Thursday, January 30, 2020

The Killing of Qasem Suleimani and Iraq’s October Revolution: What Western Analysts Aren’t Telling You But What You Need to Knowمقتل قاسم سليماني وثورة تشرين في العراق: ما فشل المحللون الغربيون في إخبارك به ولكن ما تحتاج إلى معرفته

The unexpected killing of Qasem Suleimani came as a shock.  What is likewise a shock is the narrowly construed discussion of the meaning and ramifications of his killing by analysts in the West. Rather than situate Suleimani’s killing in a historical context, or broader political and economic processes in the MENA region, the discussion has largely focused on personalities, remaining descriptive rather than explanatory.
Despite the extensive international coverage of the strike which killed Suleimani, and the Iraqi militia leader, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis who was accompanying him, the Western public has been left with little more than a large collection of disjointed facts.  By focusing on (male) authoritarian leaders, who are corrupt and completely out of touch with the region’s citizenry, Western analysts tell us much about individual political leaders, who come and go, but little about the significant changes taking place in the MENA region.

What does ignoring one of the largest sustained uprisings in Iraq since the June October, 1920 Revolution (al-Thawra al-cIraqiya al-Kubra) tell us about the state of analysis of MENA region politics by Western analysts?  What do we need to know to gain such an understanding of what has been neglected thus far?  Why is the focus confined to political actors and elites to the detriment of important social forces and movements currently underway in the region?
One notable lacuna among Western analysts is the huge youth uprising which has been taking place in Iraq and other MENA region countries. Another neglected issue is the relationship between Suleimani’s killing and the ongoing youth uprising in Iraq. In its fourth month, the October Revolution (Thawrat Tishreen) is comparable to the Arab Spring uprisings, if not larger.  

Led by youth,  the uprising has demanded the complete restructuring of the Iraqi political system and the implementation of a true democracy.  It has already led to the resignation of Iraq’s prime minister, Adil Abd al-Mahdi, and forced Iraq’s political elite to engage in serious discussions over changing the structure of Iraq’s political system.

Unlike Suleimani’s killing, the October Revolution continues to be almost completely ignored by Western analysts and the media.  The uprising has mobilized thousands of Iraqi youth and many supporters among older Iraqis, e.g., oil workers and professional associations, who demand an end to corrupt governance, the provision of jobs, and an improvement in state social services. However, their most important demand is establishing a new truly democratic political system, one characterized by social democracy.
Tunnel under Baghdad's Liberation Square where art has created an informal museum
First, Western analysts neither understand nor take seriously the massive generational change which is currently underway in the MENA region.  In Iraq, as in many MENA region countries, youth constitute 70% of the population under the age of 30, namely 27.5 of Iraq’s 39 million population.  Many of these youth, whether poor or highly educated, see little hope in the future. 
Inefficient public sector economies and endemic corruption, where government jobs are limited to those with political connections (al-wasta), can’t address the employment needs of the large numbers of youth who enter the job market each year, or those without skills who remained under- or unemployed.
Iraq's youth uprising has been replicated by youth uprisings throughout the MENA region. Demonstrations in Sudan, in which youth were the vanguard, brought down the despicable tyrant, General Omar Bashir, who is now being tried for crimes against humanity.  A three year transitional government comprised of civilians and military officers is now planning for democratic elections after the period concludes. Omar al-Bashir convicted of corruption
In Algeria, youth demonstrations forced its octogenarian president, Abdel Aziz Bouteflika, to finally resign after he indicated he would seek a fifth term in office. Youth subsequently helped organize a national  boycott of recent presidential elections because the Algerian political elite has refused to make the necessary concessions demanded by the protesters. Still, the newly elected president has already implemented new policies, indicating that he realizes that significant reforms of Algeria’s political system need to be made if youth and the populace are to be placated.
In Lebanon, a county on the brink of financial collapse, youth protesters forced Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri to resign and have kept up pressure on the government to enact political reforms. In response, the government has created a commission to study Lebanon’s existential financial crisis. Whether this commission will be able to address Lebanon’s economic problems in any meaningful manner has yet to be seen.

Lebanon’s financial crisis is the result of successive governments having ignored its massive corruption which plagues almost all countries of the MENA region. While Hizballah, supported by Iran, has tried to shut down the protests, just like the pro-Iranian militias in Iraq which have attacked youth demonstrators, the Lebanese youth protesters have been unbowed in keeping their protests going.

