The tide of revolt reaches Iraq

March 1, 2011

The revolutionary tide that's sweeping the Middle East is beginning to impact Iraq--much to the chagrin of the U.S. government, writes Tom Arabia.

IN THE wake of revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, demonstrations in Iraq that had been routinely ignored for years have swelled in size and already won major concessions from a shaken Iraqi regime.

Protests demanding basic civil services, jobs and an end to corruption have rocked the government enough for it to call off a billion-dollar deal with the U.S. military for F-16 fighter planes. Additionally, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is seeking a constitutional change to limit his office to two terms (and thus would not run for a third in 2014) and pledged to cut his $350,000 salary in half.

Demonstrations in February that were deemed "illegal" by authorities, but called "a right" by the apologetic al-Maliki, hit Iraq from as far north as Kirkuk of the so-called disputed territories to at least as far south as Najaf. In Al-Diwaniyah, 700 protesters hurling stones at police were dispersed by weapons fire. Hundreds demonstrated in Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood, Najaf and Ramadi, along with smaller protests in several provinces. A thousand or more hit the streets of the war-pummeled city of Falluja.

Iraqi riot police hold back an angry crowd in Basra
Iraqi riot police hold back an angry crowd in Basra

A broad range of Iraqi society was represented at the demonstrations. Men and women, young and old, shop owners, students, unemployed, health care workers and technicians, turned out to state their demands. "We demand that our civil freedoms are guaranteed, that corrupt officials are punished, and that we get better basic services and cheaper fuel," demanded one protester in Sadr City. "There is no life without electricity," "Give us food," and "Down with al-Maliki," said others.

And the results have been striking.

"No more fighter contract," a government spokesperson Ali Dabbagh told Agence France Press. Some $900 million had been earmarked for the purchase of F-16s, which will be used instead to finance rations and social benefits. Speaking for U.S. forces in Iraq, Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan says the long-term value of the 18 aircraft was $3 billion. The food rations budget will be increasing from $3 to $4 billion.

Winds of uprising have spread not only from without, but within. After a weekend of protests, thousands marched in Kut on February 16, a city about 100 miles southwest of Baghdad. Some 2,000 attacked government offices and clashed with police, resulting in one dead and dozens injured. "To all citizens: Electricity is only for officials" read placards.

A 2010 International Republican Institute poll found 25 percent of Iraqis cite basic services such as water and electricity as the single-biggest problem facing Iraq as a whole, with security the number one response at 36 percent. Unemployment and government corruption were each the biggest problem to 15 percent of those polled. In June of 2010, a whopping 66 percent of responders cited basic services.

As Iraqis brace themselves for another blazing summer, the need for basic services like water and electricity will increase.

While average nationwide electricity generated in Iraq has increased, the supply still falls one-third under demand, according to a 2010 Brookings Institute report. But upwards of half of the country's electricity is consumed in Baghdad alone. Only half of those surveyed had more than 12 hours of electricity a day, with millions getting much less.

Only 45 percent of Iraqis have access to potable water and 20 percent access to sewage treatment. Less than half the population have access to adequate housing, waste services and fuel and less than a third to public health. Only 30 percent of Iraq's 3.5 million students regularly attend class.

Privatization and increased foreign direct investment have done little to improve the Iraqi labor scenario. Al-Akhbaryia News Agency reports that the latest announced unemployment rate by the Ministry of Finance is 30 percent of the labor force. When underemployment is included, that figure may raise to as high as 48 percent. Only 17 percent of women have jobs.

Sixty percent of the population is younger than 30 years old, a figure that evokes the tinder-box social conditions of other Arab nations. In previous government estimates, unemployment for the young has been as much as 50 percent higher than the national rate.

The New York Times Jack Healy said that Iraq has "virtually every ingredient for upheaval: crippling poverty, few good jobs, creaky public services, anger at an entrenched political elite and thousands of young people who meet online to vent their grievances and organize protests."

While conditions across the Arab world are comparably combustible, there are obvious key differences in Iraq. The populace suffer the collective trauma of "shock and awe," with 50,000 U.S. troops and a trillion-dollar neo-colonial infrastructure still occupying the country. Ongoing bombings and assassinations left over 100 civilians dead in January alone. Twenty-seven died in explosions just on February 12. Fear of bombs and bullets may keep the Iraqi masses more reticent than an "18-day revolution."

With sectarian tensions exacerbated by war and upwards of 3.7 million internally displaced persons, Iraqi society is more socially fragmented than Egypt's. But this concern is answered by protesters' calls, which include: "No for dividing Iraq, yes for its unity" and "No for sectarianism, yes for unity. Down with al-Maliki's government."

After Saddam's toppling, there is no singular face to Iraqi oppression that deeply unites the population in the same way as Mubarak did in Egypt. "We need unity, a demand for the same thing," said Mr. Ghazni, a law student. "We are trying to bring people together." A staggering 91 percent of the country says that the level of government corruption--already rampant before the occupation--stayed the same or worse, with 48 percent saying it got much worse.

Despite the absence of labor and opposition movements with anything near the strength of Egypt's prior to January 25, the bitterness of life in Iraq and the collective anger directed at the country's rulers, combined with the success of protests, have proven more than enough to instill fear in the government and corresponding vigor to demonstrations. "We are people who do not beg but demand our minimum rights," stated one woman in Kirkuk.

The ingredients for social upheaval are not only comparable to those in the rest of the Arab world, but also are interwoven. According to the CIA World Factbook, at the end of 2010, 60,000 to 80,000 refugees in Egypt originated from Iraq. The 1.6 million Iraqi Internet subscribers will doubtless have conversations with them and others in the region, along with the now-standard revolutionary social networking.

It has been said that, with an International Monetary Fund structural adjustment plan, successfully executed for decades through the tightly controlled Mubarak regime, Egypt served as a model to the U.S. economic and political takeover of Iraq.

While Operation Iraqi Freedom was deemed "liberation" by the U.S. propaganda machine, the model now comes full circle. As Jamal Abdullah, a 21-year-old university student at the demonstration in Falluja said, "The destiny of our corrupted rulers will be the same as that of Mubarak and Ben Ali."

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