‘This was one the worst weeks in Iraq’s history. I never thought the government was capable of such crimes,’ exclaimed one civil society activist in Baghdad when describing the protests that ripped through Baghdad and other parts of Iraq from 1 October.
While protests have become frequent events in Baghdad over the past few years, this time was different. For the first time in Baghdad, forces seeking to defend the political system opened fire on demonstrators, killing hundreds and injuring thousands. The same forces, a mixture of official security forces and government-aligned paramilitary groups, also attacked independent media outlets and cut off the internet.
This is a dangerous moment for Iraq, which could find itself sliding towards a more repressive and authoritarian state.
The Basra blueprint
The main hotspot for protests has usually been the oil-rich yet impoverished city of Basra. Last summer, protesters attacked and set fire to provincial government buildings and the offices of political parties and paramilitary groups, as well as to the Iranian consulate. In response, armed groups, some connected to the state-sponsored paramilitaries that were an important force in the fight against Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, retaliated by shooting protesters, effectively ending the unrest.
So far this year, Basra has remained uncharacteristically quiet. This may partly reflect improvements in the provision of electricity this summer compared with last. However, our recent trips to Basra and meetings with activists suggest this lack of overt opposition protest is due to a new and more strategic model of repression that has curtailed civil society activism and protests in the province.
The effectiveness of this model has rested on two factors. First, in Basra there are tight-knit relationships between Iraqi security forces, local tribes and militias. The strength of these ties, rooted in shared economic and political interests, has produced a more cohesive apparatus of repression than can be found elsewhere. Second, these groups are deeply embedded in the local population, owing to a combination of tribal structures and the militias’ aggressive recruitment strategies in Basra.
These factors have allowed for a more rigorous campaign of repression following the summer 2018 protests in Basra, which saw expanded operations to gather intelligence and recruit informants. The resulting information has been used to monitor protest leaders, and to contain and control their movements.
This comprehensive intelligence capability also allows for more strategic forms of repression and violence, designed to instil fear and erode protest leadership networks while avoiding the forms of chaotic and escalatory violence seen in Baghdad last week. At its core, the model notably involved the targeted assassination of key activists in Basra. Others were arrested or threatened, and many were forced to flee the city – or indeed Iraq – according to protest leaders we spoke to in March.
This pattern has been seen once again as the protests raged in Baghdad. Two well-known local activists, Hussein Adel Madani and Sara Madani, were assassinated by masked gunmen who stormed their Basra home last week, likely as a pre-emptive warning to others.
The Baghdad reality
Baghdad’s more open and fragmented politics means there is less coherent control over the security apparatus, with different factions competing for influence. And this has in turn given rise to a less cohesive system of repression, where different factions within the state security apparatus are working at cross purposes.
Civil society activists in Baghdad have told us that intelligence agencies linked to the state often tip them off when armed groups put them on a hit list. Major government figures, including the prime minister and president, have condemned the recent attacks on protestors and vowed to investigate what they view as breaches of the command structure of the security forces.
Moreover, the social ties that allow paramilitary groups to penetrate more deeply into local communities in Basra are weaker in Baghdad. The outcome is a more reactive and chaotic response to protests, characterized by competing groups using violence to pursue their own agendas. With this comes a greater potential for destabilizing escalation.
In the past, Iraq’s political classes defended the system and quelled protests by promising reform. Now, as such promises increasingly ring hollow with protesters, some elites are relying on coercion.
The perceived success of the Basra blueprint could, in the short term, encourage a more repressive practice of power elsewhere in Iraq. Its effectiveness depends on local conditions in Basra that do not necessarily apply in Baghdad.
However, if the politicians in Baghdad are unable to reform the system and rebuild the state, they will struggle to control the armed groups, which are in the process of building their networks to copy the Basra model. This would create a new and even more dangerous situation.