Of course, Iranian youth have likewise been protesting against massive corruption in the state apparatus and the lack of jobs accompanied by the rapid deterioration of the economy. Many youth have raised the question, asked by many other Iranians: Why do the Tehran mullahs spend so much funds on supporting the al-Asad regime in Syria, Hizballah in Lebanon, the so-called Popular Mobilization Units (al-Hashad al-Shacbi) Iraq and the Houthi rebels in Yemen given domestic economic needs?
Second, an important development which has yet to be analyzed is the tolerance promoted by the youth protest movement in Iraq, and youth movements elsewhere in the MENA region, and its complete rejection of sectarianism.  The focus on Suleimani has raised yet again the facile binary which characterizes the analysis of Middle East politics, the so-called Sunni-Shica divide.  Iran is a Shica majority state while its arch-enemy, Saudi Arabia is Sunni Muslim. But youth will have none of it.  Sectarianism has been banned from their kingdom and is correctly viewed as a ploy to “divide and conquer” to promote the political and economic interests of corrupt ruling elites.
A problem arises when analysts try to apply this ethnoconfessional binary to the October Revolution.  The overwhelming majority of the protestors are from Baghdad and the south of Iraq and hence Shica.  This fact has frustrated the Iraqi government, which is controlled by Shica parties and the Iranian-funded militias which are likewise Shica. Thus, the sectarian card has been  unavailable for Baghdad’s sectarian entrepreneurs to exploit and divert attention from the revolution's valid complaints.

Unlike many Western analysts, the youth are much more sophisticated in their own understandings of the dynamics of local MENA region politics. Because the vast majority of the youth demonstrators in Iraq are Shica, Sunni youth, who support the uprising, have avoided acting as an identifiable group, thus preventing the Iraqi government from using sectarian criteria to oppose the uprising and its legitimate calls for political and social change.

In other words, if Arab Sunni youth became involved in large numbers in Sunni majority areas in al-Anbar, Ninawa and Salah al-Din provinces, for example, sectarian elements in the Iraqi government could then argue that the uprising was sponsored by the Da’ish (so-called Islamic State) terrorist organization.  Instead, Arab Sunni youth have expressed support from afar or participated on an individual basis with their Shica sisters and brothers in Baghdad and the cities and towns of the south - al-Basra, al-Najaf, Karbala', al-Nasiriya, Babil, al-Diwaniya, Hilla, Kut and many others.

A third issue which has been neglected by analysts is how Suleimani’s killing underscores the fallacy of viewing the Middle East through a sectarian lens.  Despite Suleimani’s support for sectarian forces in the Mashriq region of the Middle East, whether Bashar al-Asad's regime, Lebanon's Hizballah militia, or the People’s Mobilization Units (al-Hashad al-Shacbi) in Iraq, his killing has little to do with Shica or Sunni interpretations of Islam.  While Suleimani was a sectarian entrepreneur who used sect to promote his agenda, his core agenda was always about expanding Iran’s political, military and economic power in the Middle East and had little to do with religion.

The framing of Suleimani’s death, and his accomplice in crime and mayhem, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the head of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units and the Kata’ib Hizballah militia, in terms of sectarian identities not only fails to take generational change into account but conforms to the static and ill-defined binary which so many analysts fall prey to, namely seeing the Middle East as defined by a monumental struggle between Sunnis and Shica (whose dynamics are assumed but rarely if ever explained).
In terms of the October Revolution, this fallacy has led Western analysts to underestimate the dynamics behind youth politics throughout the region, including the current youth revolution in Iraq.  It is telling that the youth who support the October Revolution have explicitly and very vocally rejected sectarianism which they rightfully see as a divisive force which is manipulated by domestic political elites. 

A fourth element of the October Revolution is how its initial demands represent the tip of the iceberg.  Iraq's youth uprising, which began in early October 2019, quickly morphed into a demand for a complete restructuring of the Iraqi political system and the establishment of true (social) democracy in Iraq.  First and foremost, the protestors have called for replacing the party list system with single member electoral districts.

This new system would eliminate the despised “quota system” (nathâm al-muhassasât) which allocates seats in Iraq’s Council of Delegates (parliament) and among cabinet ministers according to deals cut between victorious parties following national elections.  This system allocates the ceremonial role of president to a Kurd, the position of prime minister to an Arab Shici, and the Speaker of the Council of Deputies to a Sunni Arab. 

