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Why Iraqis are protesting after 'years of anger and frustration'

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Why Iraqis are protesting after 'years of anger and frustration'
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REUTERS
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The striking sight of a red, white, black flag, against a hazy sky, is a reminder for many of the street demonstrations that spread across North Africa and the Middle East during the Arab Spring of the early 2010s.

At least 30 Iraqis have died in recent anti-government protests, taking place in cities across the country, turned violent.

The protests are the biggest against Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi's government which took office nearly a year ago.

He has responded to the emergency by defending the government’s work in developing "real and radical solutions to many of the problems that have been accumulated for decades."

Why are Iraqis in the streets in such vast numbers?

“One approximate trigger was the demotion of the head of the counterterrorism services, the immensely popular General Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi’’, says Fanar Haddad, Senior Research Fellow at the Middle East Institute at the University of Singapore.

The 56-year-old general, who in recent years hlped the U.S.-led coalition fight Islamic State, is widely respected by Iraqis.

"A non sectarian leader who is respected, loved and deemed a hero by ALL Iraqis," one young Iraqi tweeted in outrage last week.

But Haddad says this was only one factor. “This is a culmination of years of anger and frustration and what we’re seeing is a raw expression of a rejection of the political system that has failed Iraq and Iraqi people for close to 16 years now," he explains to Euronews.

Iraqis had hoped the end of the war against the Islamic State would bring better security, and offer a recess in which to fix the country’s floundering infrastructure.

Roads, hospitals, schools and basic services have suffered decades of neglect amid U.N. sanctions, a U.S.- led invasion, the toppling of dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003, civil war, and most recently the fight against IS.

And yet in spite of reaching a period of relative stability, the country struggles with chronic unemployment and faltering power and water supplies.

Unemployment stood at 13% in 2017, with youth unemployment at 25.6%, according to International Labour Organization data.

For an OPEC member country, which according to the International Monetary Fund possesses the world’s fourth-largest oil reserves, Iraq should be recovering, if not prospering.

Yet a survey by the National Democratic Institute in July said a large majority of Iraqis see corruption as worsening in recent years.

Demonstrators say the ruling establishment has fueled endemic corruption and kept millions of people living in poverty.

What’s different about these protests?

‘’It’s worth pointing out that Iraq goes through such protests almost on a yearly basis’’ Haddad tells Euronews.

Though he notes: "Previous rounds of protests had more clearly identified, articulated demands relating to services, electricity, jobs. For the first time, there is a new element to them, they seem to be more decentralised and more leaderless than previous bouts of protests.

"These are more violent in their manifestation and they are composed of a newer generation completely unaffiliated with any of the organised political actors, including oppositional secular trends that would lead previous bouts protests.

This newer generation seems to be completely divorced from that, and they seem to be completely in opposition to any of the organised political movements, whether in government or out.

There is also a rejection of the system in its entirety for the first time we are hearing the famous slogan from the Arab Spring — 'the people want the downfall of the regime'," he says.

Whilst there is much anger at Abdul Mahdi, Haddad says the entire political system is characterised by corruption and deeply entrenched party political interests.

How has the government responded?

As protests raged into a second day, Abdul Mahdi presided over an emergency session of the National Security Council.

In a statement released on Facebook, he condemned "aggressors" who threaten public order and praised 2the heroes of our armed forces who have shown high responsibility, restraint and compliance with the rules of protection of the protesters."

In Baghdad, journalist Nabil Salih tells Euronews of seeing security forces "firing live ammunition and gas cannisters into crowds of unarmed protesters, young and old."

"Protesters carried bottles of Pepsi and Coke to deal with injuries caused by tear gas canisters fired at them by security forces."

Haddad believes that the government’s response has been "immensely counter productive."

At least 31 people have now been killed in the past three days of clashes.

In Baghdad, the authorities on Wednesday attempted to head off protests by imposing a curfew, with troops patrolling main roads and public spaces,

However as 4,000 protesters in Baghdad on Thursday night in defiance of the curfew, Abdul Mahdi's office said the prime minister was "continuing contacts" with protesters in a bid to end the crisis and "return to normal life".

Network data from the NetBlocks internet observatory shows that some connectivity returned briefly to parts of Iraq 28 hours after the country imposed a nationwide information blackout earlier this week.

IThe ramifications of internet outages in Iraq go well beyond the immediate sharing of information.

If the block remains in place, it could cost Iraq's economy as much as £40 million, according to Alp Toker, director of NetBlocks.

"This is because business is highly reliant on telecommunications for trade at every level, from the energy sector to cash-in-hand traders," he says. "We aren't looking at a developing country but a regional power which is why the impact is marked."

How will this play out?

Although Abdul Mahdi’s offer to meet with "representatives of peaceful demonstrators" may seem a positive step, Haddad notes that there is no set of unified demands being presented by protesters.

"If the government folds, the most likely scenario would perhaps be a change of faces within the same order, I think this what political classes are banking on," he says. "They hope the protests can be contained, they are hoping the protesters will run out of steam, and the Prime Minister will be thrown under the bus, and the system will reinvent itself."

But in the worst case scenario, there could be a further escalation of violence.

"That would see splits within the security and political establishment, and most dangerously, regional powers," he says. "Domestic political forces would perhaps take advantage, this could lead to a cycle of violence."