BAGHDAD: The current demonstrations in Iraq seek to show the international community what is happening in the country, and force out corrupt officials and politicians, Mustafa Hameed, a senior organizer of the protests, told Arab News on Thursday.
They are an attempt to topple the government of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi. The protesters do not want to damage the political system, he said.
There have been mass demonstrations in Baghdad and Shiite-dominated southern provinces since Tuesday, in protest against widespread corruption, high unemployment and the failure to consistently deliver basic services such as drinking water and electricity.
The protests are the worst since Abdul Mahdi took office in October last year. At least 28 people have been killed and hundreds wounded, including troops, after Iraqi forces used water cannons, tear gas and live ammunition in their attempts to disperse the crowds.
“We do not target the political process in our demonstrations and do not seek to topple the political system,” said Hameed, who used a different name over fears for his safety.
“We also are not targeting the Abdul Mahdi government exclusively. We want to bring the corrupt to court. We will not include the corrupt from 2003 but will include at least the corrupt from (former Prime Minister Nouri) Al-Maliki’s government. If Abdul Mahdi could make this decision (to bring the corrupt to justice) and provide the necessary guarantees for its implementation, we would withdraw from the streets within 24 hours.”
Iraq ranks high in the list of the most corrupt countries. Most Iraqis consider Al-Maliki’s second spell in government, which lasted from 2010 to 2014, to be the most corrupt administration. During its reign, three Sunni-dominated provinces in the western and northern parts of the country fell into the hands of Daesh militants, and thousands of innocent people were killed.
Iraqi officials said they cannot negotiate with the organizers of the demonstrations because their identities are unknown and their requests are not specific.
“Our demands are clear and our leaders are clear,” said Hameed. “But we deliberately did not disclose them from the beginning, to draw the attention of the international community to what is happening in Iraq and not give the Iraqi government the opportunity to terminate us.
“At first, we were just trying to send a message to the Iraqi political forces, the Americans and the Iranians that we were able to conduct demonstrations without the intervention of a political party or a cleric. But after the death of many of our young people, it became bigger than this and we demand the internationalization of the Iraqi issue.”
Iraq has been the biggest battleground for the US and Iran since 2003. Both countries control dozens of armed factions, and political and security leaders who serve their agendas in the country and the wider region.
Most Iraqis believe that corrupt politicians and officials benefit from the protection of the US or Iran, escape punishment by obstructing the rule of law, and deliberately form weak governments so that they cannot be held accountable.
One of the most important demands by protesters, said Hameed, is that the results of the May 2018 national parliamentary elections be canceled, the Parliament dissolved and a new election held.
He added that preparations for the demonstrations began three months ago, in coordination with prominent tribal sheikhs in Baghdad, Najaf, Karbala and Dhi Qar provinces. The protesters and their leaders are Iraqis without Islamist backgrounds, he said, and have no links to the Baath Party, which was banned by the US-led coalition following the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Clashes between demonstrators and security forces continued into the early hours of Thursday, especially in the provinces of Najaf, Maysan and Dhi Qar. The Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights and Iraqi officials said that more than 22 government and party properties had been set on fire by demonstrators in the past two days.
Hameed said new directives were issued to demonstrators in the past few hours telling them not to attack public buildings, security forces or clergymen in Najaf, to raise only the Iraqi flag, to form committees to protect demonstrators and expel saboteurs, and to demonstrate in all parts of Iraq instead of insisting on access to Liberation Square (known locally as Tahrir Square) in central Baghdad.
Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi said he is in “continuous contact with representatives of peaceful demonstrators to consider the legitimate demands.” Mohammed Al-Halbousi, the parliament’s speaker, invited the leaders of the demonstrations to meet him on Saturday in his office to hear their demands.
However, Hameed said they had received no contact from the government and would not accept an invitation from Al-Halbousi.
“No one has contacted us and we will not sit with them now,” he said. “They (the government) used to lie and trade the blood of Iraqis. We are waiting to see the reactions of the international community to decide our next step, so it is likely we will not meet with them (the government) until next week.”