The Roots of the October Uprising in Iraq: Against Imperialism, Neoliberalism, and the Sectarian Oligarchy

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In October 2019, working class Iraqis took to the streets in defiance of the ravages of imperialism, neoliberalism, and sectarianism that has been assaulting Iraqi masses even before the current crisis. On May 10, hundreds returned to the streets chanting the familiar call for the fall of the regime. What are the roots of this movement?

Image: Reuters/Thaier al-Sudani

Three young Iraqi women peer out from surgical masks and combat helmets. They appear to be in a war zone, perhaps working as medics or reporters. But this is no traditional war zone. These are the streets of Baghdad during the heady days of the 2019 uprising, and these young women are medics treating wounded revolutionaries, stricken by the bullets and tear gas of a violent counterrevolution.

From October 2019 until a coronavirus lockdown in March, Iraqi revolutionaries of predominantly working-class backgrounds defied state repression and conservative pressures to fill the squares of Iraq. Why did they risk so much violence to return to the streets again and again, even as support from the more privileged social classes began to fade?

For decades, the Iraqi working class has faced an unrelenting struggle against multiple forms of domination. British and American imperialism, and Iranian regional power, neoliberal economic restructuring, and a parasitic sectarian ruling elite have dispossessed and fractured Iraqi society. Iraqis currently face the most acute symptoms of a decaying global capitalist order.

But when we peel back the layers to reveal all the forces of oppression that confront Iraqi workers, we also find a powerful struggle to build a new world in the shell of the old. This revolutionary struggle must be understood and supported by leftists as a key node in the global fight against imperialism, capitalism, and authoritarian rule.

Imperialism, British and American

The 20th-century history of Iraq is characterized by a consistent and sustained imposition of imperialist domination by Western states.

After the Ottoman Empire’s dissolution (1908–22), the British and French authorities sought to carve up Middle Eastern spheres of colonial influence to sustain their geopolitical interests and post–World War I dominance. The British received a “mandate” to govern the still-contested area that would become Iraq, promising full independence after a period of tutelage. Local nationalist struggles for autonomy were resisted by the British authorities, culminating in the Iraqi Revolution of 1920 in which brutal violence and British bombs proved decisive in defeating a diverse independence coalition.

After installing a Hashemite royal, Faisal ibn Husayn, as the client ruler of the new Iraqi Mandate, the British continued to control fiscal and foreign affairs for decades, putting down uprisings, decimating agricultural productivity, and extracting rents. The British entrenched a new local ruling elite of “government sheikhs” who derived little legitimacy from the colonial state’s faux democratic institutions.

British interference in Iraqi affairs continued until the monarchy ended, in 1958. But the founding of the more independent Republic of Iraq held little hope for bourgeois democracy, instead inaugurating junta rule and a resilient form of military authoritarian governance.

As the British Empire receded from the landscape, a newly ascendant U.S. Empire stepped into the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, focusing on Iraq as an arena to fight its Cold War rivals, secure access to natural resources, and consolidate clients in its growing spheres of influence. A consistent theme of the pre–Gulf War period in Iraq was the U.S. preoccupation with Soviet influence and its willingness to buttress authoritarian regimes and fuel local conflicts in the service of Cold War goals. For example, the Kennedy administration considered coup attempts against the regime of Abd al-Karim Qasim after his partial nationalization of Iraqi oil and expansionist behavior in Kuwait. Kennedy then welcomed a 1963 coup overthrowing Qasim as long as it limited Soviet influence in Iraq, inviting the slaughter of Iraqi Communist Party members.

In the 1970s, Richard Nixon instituted a “twin pillars” policy that buttressed reactionary regimes in Saudi Arabia and Iran to contain a noncompliant Iraq under Baath party rule. The Nixon administration fueled the mid-1970s conflict over Kurdish autonomy in Iraq by providing arms to the Kurdish side, eventually abandoning the Kurds in their struggle when it was no longer pertinent to Cold War interests.

During the devastating Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) the United States continued to play a cynical game of “dual containment,” hoping to prevent a victory by the newly founded Islamic Republic of Iran and Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces. The United States sold the Iraqi regime dual-use technology applicable to chemical weapons development before Saddam’s genocidal Anfal campaign in which thousands of Kurds were gassed to death. U.S. antagonism and self-interested maneuvering prolonged a conflict that killed hundreds of thousands and further militarized Iraqi society.