Following the demands of the youth protestors, the institution of prime minister would be eliminated in favor of a presidential system. Registered voters throughout Iraq would elect a president who would not be associated with a particular sect, ethnicity or region of the country.
"I'm an Iraqi. My parliament doesn't represent me:
Under the new political structure advocated by the October Revolution, the informal “confessional system” (similar to Lebanon) would be eliminated.  This system was facilitated by the US occupation of Iraq in 2003.  The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), headed by former diplomat, L. Paul Bremer, set a disastrous example by creating the first sectarian based government in the form of the Iraqi Governing Council which chose members based on their religious sect or ethnicity.
A final demand of the youth activists is that Iran leave Iraq (irhal Iran!).  This call is meant to terminate the power of the Popular Mobilization Units, especially the largest groups which are funded by Iran.  Not only are these groups well-armed, but they are politically powerful with  and creating a state within a state in Iraq.  The militias have also begun to develop their own financial interests in Iraq through becoming involved in smuggling and other illicit and quasi-legal economic activities. In short, the al-Hashad al-Shacbi have dramatically extended Iran’s influence in Iraq and control over its political system and economy.
Unknown assailant kills Iraqi protestor
To return to the question raised earlier, the killing of Qasem Suleimani, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. infuriated Iran and its proxy militias in Iraq. Viewed in zero-sum terms, Iran and its local agents say the killings as promoting US power and influence in Iraq at the expense of Iran.

Since the beginning of the demonstrations for democratic change, the supporters of the October Revolution have been attacked by Iraqi security forces.  Many members of the Ministry of Interior's Rapid reaction Force are actually members of Iranian funded militias who the Ministry was forced to incorporate into into ranks despite their lack of adequate military training.  
Known in Iraqi slang as "al-damaj" (from the Arabic al-indimaj), these forces have been brutal in their responses to the youth demonstrations. Despite the lack of any reports of violence on the part of the protestors, the security fores have used military grade tear gas canisters, ten times the weight of those used to control civilian protests, and aimed them at the demonstrators' heads, with devastating results.

However, with Suleimani and al-Muhandis' killing, the violence has intensified. Not only have demonstrators been attacked as they protests but the tents they set up in city squares, such as Baghdad, al-Basra and al-Nasiriya,  have been attacked in the evenings and burned.  However, in al-Nasiriya, the protesters demonstrated their ingenuity by reconstructing their shelters using bricks so the militias couldn't destroy them as easily.
Iraqi youth protestors in al-Nasiriya rebuild their shelters with brick

Internationally, the violence used to quell the youth protests has begun to reverberate against the Iraqi government. Recently, the embassies of 16 different countries in Iraq condemned the killing of what is now well over 600 Iraqi youth and the injuring of over 20,000.  This in addition to the kidnapping of many protestors and activists who have not been heard from since they disappeared, Others report being tortured before being released. Ambassadors of 16 countries in Baghdad condemn Iraqi government killing of peaceful protestors

Meanwhile, few Western analysts recognize the important socialization processes at work within the revolutionary uprising.  The youth who are demonstrating spend an enormous of time together. What occurs during when Iraqi youth gather to protest?

This time not only involves protesting in different parts of Iraqi cities and towns but meeting to discuss their discontents and how, in the new society they propose, they hope to improve the lives of themselves and all Iraqis. The long-term impact of the daily interaction of  youth protestors has yet to be understood.  

Their posters and art work represent one indicator of the new liberated society they seek. This society would be devoid of self-centered sectarianism and would promote social democracy, tolerance and gender equality, giving women their rightful place in Iraqi society.
What can be done to help the October Revolution achieve its goals?  This is a topic for a subsequent post. However, the United Nations, United States, European Union, and Iraqi expatriate communities need to form an international coalition which coordinates monitoring the Iraqi government's response to the protests.  
Iraqi women protestors' take on "Rosie the Riveter
This coalition should also gather information on Iraqis killed or injured by security forces which can be used in possible prosecutions in the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice.

To return the killing of Qasem Suleimani which began this post, we need remember that he was only an individual, important to be sure.  Unlike a man, an idea can't be killed.  Suleimani has been replaced bu a new commander of the Quds Forces and control of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Force has been spread among a new group of younger officers.

But the IRGC cannot improve the Iranian economy, produce jobs for unemployed Iranians, address the demands of educated youth who chomp under the constraints of a repressive political system which sees individual creativity as a threat to its authority. Suleimani was just a cog in an Iranian wheel which seeks regional domination extending to the Mediterranean sea and the Gulf region,  goals it will never achieve.

The October Revolution with its rejection of sectarianism, and embrace of social democracy, tolerance, gender equality and personal freedoms doesn't just represents an Iraqi national goal. Unlike Suleimani's effort to impose Iran's regional hegemony, Iraq's youth uprising reflects a universal desire characteristic of  freedom loving peoples the world over.







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