“To the generation of the sixties and seventies,” reads a sign flying high above Baghdad’s central square. “We have more courage than you.”
Although the unrest is confined to mostly Shiite areas, leading clerics for once have not marshaled it, and Shiite-dominated Iran, a powerful political and security force here, has been openly excoriated. The Iranian Consulate in Karbala has been torched and its national flag ripped down. In scenes reminiscent of the fall of Saddam Hussein, protesters have used their shoes to beat photographs of Tehran-backed militia leaders.
“If anything, these protests have challenged the sectarian formula of governance, which has reduced Iraqis to their ethnic and religious identities,” Harith Hasan, a nonresident fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center, wrote in a research note. Under Iraq’s political system, power is split among parties based on sect, and economic spoils are divided accordingly.
Fearful that its influence could erode, Iran is stepping in to help marshal a brutal response. In an earlier wave of protest last month, Iran’s leading general, Qasem Soleimani, flew into Baghdad late on the second day to make clear that Iran would be supportive of efforts to shut the protests down, according to Iraqi officials. They say an Iran-backed militia commissioned snipers to shoot protesters in the streets.
This time, government officials say, Iran has pressured Iraq’s weakened and embattled prime minister not to step down and fueled his belief that the protests are a foreign conspiracy.
Since protests initially erupted earlier this year, at least 264 people have been killed and more than 12,000 wounded, according to the country’s human rights commission.
Iraqi security forces fired tear gas and live rounds into the air to disperse protesters in central Baghdad on Thursday, beating young men they could grab, as the biggest wave of anti-government demonstrations in decades spread across the capital. The human rights commission said 23 people had been killed, and more than 1,000 wounded, in the past week.
“The biggest responsibility is on the security forces,” a representative of Iraq’s leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, said Friday, as the latest round of protests entered its third week. “They must avoid using excessive force with peaceful protesters.”
Since Oct. 25, Baghdad’s Tahrir Square has become a vision of a different sort of Iraq. Government authority is largely absent. Young men and women clean the streets and paint walls with pictures of their revolutionary heroes and their dead.
Hundreds have pitched in to cook for the crowd, stirring steaming pots of rice, chopping meat and brewing tiny cups of tea drenched in sugar.
“When I walk out into that square today, I know that if I’m hungry, someone will feed me. If I’m wounded, someone will carry me away,” said Al-Hassan Fahmy, leaning his elbow against a grubby mound of blankets. “This is a different society here.”
In front-line clashes, predominantly at night, demonstrators have held their ground with a mix of nihilism and glee. As adrenaline-pumped teenagers confronted riot police on a recent night, scampering among the tear gas trails and throwing stones back where they could, the crowd pumped fists in the air and bellowed in unison: “Are you Iranian? No. Are you American? No! Are you Baathist? No? Are you Iraqi?” The cheer was deafening.
Almost 60 percent of Iraq’s population of 40 million has grown up with a political system molded by the United States after Hussein’s ouster in 2003. Allocating power among religious and ethnic groups, it has entrenched corruption at the heart of public services and become a vehicle through which Iran spreads its influence. Iran has backed powerful militias that answer to the state in theory but operate with broad impunity in practice.
“We need a government without militias and without religion. We need a government of human beings, not militias who control everything,” said a 19-year-old medical volunteer, Mohammed, in Tahrir Square, resting a knee injury from days earlier when a gas canister smashed the bone as he ferried wounded men to safety. Like others, he spoke on the condition that only his first name be used, citing concerns for his safety. “I need a good school — just one good school — and instead I’ve seen protesters with their heads smashed open and bullets in their chests.”
Scrawled across his bandages: “My knee for my country.”
In mostly Shiite southern cities, protesters have burned militia headquarters and mobbed the ambulance of a leading member of the powerful Iranian-backed militia Asaib Ahl al-Haq. His death was captured on film when he was pulled into the crowd. “Like a battlefield,” was how one witness described it.
Although unrest has not spread to the country’s mostly Sunni Muslim northern and western provinces, young men and women there said it was not for lack of grievance. The Islamic State’s rise to power there in 2013 began when the militants capitalized on anti-government protests to hold ground. Students in the city of Mosul, still reeling and partly in rubble, have joined civil-disobedience campaigns this week but said they could not go out to the streets.
“Everyone knows what happened here before. We couldn’t protest even if he wanted to,” said Heba, an architecture student. She and others interviewed said they believed that the government would accuse protesters of trying to bring back Islamic State militants. In the western province of Anbar, Iraqi security forces have arrested several men who expressed support for this month’s protests on their social media accounts.
The growth and persistence of the protests, which began Oct. 1 as a small-scale cry against corruption, have caught political elites, as well as much of the country, by surprise.
During his visit to Baghdad early last month, Soleimani told Iraqi officials that Tehran knew how to deal with protests, recalling that it had gotten them under control when they previously erupted in Iran, according to two people with knowledge of the meeting.
The crackdown in Iraq intensified quickly, with snipers deployed on rooftops, media outlets attacked and leading activists abducted. Protesters in Tahrir Square this week said the violence, initially focused on a mostly poor crowd from Shiite suburbs, inflamed wider anger, persuading a broader demographic of sects and ages to take to the streets in the second wave.
In repeated speeches to the nation, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has voiced support for the crowds’ demands, promising reform and condemning violence on all sides. But his early promises to step down have disappeared, and in an address to Iraq’s cabinet Tuesday, he described resignation as the “easiest” way out.
Two government officials said Abdul Mahdi had originally prepared a resignation speech but abandoned it after pressure from advisers and officials linked to Iran.
“He wanted to resign, but after a long meeting, they convinced him not to,” said one official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. “The Iranian side considers this as their government, and for the first time they have control of the decision-making. They don’t want to lose that easily.”
The prime minister is increasingly isolated, people close to him say, convinced by those around him that the demonstrations, far from being a response to socioeconomic conditions, are a conspiracy stoked by the United States and Israel.
“This is the largest grass-roots movement in Iraq’s modern history,” said Hasan, of the Carnegie Middle East Center. “The government lost the narrative in the face of a very vibrant movement.”