An Iraq for All Iraqis?

Religious minorities hope the Iraqi protest movement can reshape the country to serve the interests of all Iraqis

By Jeremy Barker on November 26, 2019

Demonstrations on the streets of Baghdad continue even as the violence used against the protestors escalates. Since protests resumed on October 24, hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square and other key sites across southern Iraq, calling for profound changes to Iraq’s political system.

Images from the protests have been striking. From heroic “Tuk Tuk” ambulance rescues amidst clouds of teargas, to protest anthems and art displays promoting the unity and freedom of the Iraqi people, the emerging stories are inspiring.

Despite intense opposition to the protests and attempts to cut off information access, the protestors remain non-violent and started a newspaper for the protest movement. The reported death toll has climbed to more than 300, with scores more injured by security forces or militias. Many were injured when military-grade tear gas canisters were shot directly into the crowds.

The protests have focused on a few core problems that have deeply affected the country since the fall of Saddam Hussein following the US-led invasion in 2003. First, corruption that enriches elites also prevents the government from delivering services or combating high unemployment. Second, Iran has vast influence in Iraq’s political and economic life, and Iranian-backed militias, who participated in the fight against the Islamic State, have destabilized security throughout the country.

But the heart of the protests is a rejection of Iraq’s institutionalized sectarianism that influences everything from key government positions to the distribution of oil revenues.

Representatives from Iraq’s religious minority communities have communicated to me a profound sense of solidarity and an air of hope while I was in-country during the early days of these protests and by phone in the weeks since.

“These protests show that all Iraqi people are suffering. The way of suffering is different, but everyone is suffering from the government and these people,” said Fr. Salar Kajo, a Chaldean Catholic priest from Teleskof.

While Iraq’s Shi’a majority in the south have primarily led the protests, support seemingly comes from all corners, including artists from Sunni-majority Mosul, the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Sako, and beyond.

Iraq’s minority communities are watching the developments closely. They recognize this moment may be the country’s best chance in the post-Saddam Hussein era to address one of the central factors that pose an existential threat to them.

“Sectarian politics are one of the factors which has most affected minorities since 2003, as they were the weakest link in unequal conflict and in an environment with no role for the law,” said Mikhael Benjamin, director of the Nineveh Center for Minority Rights and an Assyrian Christian.

“Sectarian politics have destroyed the country. This system is the main reason of corruption,” said Dr. Qader Saleem Shammo an assistant lecturer at the University of Duhok and author of Yezidis in Iraq: Between Citizenship and Policies of Marginalization. “Based on this system, every political entity has its share of the profits and political posts in government, parliament, and all the institutions have been divided according to this system,” said Shammo.

The result has been the decimation of Iraq’s minority communities. The Christian community, numbering as many as 1.4 million before 2003, is now down to well under 200,000. The Mandaean community in Iraq’s south now numbers just a few thousand, as 90 percent left the country between 2003 and 2019. Just since 2014, more than 400,000 Yazidis have been displaced.

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