iranian-backed Houthi militias have been locked in violent conflict with an alliance formed of Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and the Americans. The beneficiaries of this devastating situation are extremist terror groups such as al-Qaida and IS. "That would be Iraq's ruin!"

Birgit Svensson

© 2019

Translated from the German by Nina Coon