New Iraqi PM reinstates popular commander, frees detained protesters
ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – Reversing a decree of his predecessor, newly-confirmed Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has reinstated the popular commander of the country's elite anti-terrorism forces, whose removal led to widespread protests and was among the preludes to widespread public unrest.
"We decided to bring back our hero brother, Lieutenant General Abdul Wahab al-Saadi, and to promote him as the head of the Counter-Terrorism Service [(ICTS)]," Kadhimi announced at a press conference on Saturday. The briefing came following a National Security Council meeting.
The new premier came into power early Thursday, replacing now-former Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi.
In an unexpected move in late September, Abdul Mahdi dismissed Saadi from his post as ICTS commander and referred him to the federal defense ministry to take up another role. Although the general first rejected the offer as an "insult" to his career, he later agreed to cooperate with the order.
Saadi is a prominent general who is known for his role in the fight against the so-called Islamic State, most notable among them the battle to retake the city of Mosul, a major stronghold of the terrorist organization's self-proclaimed caliphate for years. Clashes between the group and Iraqi forces have increased recently.
Abdul Mahdi's move inspired public anger, with some organizing protests in the capital of Baghdad in support of Saadi. During one such gathering, a demonstrator famously said that "foreign hands" were behind the decision, suggesting Iran-allied figures had influenced it.
As nationwide protests against terrible economic conditions, institutional corruption, and foreign interference in Iraqi affairs flared just two months later, the top Shia authority Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani withdrew his support for Abdul Mahdi, who resigned days after.
This came as members of the Iraqi security forces—most notably groups affiliated with the Iranian-backed militias—carried out a brutal crackdown campaign against mostly peaceful anti-government demonstrators, killing at least 600 of them and wounding over 20,000 others.
Despite concerted efforts to contain the primarily youth-led movement, only the new coronavirus disease was able to reduce its intensity. As the crackdown went on, Iraqi forces detained hundreds of demonstrators as unidentified militiamen carried out kidnappings and targeted assassinations of protest leaders.
After Abdul Mahdi stepped down, five months of negotiations yielded two failed replacements. Kadhimi, the 53-year-old former intelligence chief, finally took the helm in early May. In the month that preceded his confirmation, his government formation efforts were afflicted by the same drawn-out political vetting process among the country's ruling elite.
Olive Branch to Protesters
Kadhimi also announced during the Saturday press briefing he had ordered the release of all detained protesters, with the exception of individuals involved in criminal cases. He also claimed to have ordered "the protection of peaceful protesters and the prevention of violence in all its forms," in reverberation to similar statements made by Abdul Mahdi.
The new prime minister also said the national security council had agreed to form a committee "to investigate all the events that took place starting October 1, 2019 up to today… holding to account those who shed Iraqi blood and compensating the families of the martyrs and caring for the wounded."
Another committee, Kadhimi noted, would be formed to facilitate "conducting early, fair elections," which is among a list of demands made by the protesters since late 2019.
Demonstrations slowed in early 2020 amid spiking US-Iran tensions, with Iraq being the main standoff arena. The coronavirus disease reaching the country in early March and the resulting restrictive containment measures enacted by the government also contributed to reducing their intensity.
However, as Baghdad eases lockdown measures, protests appear to be regaining momentum again, with activists calling for mass demonstrations on social media, where the large young component of the movement is very active.
In the city of Kut on Saturday evening, protesters torched part of the headquarters of the Iran-aligned Badr Organization, led by Hadi al-Amiri, as well as the home of a lawmaker from another pro-Tehran group, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, witnesses said.
The standoff between protesters and Iran-backed militias of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) was expected to escalate, but all eyes are now on Prime Minister Kadhimi.
Editing by John J. Catherine