The “October Revolution” began this past October 1st. No one expected it to have achieved the impact it has had to date. The uprising, known in Arabic as “Thawrat Tishreen,” largely involves youth from the southern cities and towns of Iraq. Why did the uprising begin this past October, what has it achieved to date, and what can we expect it to be its impact on Iraq in the future?
No one expected that peaceful demonstrations could bring about political change in Iraq. However, Iraqi youth have already had a significant impact on Iraq’s political system. First, the uprising, which has attracted thousands of demonstrators, primarily youth, led to the resignation of Prime Minister Adil ‘Abd al-Mahdi on November 30, 2019, 2 months after the uprising began. Second, the political message of the uprising has garnered widespread support from many sectors of Iraqi society, not just youth.
A third accomplishment is that the uprising has shown the fallacy of the traditional Western analysis of Iraqi society as one rent by sectarian and ethnic cleavages. This narrow framing of Iraqi politics and society, which smacks of Orientalism, tells us little or nothing about the current uprising. The fact that the youth demonstrators are overwhelmingly Shica, who are calling for an end to sectarianism while being attacked by a Shica dominated political class, has laid the unholy Trifecta of Shica, Sunni and Kurd to rest.
Finally, the uprising has achieved the result of challenging the political power Iran exercises in Iraq and guarantees that Iraqi politics won’t be able to return to the status quo ante. One of the main slogans of the October Revolution is “Iran Out of Iraq” (Irhal Iran) and "We want a Country" (Nutlub Watan). In short, the October Revolution has significantly challenged the sectarian and pro-Iranian dynamic of the Green Zone political class which has ruled Iraq since the fall of Saddam Husayn’s regime in 2003. The days in which this elite rules with impunity are over.
Tragically, the uprising has cost Iraq the blood of its precious youth. To date, over 500 demonstrators have been killed and 25,000 injured. The violence has underscored the extent to which so-called “Popular Mobilization Units,” or al-Hashad al-Shacbi, constitute the real “power behind the throne” in Iraq politics.
Not only have Iranian-funded militias been at the center of efforts to repress the uprising, but the de-facto leader of Iraq, General Qasim Suleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force and Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), has been actively involved in directing Prime Minister cAbd al-Mahdi’s replacement.
This political influence has been evident in the attacks by Iranian-funded militias, especially the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq, led by ex-Mahdi Army member, Qais al-Khazzali, which has killed and abducted prominent activists in the central districts of Baghdad, and cities and towns of the south. Many of the activists who were seized and subsequently released report having been beaten and tortured. The whereabouts of many other activists and protestors is still unknown.
Despite the violence directed at the Iraqi youth protestors, none have resorted to the use of weapons or bombs against government security forces or the Iranian backed militias. The demonstrations thus reflect great political maturity on the part of the protestors. The youth who are spearheading the October Revolution have refused to be drawn into violent responses to the early attacks by the Rapid Response Forces and, subsequently, the much more brutal attacks by PMUs, especially the so-called League of the Righteous People (Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq).
What are the main drivers behind the uprising? The main underlying causes of discontent among the Iraqi population at large is the extensive corruption which characterizes the cliques which control the political system, the absence of social services and the lack of jobs. After 16 years of so-called democratic governance, combined with no improvement in the standard of living for the vast majority of Iraqis have become thoroughly disillusioned with the country’s political system.
The populace’s frustration was especially strained by the firing of Lt. General cAbd al-Wahhab al-Sacdi, the commandeer of Iraq’s Counter-Terrorism Services (CTS)which defeated the Dacish terrorists in Mosul and north-central Iraq, on September 29, 2019. A popular folk-hero who statement that he had “zero-tolerance” for sectarianism among his troops resonated with Iraqis who have had enough of corruption and ongoing theft of the nation’s privy purse.
The firing of CTS commander al-Sacdi, whose popularity was resented in the Ministry of Defense, was also promoted by Iran who was suspicious of his ties to US forces in Iraq who has trained the CTS after the collapse of the Iraqi Army in Mosul and north-central Iraq in June 2014. Dismissing al-Sacdi, who was considered one of the few patriots in the Iraqi military who wasn’t beholden to Iran, served as a key “tipping point” which ultimately led youth to flood the streets of Iraqi cities demanding a complete restructuring of the Iraqi political system.
Thus what began as a demand for an end to corruption, the improvement of social services, and the provision of jobs for the large number of unemployed Iraqis, especially youth, quickly was transformed into a call for the resignation of the Iraqi cabinet and parliament and its replacement by a new political system.
