Meet the Young People Who Braved Bullets To Bring Down Iraq's Government

Fuelled by anger against corruption and mishandling of wealth, this is how youth-led demonstrations in Iraq forced an elected leader to resign for the first time in history.
February 11, 2021, 1:05pm
Meet the Young People Who Braved Bullets To Bring Down Iraq's Government
Photo: VICE World News / YouTube
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A decade after the seismic events of the Arab Spring, those who took to the streets reflect on what happened next.

Saddam Hussein was long gone by the time the wave of mass protests in 2011 toppled decades-long ruling dictators across the Middle East during the Arab Spring.

Ten years ago, Iraq was preparing for a total withdrawal of US troops stationed there since the spring of 2003, and the power-sharing system put in place by the American administration was meant to ensure the majority of Iraqis were represented and had a say in the new regime.

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A government led by the Shiite majority, propped up by Kurds and Sunni Arabs, and other minorities held onto power, and there were high hopes for a fledgling democracy.

But hopes of transforming an Iraq ruled by few to an Iraq governed by the many were overshadowed by the political rivalry fought not at the ballot box but through violence that had turned the streets of Iraq into a bloodbath from 2006 onwards in weekly suicide attacks, and assassinations. Thousands were killed, and more displaced in fear of kidnapping, and extortion by armed groups.

Once again, Iraq was ruled by a few, based on tribal, sectarian, and ethnic affiliations, different groups with armed wings gained more influence with access to the immense amount of wealth after the end of international isolation.

Against the backdrop of this endless cycle of bloodshed and inequality, Baghdad's government, mired by corruption and mismanagement, lost control over the Sunni-majority areas. Eventually, one of the former prisoners of a US forward operating base called Camp Bucca, Ibrahim Awad al-Samarrai, emerged to lead the Sunni Jihadis in Syria and Iraq, and declare himself caliph in 2014.

Protesters in Baghdad in October 2019. Photo: Murtadha Sudani/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Protesters in Baghdad in October 2019. Photo: Murtadha Sudani/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The Iraqi army deserted their positions and ISIS took control of major cities like Fallujah, Tikrit, and Mosul. It would be three years until Iraq declared military victory over ISIS.

By 2019 a new generation of Iraqi youth were waking up to the fact that they were still being deprived of the benefits from Iraq’s large oil production and reserves. Thousands of newly graduated students went jobless every year, and anger mounted in the Shiite majority areas.

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Protestors gather to attend anti-government demonstrationsat Tahrir Square in Baghdad in November 2019. Photo: Murtadha Sudani/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

As nothing changed, the crowds of angry young people grew – in a city long accustomed to organised demonstrations on Fridays called by the populist Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr – and became more violent.

Mary Mohammed, 22, who works in a beauty salon in Baghdad, was moved by the number of young people taking to the streets, so she joined them. "I want to care for my country, I want to care about its boys and girls. Either we live in dignity in our country, or we die.”

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“Our generation is different from the old ones, from our parents who accepted those traditions. But our generation is different. They are learning, because of the internet, for example, the girls, when they see others free and going out, they want the same, I don't see anything wrong with this,” Mohammed said.

Thousands camped at Tahrir Square in Baghdad, demanding better governance and job prospects, and above all, a better future. When the eventual crackdown came it was brutal: 669 people died, 15,000 more were injured, and 2,800 arrested. Security forces used rubber bullets, tear gas, smoke grenades, and fired live rounds in the clashes with demonstrators. 

Mokhalad Awad, a young Iraqi protester, made a name for himself during the early days of the demonstrations as "The Teargas Hunter" of Tahrir square. Videos of him throwing back teargas canisters to police took Iraqi social media by storm.

"I was arrested by the government forces without an arrest warrant. I am talking about militias. I was tortured and reached a moment where I would admit I belong to ISIS rather than say I am just a protester,” he said.

“See this tattoo on my forearm, it says bomb hunter. I had to cover it up because I guess if they saw it, they would have cut it off.”

The youth protests became known as the October Revolution, and won the support of older generations throughout Iraq. The newly appointed Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi resigned. The various political factions settled on Mustafa al-Kadhimi as his replacement, who despite being the former head of Iraqi intelligence was a friendly figure to the demonstrators. He was due to deliver an early election scheduled for June but it was postponed to October 2021, citing setbacks in the preparations due to COVID.

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Kadhimi made many promises to the demonstrators in Tahrir Square, but troubled with the pandemic and political pressure, has been unable to deliver on any of them. A year after the protests began, he ordered the square cleared.

But the youth who took to the streets in 2019 did manage to massively ramp up pressure on the ruling elite for their shortcomings, opening new horizons for the Iraqi society around women's participation in mass demonstrations and political movements.

Protests in Baghdad in late 2019. Photo: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images

Protests in Baghdad in late 2019. Photo: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images

Enas Musa, a pharmacist in Baghdad who helped injured protesters with first aid and primary medical care, said she was inspired by the words of the women’s rights activist Reham Yacoub, who was assassinated by unknown assailants in August 2020.

"Her chant 'I'm the hero and the son of the hero, I'm the Hussein', this chant coming from a woman from Basra moved me. Because I'm a woman from Baghdad and I've been subjected to what Reham Yacoub was subjected to. They chose to kill her because she has an influence on women,” Musa said.

Jaafar Hadi, a young Iraqi student in the American University of Beirut, said: "I'm always hopeful. I might not witness the Iraq I dream of during my lifetime, but whether Iraq would reach to that image I always had in mind.”