The end of the Cold War signaled a new, unimpeded era of imperial aggression by the United States in Iraq. After prolonging the Iran-Iraq war through secret support for Hussein, the United States soured on an increasingly belligerent Baathist regime. Saddam sought forgiveness for debts incurred to the Gulf states during the war and moved on historical territorial claims by invading Kuwait. This reckless and ill-advised invasion provoked a military response from the U.S. war machine. Operation Desert Storm drove Iraqi forces from Kuwait, showcasing the overwhelming violence of unchallenged U.S. power. Worries about prolonged occupation and Iranian political influence prevented Bush Sr. from toppling the Iraq regime. Instead, there ensued a long decade of crippling sanctions, no-fly zones, bombing campaigns, and economic strangulation. By the end of 1990s, the productive base of the oil-dependent economy had deteriorated, shrinking economic output to a fraction of its form size, and decimating the welfare state’s ability to provide goods and services.

By 2001, the sanctions regime was starting to fray, and Iraq was regaining access to the world market. The 9/11 attacks, however, provided a convenient pretext for the Bush administration to establish the latest innovation in imperialist doctrine, that of preemptive war and unilateral military action. Leading up to the 2003 invasion, the Bush administration lied about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, using the discourse of human rights to prepare the American masses for unjustifiable carnage. In reality, the regime-change operation was launched to inaugurate the Bush doctrine of imperial conquest — secure the rich oil reserves and pipeline networks of Iraq for Western capital, and project military force against competitors and allies alike. But the seemingly quick military victory proved to be Pyrrhic.

Not long after the president pronounced “mission accomplished,” former ruling Baathists, religious radicals, and disaffected groups began a violent insurgency against U.S. forces. The insurgency was fueled by the colonial Coalition Provisional Authority’s ill-planned policies of de-Baathification and the disbanding of the Iraqi Army. The insurgency morphed into a sectarian civil conflict and bloodletting, as a rogue’s gallery of Islamic fundamentalists converged on Iraq to terrorize the population and pit the newly disempowered Sunni populations against their fellow Shia Iraqis. The postinvasion violence led to ceaseless cycles of civil strife, terrorist bombings, and ethnic cleansing as the social fabric was torn apart. A 2013 study estimated that there were “405,000 excess deaths attributable to the conflict,”1 while another 2007 study found that 60–70 percent of Iraqi children suffer from psychological issues as a result of the violence. What little infrastructure lay intact after Hussein’s dictatorship was further destroyed by the war.

Iraqis have suffered greatly from nearly a century of Western imperialism. British and American regimes consistently empowered authoritarians, flooded Iraq with weapons, and worked to stifle leftist and democratic currents in the country. Imperialist powers continue to intervene in Iraq without any regard for the lives and resources of Iraqi workers.

The Neoliberal-Sectarian Order

The Iraqi uprising is situated in a regional political economy of a particularly vicious form of neoliberalism and authoritarian rule. Gilbert Achcar2 argues that the post-1970s implementation of policies of marketization, austerity, and privatization of public goods failed to boost even modest economic opportunity and production in the MENA region. The ruling systems in many of the MENA states are characterized by a “neopatrimonial” form of rule in which nepotism, cronyism, and corruption predominate. Neoliberal authoritarian political systems funneled major economic investments into real estate speculation, oil rents, and nonproductive assets while dismantling their modest welfare states. This “structural blockage” of capitalist development led to a ballooning of youth unemployment and the entrenchment of a deeply corrupt and especially unproductive capitalist and rentier class in the region.

During the 1980s and 1990s Iraq’s rogue-state status prevented the typical implementation of neoliberal policies as it faced sanctions and lack of access to the world market. The post-2003 invasion, however, created a “shock doctrine” moment in which Western and regional capital flooded the country, attempting to incorporate the new Iraq into this neoliberal order. The meager welfare state remaining after decades of Hussein’s militarization, sanctions, and corruption were dismantled by what Youssef Baker describes as a stage of “frenzied accumulation.” Iraqi society became a laboratory for experiments, such as the flat tax and deregulation, as the postinvasion economy was reconstructed in the interests of Western capital and a newly empowered local elite.3

The neoliberalized Iraqi economy overly relies on oil rents. Up to 95 percent of the state budget is funded by oil revenues, which are subject to the wild price swings on the market and easily pilfered by corrupt elites.

The massive inequalities unleashed by neoliberalization and the rentier economy are further entrenched by a deeply undemocratic political system. After the 2003 overthrow of the Baathist regime, the U.S. occupiers empowered a new ruling elite groomed mostly outside the country, importing a system of sectarian apportionment. In this system the dominant political parties, which claim to represent particular ethnic or religious constituencies (grouped mostly around Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish communities), divide up government ministries through electoral horse-trading. These parties then siphon state resources from their ministerial fiefdoms to associated militias, party followers, and clients.

