WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – On Friday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on the government of Iraq to “listen to the legitimate demands of the Iraqi people who have taken to the streets to have their voices heard.”
In a written statement, Pompeo welcomed “any serious efforts” made by the Baghdad government “to address the problems in Iraqi society.”
At the same time, he criticized “the recently imposed severe restrictions on the press and of expression,” saying that those restrictions must be relaxed.
“Press freedom is inherent to democratic reform,” Pompeo affirmed.
His statement came after a month of demonstrations, in which over 250 protestors have been killed and another 10,000 wounded by Iraqi forces.
On Thursday, Amnesty International issued a report, explaining that anti-riot troops were using military-grade tear gas grenades, “resulting in horrific injuries and death when fired directly at protesters.”
The demonstrators are calling for radical change in Iraq’s political system, which they say fails to address their needs, but, rather, serves the interests of a small governing elite.
The protests in Baghdad on Friday marked the biggest such demonstrations since the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein—and for a decade before that.
Saddam ruthlessly suppressed dissent, and the demonstrations, thus, represent the biggest protests in Iraq since the 1991 Gulf War, when President George H. W. Bush called on the Iraqi people, and military, to overthrow the dictator (Bush then abandoned them, letting Saddam crush the popular uprisings, because he hoped for – and expected – a military coup would oust Saddam).
The protests over the past month reflect widespread dissatisfaction with the economy, including high levels of unemployment, the dismal state of public services, and widespread government corruption.
In Transparency International’s ranking of corruption, Iraq is near the bottom, placing 168 out of 180 countries.
The protests are also directed against Iranian influence in Iraq. Indeed, Qassemm Soleimani, head of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, reportedly visited Baghdad on Wednesday to shore up the Iraqi government.
On Friday, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most senior Shia cleric, speaking through an aide, affirmed that the “necessary reform must be carried out,” and “it is not for any person, group, party or any regional or international party to seize the will of Iraqis and impose their opinion on them.”
Indeed, the hashtag (in Arabic) “Expel Soleimani and [Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei from Iraq” appeared on twitter, as did a video of Iraqi protestors hitting pictures of the two Iranian leaders with shoes.
Similar demonstrations are occurring in Lebanon, where protestors are also demanding a complete overhaul of the political system, in which the pro-Iranian militia, Hezbollah, plays a dominant role.
“Enormous anti-government demonstrations in both countries,” some against the Iranian government, “have suddenly put Iran’s interests at risk,” The New York Times reported on Thursday. “They have also raised the possibility of inspiring protests inside Iran itself.”
In Lebanon, the protests led on Tuesday to the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his government. On Thursday, Iraq’s President Barham Salih announced that Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi was prepared to step down if a replacement could be agreed upon.
However, Abdul Mahdi’s resignation would run counter to the wishes of Tehran, and Soleimani was in Baghdad to prevent precisely that.
Editing by Karzan Sulaivany