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A New Iraq Rising

Ali Issa Apr 4, 2013

THE COST OF WAR

According to estimates by the National Priorities Project, the cost of the Iraq War to U.S. taxpayers from 2003 to the end of March 2013 was $812.4 billion. New York City residents picked up $26.9 billion of the tab. This is what we could’ve done with the same amount of money, for the course of an entire year:

PAID THE ENERGY COSTS OF 9.3 MILLION HOUSEHOLDS
or
PROVIDED LOW-INCOME HEALTHCARE FOR EITHER 10.8 MILLION CHILDREN OR 3.2 MILLION ADULTS
or
PAID THE SALARIES OF 316,635 ELEMENTARY SCHOOL TEACHERS
or
PROVIDED 2.9 MILLION HEAD START SLOTS FOR CHILDREN
or
CONVERTED 18 MILLION HOUSEHOLDS TO RUN ON ONLY SOLAR ENERGY
or
CONVERTED 37.9 MILLION HOUSEHOLDS TO RUN ON ONLY WIND ENERGY
or
PROVIDED VA MEDICAL CARE TO 2.7 MILLION MILITARY VETERANS
or
BOUGHT GROCERIES FOR 12.8 MILLION INDIVIDUALS
or
PROVIDED PELL GRANTS OF $5,550 TO 4.8 MILLION COLLEGE STUDENTS. Sources: National Priorities Project via costofwar.com.

As the world marked 10 years since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, many thought of that place again, perhaps for the first time in years. Discussions continued to be dominated by the buzzword sectarianism, which refers to and is used to analyze any tension or conflict that exists in the country today.

Most people perceive sectarianism to be an inherent struggle indigenous to Iraq, and not as a political byproduct that serves the interests of a powerful few. Few remember that sectarianism in Iraq was explicitly encouraged, first by Saddam Hussein’s regime and regional actors, and then by the political ethno-sectarian quota system written into Iraq’s 2005 constitution by occupying forces.

Even those who can see through the smokescreen of sectarianism, and whose central concern is the people of Iraq — their daily lives, communities and dreams —focus on the devastation and corruption that the last decade has brought: body counts, failed infrastructure and how powers like the United States and Iran continue to dominate Iraq’s political scene.

Few discussions address the political struggles waged by the Iraqi people and the victories that they can claim as their own. These struggles are rooted in Iraq’s history of building movements that bring together different sects and ethnicities, and delegitimize the notion of sectarianism typifying contemporary Iraq.

LARGE DEMONSTRATIONS

Iraqis have organized a number of large street demonstrations since 2003, often in response to the occupation, its violence and the criminal levels of corruption it unleashed among local Iraqi politicians.

On Feb. 25, 2011, inspired by the uprisings across the Arab world, ‘The Iraqi Day of Rage,” a weekly Friday protest cycle, began in many of Iraq’s major cities. It was the rejuvenation of a protest movement that had been brutally suppressed by the Iraqi government. The demands were diverse, ranging from addressing chronically high unemployment and lack of services like electricity to opposing the entire U.S.-installed sectarian regime and occupation. Certain Fridays were themed around particular issues, with March 18, for example, dubbed the “Friday of the Imprisoned,” drawing attention to Iraq’s thousands of political prisoners and demanding their release.

Leaders, like the al-Zaidi brothers (Uday, Thurgham and Muntazar, famed for throwing a shoe at George W. Bush) began to emerge, and other civil society leaders affiliated with labor and women’s groups got heavily involved. Several popular Iraqi protest Facebook pages appeared, and by April 25, gatherings in the form of open-ended sit-ins sometimes reached the tens of thousands. In the northern city of Mosul, protestors called a general strike that froze all commerce and even pushed the local governor, Atheel al-Nujaifi, to back the protests and support the defiance of a government-imposed curfew.

The government responded with serious tactics of repression, firing tear gas as well as live ammunition, and setting up checkpoints that forced people to walk for hours in the scorching heat to what would otherwise be nearby squares. Security forces also banned all pens, markers, poster board and water bottles.

WHERE’S THE MEDIA?

These important and large-scale mobilization efforts have received little international media attention, even among Arabic language outlets. In February 2012, Iraqi organizer Uday al-Zaidi was quoted in the Lebanese newspaper al-Akhbar, saying, “We have sent our statements time and again to news networks such as Al-Jazeera, but they barely ever even call us. In fact, you are the only non-Iraqi media who has called me today.”

Asked why he thought Iraq’s protesters did not make the news in the same way as those participating in other Arab uprisings, al-Zaidi said, “We do not follow the politics of any [foreign] state. Most of the international community has been complicit in crimes against the Iraqis. So it interests no network to really shed a light on us. That means we need to rely on ourselves, as individuals, to do our own media work.”

BEYOND THE SECTARIAN FRAME

In late December 2012, protestors took to the streets to oppose a decision taken by Nouri al-Maliki’s government to imprison the bodyguards of Iraqi finance minister Rafi al-Issawi. While many perceived this to be motivated by sectarianism, the protestors were not defending the Iraqi minister, whom they perceived to be another member of a corrupt government, but were objecting to sectarianism itself.

What began then as a seemingly limited public reaction to this decree quickly grew to encompass many of the initial demands of the February 25 movement. These included the release of political prisoners, especially the thousands of women detained, more jobs and better services, and the removal of the Iraqi constitution. People were especially opposed to a ‘terrorism’ law used often by the Iraqi government to target protestors with accusations of ties to al-Qaeda or the Ba’ath Party, formerly headed by Saddam.

By mid-January, the protests had spread to three other provinces in Iraq, al-Anbar, Niniweh, and Salah al-Deen. Media attention finally came to the protestors, but in the language of sectarianism that pigeon-holed the protests as driven by sectarian strife, without taking into account any of the social grievances that formed these large demonstrations. None of the media attention focused on the explicit anti-sectarian slogans or on the important role of women in these movements.

The protests are now approaching their fourth straight month, and Iraqi union leader Falah Alwan’s late January analysis still rings true:

“This moment could be a crossroads for more than one possibility—all is open now. First, it is possible that these protests could transform into a broad social revolution that changes the political system and builds another. And a new socio-political model could develop, one that opposes the model imposed on, and advertised for, in the region.”

Ali Issa is based in New York City and is the national field organizer for War Resisters League. He earned a Master’s Degree in Arabic studies from the University of Texas at Austin in 2008. He is a contributor to the e-zine Jadaliyya on Iraqi social movements and his translations have appeared in Banipal and the PEN World Atlas Blog. His father is from Baghdad, Iraq.

An earlier version of this article appeared at shakomako.net, a digital magazine about everything Iraqi.