This process of “sectarianization” is a divisive form of political mobilization in which sectarian identities are deployed or reinvented by the Iraqi ruling class in order to legitimize their bankrupt politics.4 Iraqi workers are pitted against each other based on exclusionary notions of sect and ethnic identity.

The results of sectarianization in Iraq are disastrous for the development of civic identity and a democratic political system. Access to state resources often depends on allegiance to one of the parasitical ruling parties, and the prime minister has little control over how the various party-controlled ministries pillage state resources. Investment in public goods is fatally undermined by cronyism and corruption. Sectarian political parties are also highly patriarchal and militarized, quick to deploy repression and militia violence to negotiate and secure power.

Sectarian ruling elites rely on foreign patronage to maintain power. Iran, the United States, and Saudi Arabia attempt to shape and co-opt the various parties in service of their political agendas. For example, a Haaretz report revealed that Qassem Soleimani, the recently assassinated commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds force, was a frequent visitor to Iraq with deep influence over Iraqi Islamist parties and militias. In an October planning meeting convened to respond to the uprising, Soleimani exclaimed, “We in Iran know how to deal with protests” and assisted Iraqi officials with plans to crush the demonstrations.5

Authoritarian and sectarian politics, neoliberalization, and decades of imperialist war leave Iraqis with a decimated social-reproductive base. The World Bank estimates youth unemployment at 36 percent, and the Norwegian Refugee Council recently warned that massive teacher shortages are causing the country’s education system to collapse.

The sectarian patronage system’s capacity to provide for even a portion of the population is reaching a limit. Oil prices and government revenues continue to plummet amid the Covid-19 crisis, while an estimated 50 percent of Iraqis still rely on the state for pensions and salaries. Hundreds of thousands enter the job market each year just as the state is losing even a marginal ability to provide employment.

Facing further deterioration in life conditions and fed up with the neoliberal order and its unending violence, a diverse coalition of Iraqis took to the streets in October 2019.

The Uprising

While the proximate cause of the October mobilizations was the controversial dismissal of the country’s popular counterterrorism chief, Lt. Gen. Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi, scholar Zahra Ali reminds us that the October uprising sprang from a nearly continuous series of mobilizations in Iraq since 2009. For example, protests in 2015 against corruption, poor public services, and sectarian governance were mostly led by older political figures, and sentiments were steered into liberal reformist agendas and co-opted by establishment politicians like the reactionary Islamist Muqtada al-Sadr. The year 2018 saw protests expand to the lower classes in the oil-rich yet impoverished city of Basra, rejecting the political system and calling for the overthrow of the political elite.6

The 2019 protests took an even more radical tone, expanding participation into the young, precariously employed working classes. Ali explains,

[T]his uprising is about the poor, the disempowered and the marginalized demanding a new system. Those who initiated the rebellion are still at its core — the street merchants, the underpaid waiters, those who carry heavy boxes in the markets and the tuk-tuk drivers who are literally the heroes of this uprising (carrying the wounded to the hospital and driving the protesters from one point to another to get around the roadblocks). Their ranks also include many young men who fought ISIS in Mosul and came back after the fight to grinding poverty and joblessness. These millennials and disenfranchised often claim that they have “nothing to lose” and that they would “prefer to die in Tahrir than from poverty and despair.”7

Young people under 18 are integral participants, unburdened by the political baggage of the Hussein era and demanding that their voices be heard. In a promising early development, teachers and educators walked out in strikes to support youth participation in the demonstrations.

Women have defied conservative calls to stay home, joining the uprising as well. Despite the dangers of violence and pressures to abstain from public participation, young women are pushing back against patriarchal norms and calling for improved education and for political power. The Independent interviewed one 20-year-old woman who declared, “We are the future generation. As children, we lived through the fall of a former regime and its aftermath. As teens, we lived through terrorism and ISIS. As youth, we have been living through failed governments, stealing our rights and the rights of our children. The time has come for us to speak out against all of this.”8

The expanded participation of informal workers, unemployed, youth, and young women in this round of demonstrations marks a break with the reformist and primarily middle-class composition of earlier protests. This is a promising sign of increased self-activity and organization among the Iraqi workers.

This revolutionary process is also a cultural renaissance. In December, scholar Fanar Haddad visited Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, witnessing “an explosion of cultural, political and intellectual expression and creativity.”9 Hip-hop, poetry, and art (showcased beautifully in this Left Voice post) bursting from the squares expressed an aspiration for an Iraqi society rid of sectarian cleavages and ethnic animosity.

