13 November 2019
- Protesters’ targeting of key infrastructure, such as ports and oil facilities, will continue in effort to pressure Baghdad to grant major political reform
- Government’s unwillingness to meet demonstrators’ demands means violent protests in Baghdad and South will likely continue into next year
- Baghdad may consider election in 2020 as means to end protests, but longstanding grievances will result in further outbreaks of civil unrest
Anti-government protests have intensified in Baghdad and southern Iraq in the last two weeks. Demonstrators held a sit-in at the entrance of Umm Qasr port in Basra Province in the South between 29 October and 7 November which disrupted up to 80% of the port’s operations and delayed the delivery of several shipments of foodstuffs, though oil exports were unaffected. Moreover, protesters blocked access to the Nasiriyah oil refinery on 6 November, causing fuel shortages across Dhi Qar Province, and five days later protesters in Maysan Province in the South-East blocked roads leading to the al-Shayib border crossing with Iran and Bazirgan oil field. Furthermore, tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square on 1 November in the largest display of anti-government unrest since protests began, with other significant demonstrations continuing in many southern cities, including Karbala, Nasiriyah and Hilla. Separately, Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi announced on 9 November that new electoral reforms would be announced in the “coming few days”, with a new electoral commission to be formed, comprising members of the Iraqi judiciary and independent legal experts, including from the UN.
At least 319 people have been killed and more than 15,000 others wounded since protests first began on 1 October. A government report blamed the violence on excessive force used by security personnel, but Iran-backed Shia militias are also credibly involved in the killing of protesters (see our 30 October Report). Demonstrators are demanding the Prime Minister’s resignation, a major overhaul of the political system – including the scrapping of the quota system which sets senior political positions along sectarian and ethnic lines – economic concessions and measures to address endemic corruption. They have also protested against Iranian interference in political and security affairs. Efforts by the Prime Minister to appease demonstrators with limited reforms, such as a cabinet reshuffle, have so far failed to conclusively bring the protests to an end.
Protesters initially targeted government buildings and the offices of Iran-backed Shia militias. However, the sit-in at Umm Qasr port and the blocking of roads around oil facilities demonstrate that their strategy is now evolving to include targeting key infrastructure. This is intended to exert greater pressure on Baghdad to meet protesters’ demands. For instance, Umm Qasr holds economic and strategic importance as Iraq’s only deep-water port and is one of the main locations for food and medicine imports. The targeting of key transport and energy assets, in addition to other acts of civil disobedience – including harassing state employees to prevent them reaching workplaces – suggest that protesters are becoming more organised in their attempts to challenge and elevate pressure on the Government. However, Baghdad is unwilling and unable to address protesters’ demands due in part to financial constraints. Moreover, Shia, Sunni and Kurdish parties all oppose major political reform as this could jeopardise their influence. The Government’s concessions, including its purported electoral changes, will therefore continue to be mostly symbolic.
Protesters have largely rejected the Government’s concessions thus far, including the prospect for new elections. This is because they recognise that new polls will likely return the same political leadership that demonstrators are currently agitating against. Violent protests in Baghdad and southern Iraq will therefore continue in at least the next few weeks, though a major escalation in unrest – such as the participation of hundreds of thousands of people in protests – remains unlikely for now due to the absence of widespread political support. Nonetheless, the targeting of important infrastructure, such as oil fields and ports, by protesters will continue. Efforts to block roads around such facilities will increase the risk of disruption to oil production and exports in the coming month. In the longer term, the Government may be willing to hold new elections next year in an effort to bring protests to an end if it determines that the unrest is economically unsustainable and a threat to wider stability. This could result in demonstrations subsiding, but any reprieve will likely be temporary as protesters’ longstanding grievances remain unaddressed. Civil unrest will therefore continue to erupt in Iraq over the next year, posing challenges to long-term stability.