Like so many countries, Iraq is in a state of emergency bracing for a potentially huge wave of COVID-19 cases. And for Iraq's anti-government protesters, some of whom have been camped out in public spaces since October, that means a very tough choice: Should they remain and risk a public health crisis, or withdraw and possibly lose control of their movement?
VICE News visited Baghdad earlier this month, when the official number of cases of the virus hovered around two dozen, to see how the protests were faring five months on.
Protesters had kept up their actions in the streets since last fall, despite being fired on and targeted with tear gas canisters. Amnesty International and the Independent High Commission for Human Rights of Iraq say that from October to January alone, more than 600 people were killed in the protests. Meanwhile, nurses and doctors quit their paying jobs to serve the wounded from makeshift tents.
The government seems to acknowledge that its own forces are behind the gunfire. Mohamed Redah al-Haidar, a member of Parliament who oversees the Security and Defense Committee, told VICE News that officers will be “removed” from their jobs “if they don't stop shooting at protesters.”
Families of the victims say they have yet to see any justice, though rights violations have been well documented by human rights groups. In February, the U.N. condemned the use of birdshot, ammunition commonly used for hunting, against the protesters. But Amnesty International reviewed VICE News’ footage and confirmed that it “clearly shows people wounded from being hit with birdshot,” a type of ammunition that they say, “is never appropriate for policing use under any circumstances.”
The movement has evolved since it began in October as a cry against the lack of basic services, a crumbling economy, and government corruption. Activists are now demanding a complete overhaul of the political system. So far, the country remains in political deadlock.
Back in November, protesters managed to force the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi. But he has yet to be replaced, and President Barham Salih is on his second round trying to form a government. This week, he named a pick for Prime Minister who is unlikely to win approval from either pro-Iran factions or protesters: Adnan al-Zurfi, a former governor who has ties to the U.S. and holds an American passport.
Protesters are also now calling for an end to the growing proxy war between the U.S. and Iran. In January, the two nations approached the brink of war, after the U.S. launched a drone strike in Baghdad that killed Iran’s most powerful general, Qassem Suleimani, and key Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
There were three rocket attacks on bases hosting foreign troops recently, including one on Camp Taji that killed two U.S. Coalition forces and one British service-member. The U.S. blames Iran-backed militia groups. Washington responded with airstrikes and is pulling troops out of three military bases in Iraq.
And the COVID-19 crisis makes the future of the protest movement more uncertain than ever. A government curfew in Baghdad for the next week could keep protesters home, or see them once again defy death to stay in the streets. Many activists have been leaving Tahrir Square and urging fellow protesters to do the same. They say it’s a necessary, but temporary, break. Others fear that if they leave now, they'll lose control of the Square and their hard-fought movement, for good.