Mutual aid, political education, and democratic participation characterized the initial phase of the uprising. Schluwa Sama, from Workers against Sectarianism, described Baghdad’s Tahrir Square as a liberated zone where local merchants donated food and where electricity, books, and medical care were provided for free, and workers of different background and sects sat to discuss the political future. Demands crystallized around a program for a country freed of religious rule, including the equitable public provisions of goods and services, and an end to all imperialist interference in the affairs of Iraqis. This marked a radical departure from past uprisings, antagonizing the state, reformists, and conservative elements alike.

Iraqi revolutionaries created spaces of hope and experimentation in places like Tahrir Square. Workers gathered to formulate a new political and cultural discourse, overthrow an unjust system, and build an inclusive, democratic politics. Unfortunately, this inspiring movement faced brutal repression and betrayal by conservative and reformist forces, and it was caught between the political pressures of the Iran-U.S. proxy conflict. By the time the Covid-19 outbreak shut down the country, the active phase of the uprising was on the wane.

The Crushing of an Uprising

Since the outbreak of protests in October, grassroots mobilizations have been met by waves of grotesque violence perpetrated by state security forces and paramilitary militias, often advised and supported by Iran. Censorship and internet blockages by the state could not initially dissuade protesters. But sniper bullets, tear gas canisters aimed to kill, vicious beatings, and mass arrests have taken a devastating human toll. As of January, hundreds have been killed (mostly young men), and thousands injured. The protesters maintained a nonviolent stance, with the initial state repression leading to a surge in participants from all walks of life. But the brutal violence of the state was unrelenting, chipping away at continued popular participation in the movement.

In addition to state repression, the movement also had to face the counterrevolutionary pressures of the increasingly heated Iran-U.S. proxy conflict.

The Iran-US Proxy Conflict

While the U.S. imperial role in Iraq has already been discussed, what is Iran doing in Iraq? The Iranian leadership, centered around the authoritarian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the military intelligence apparatus of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, perceives a compliant and weak Iraqi state as vital to its regime survival and regional hegemony. After the horrors and decimation of the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, the Iranian regime viewed Hussein’s 2003 fall as an opportune moment to permanently weaken a potential rival and increase the power of its “resistance” alliance. U.S. belligerence toward Iran and rumors of regime change also increased in the run-up to the Iraq invasion. To resist the power of its longtime U.S. rival and shape the U.S. occupation of Iraq, Iran created and supported a network of Iraqi Shia militias.

Today, Iran continues to empower these militias, using their allies to attack American interests and maintain Iraq as a weak state. Iran actively encourages sectarianism and chauvinistic Islamist politics to divide and conquer its rivals while ensuring that no democratic process can prevail in Iraq. The Iranian regime worries that democratic movements in Iraqi will undermine the power of its sectarian clients and encourage progressives back home in Tehran.

The long-standing geopolitical rivalry between the United States and Iraq is continually played out on the bodies of the Iraqi people. Under the especially aggressive Trump administration, the proxy conflict culminated in the January 3 assassination by drone of Quds force head Qassim Soleimani and Iraqi politician and militia leader Abu Mahdi El-Muhandis.

At the very moment that Iraqi protesters were moving to demobilize and disarm Iranian-backed militias and end Iran’s malign influence in domestic politics, the U.S. assassination gave a shot in the arm to the Iraqi elite. Cloaking itself in nationalist rhetoric, the very forces murdering Iraqi demonstrators called for national unity against the imperialist ambitions of the United States. Any opposition to the militias and Iran emanating from Iraqi demonstrators could now be characterized as support for the U.S. invader. Again, democratic aspirations were thwarted by geopolitical rivalries and U.S. empire.10

Conservatives and Covid-19

Conservative elements, initially ambivalent toward the protests, have become hostile toward them. Muqtada al-Sadr, an Islamist populist famed for resisting the U.S. occupation and stoking the militia movement, initially tried to steer the uprising into line with his own ambitions. But the protesters overwhelmingly recognized Sadr as a part of the corrupt elite and rejected his co-optation. In response, Sadr aligned further with Iran, recalled his supporters, and attacked protesters with his militia.

The coronavirus pandemic deals a further blow to the ability of Iraqi revolutionaries to mobilize, promising to deepen the socioeconomic and political crisis in Iraq.

The gutting of the health sector after years of sanctions, war, and neoliberalism leaves Iraq ill prepared to fight the virus. A chronically underfunded Iraqi health care system faces massive drug and doctor shortages. Iraqi health officials fear that the virus will overwhelm a broken health care system.