Although the details of what Iraqi youth demonstrators wanted to establish in place of the so-called “quota system” (nizam al-muhassasat) were no always clear, soon calls began to appear for a presidential based system – with the elimination of the prime minster – and the election of parliament members in single member electoral districts, instead of elections conducted via “party lists.”
As all Iraqis know, after five national parliamentary elections since 2003 (2 in 2005 and 1 each in 2010, 2014 and 2018), the elections were at their core, an exercise in political cliques gaining enough votes to obtain control of lucrative ministries, such as health and defense, and the Ministry of Interior, to be able to gain access to public funds to engage in corrupt financial transactions, and to award members of the political class large salaries, pensions and entitlements, such as houses, automobiles and publicly funded aides.
If the first phase of the October Revolution was demanding an improvement in Iraqis’ standard of living, and the second the demand for a new political system the third involved calls for an ending of Iran’s ever increasing control of the Iraqi state and the national economy.
It was this last phase of the uprising which most disturbed the PMUs which are funded by Iran. If the October Revolution led to a diminution of Iran’s influence in Iraq, a widely held desire supported by the overwhelming majority of Iraqis, then the PMUs financial assets would be adversely affected. This explains the viciousness of its attacks on youth protestors, the kidnapping of activists and the circulation of lists of activists as desirable targets.
Iran is hurting economically due to the sanctions imposed on it by the Trump administration. These sanctions have made it ever more difficult for the Tehran regime to continue funding social services in Iran while supporting a wide range of military groups in Iraq, the al-sad regime, and Hizballah in Lebanon. For Iran, Iraq is a vital resource because it provides needed goods and a market for Iranian products and a means to circumvent, at least in part, US sanctions.
Thus, the October revolution, should it be successful, will pose serious negative implications for Iran and its use of Iraq as a bridge to Syria and Lebanon. It will curtail its ability to avoid the most damaging aspects of international sanctions stemming from the Trump administration's desire to renegotiate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Iran's development of nuclear weapons and added European Union sanctions imposed due to Iran's long-range ballistic missile testing.
Iran is hurting economically due to the sanctions imposed on it by the Trump administration. These sanctions have made it ever more difficult for the Tehran regime to continue funding social services in Iran while supporting a wide range of military groups in Iraq, the al-sad regime, and Hizballah in Lebanon. For Iran, Iraq is a vital resource because it provides needed goods and a market for Iranian products and a means to circumvent, at least in part, US sanctions. Thus, the October revolution, should it be successful, poses serious negative implications for Iran and its use of Iraq as a bridge to Syria and Lebanon.
What will happen next? First, it is impossible to separate the October Revolution from the ongoing US-Iranian conflict. Clearly, Iran doesn’t want to see the establishment of a truly democratic government in Iraq. Instead, it prefers to use members of its militias as proxies to control the security forces and benefit from corrupt dealings with prominent members of the Iraqi political class. This policy achieves three goals for Iran. It allows Iran to maintain its political dominance in Iraq, to use Iraq as a land bridge to Syria and Lebanon and, finally, as a means to circumvent the sanctions which the US has imposed on it.
Thus the main question is whether, given Iranian control of Iraq – politically, militarily and economically - the October Revolution can. be successful. On the surface, success would seem to be a long shot. How can Iraqi youth confront the increasingly vicious militias which depend for their long term viability on loyalty to the Tehran regime?
If the peaceful youth protestors can sustain their demonstrations, which are having a negative impact on the economy and the investment environment for foreign capital in Iraq, this make cause powerful political figures in Iraq to reconsider their opposition to meeting the demands of the protestors. The pressure of ongoing demonstrations may at the very least help reign in some of the most egregious corrupt practices and see some improvement in social services.
However, the problem of jobs is a huge challenge which no one in the current Iraqi political class has dared to address. Indeed, one of the reasons for the PMUs’ success is not that they helped fight the Dacish terrorists, but that they provide jobs for poor Iraqi youth who have few employment options available to them.
Neither the United States nor the European Union, or wealthy oil-producing states such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, realize the powder keg which is brewing in Iraq. With 70% of Iraqis under the age of 30, statistically, 28 million of Iraq’s population of 40 million are youth. While thousands of patriotic Iraqi youth are demonstrating to establish a new social democracy which would serve the interests of the Iraqi populace, many others are being lured by the siren songs of the militias and criminal organizations.