Meanwhile, demand shocks and Russian-Saudi price wars have led the price of oil to collapse, drying up the already-meager sources of revenue and social spending for the Iraqi state.

Despite a determined attempt to continue protests into March, the Covid-19 lockdown severely hampered revolutionaries and their ability to mobilize in the streets.

What Next?

While the streets of Baghdad and other cities may be comparatively silent because of social distancing measures, the Covid-19 outbreak will only delay a renewed phase of the Iraqi worker’s struggle.

The government has no answers for the demands of protesters. After the resignation of Prime Minister Adil Abdul Al-Mahdi and two failed attempts to form a government, the sectarian elite appointed former intelligence chief Mustafa Kadhimi as prime minister.  He will be unable or unwilling to institute reforms, and the political parties will continue to squabble over the dwindling spoils of the state. The ineptitude of this political regime will only drive Iraq further into economic and political crisis.  

We are potentially witnessing a new round of mobilizations in reaction to both Kadhimi’s appointment, and the deepening economic and health disaster exacerbated by the pandemic.  On May 10, hundreds returned to the streets chanting the familiar call for the fall of the regime.

Perhaps it was quixotic to imagine that Iraqis would overthrow the sectarian regime. But scholar Fanar Haddad points to signs of hope for the future: “No amount of force can extinguish what has been created in the protest sites. A new political awareness and culture have been formed. The political classes and the Iraqi system’s international guarantors have to realise that this will need to be accommodated moving forward.”11

This political awareness is more radical and uncompromising in its demands for a new political system. As Zahra Ali explains, “The Iraqi revolutionaries are a generation that is creating new imaginaries of belonging and new modes of civic and social life.”12

The consciousness that blossomed in October can become the basis for the development of working-class leadership and self-activity, rejecting sectarianism, reformist illusions, and divisive geopolitical loyalties. This new politics may create enemies of former middle-class coalitional partners but is necessary in the development of a democratic program that can fully uproot the decaying sectarian regime.

The internationalist left must support Iraqi revolutionaries when their struggle inevitably renews. We must center and engage with Iraqi radicals, academics, and journalists as they teach us about effective organizing, anti-imperialism, and cross-class coalition building.

The protest camps of Tahrir, Basra, and other Iraqi cities are an inspiration that helps leftists envision a social rebirth beyond the ravages of capitalism and imperialism.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Hagopian, Amy, Abraham D. Flaxman, Tim K. Takaro, Sahar A. Esa Al Shatari, Julie Rajaratnam, Stan Becker, Alison Levin-Rector, et al. “Mortality in Iraq Associated with the 2003–2011 War and Occupation: Findings from a National Cluster Sample Survey by the University Collaborative Iraq Mortality Study.” PLoS Medicine 10, no. 10 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001533.
2. Gilber Achcar, “Gilbert Achcar on the Undying Revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa,” Marxist Left Review, December. 2019, marxistleftreview.org/articles/the-undying-revolutions-in-the-middle-east-and-north-africa-interview-with-gilbert-achcar.
3. Yousef K. Baker, “Iraqi Protesters Thwarted by Trump’s Iran Policy,” Middle East Report Online, February 11, 2020.
4. Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel, Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East. 2017.
5. Associated Press, “‘We in Iran Know How to Deal With Protests,’ Soleimani Told Iraqi Officials in Surprise Visit,” Haaretz, October 31, 2019, www.haaretz.com/middle-east-news/iran/anti-government-protests-in-iraq-and-lebanon-threatening-iran-s-regional-influence-1.8059140.
6. Zahra Ali, “Iraqis Demand a Country,” Middle East Report 292, no. 3 (Fall/Winter 2019). https://merip.org/2019/12/iraqis-demand-a-country/.
7. Ibid.
8. Mustafa, Balsam, “I Spoke to the Women Risking Their Lives to Join the Iraq Revolution – and This Is What They Want,” Independent, November 5, 2019, www.independent.co.uk/voices/iraq-revolution-women-protests-iran-lebanon-a9186141.html.
9. Fanar Haddad, “Hip Hop, Poetry and Shia Iconography: How Tahrir Square Gave Birth to a New Iraq.” Middle East Eye, December 9, 2019, www.middleeasteye.net/opinion/iraq-new-political-awareness-and-culture-have-been-formed.
10. Baker, “Iraqi Protesters.”
11. Haddad, “Hip Hop, Poetry and Shia Iconography.”
12. Ali, “Iraqis Demand a Country.”

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