As Death Toll Tops 220, Iraqi Protesters Stay in Streets Calling For End to Corrupt Government

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In Iraq, masked gunmen shot dead 18 protesters overnight and injured more than 800 people in the Shiite holy city of Karbala on Monday. Nearly 225 Iraqis have been killed since a wave of anti-government protests swept the country last month. The protesters in Karbala were attacked while they camped out in the city’s Education Square to protest corruption, lack of jobs and poor public services. Meanwhile in Baghdad, hospital officials said four people died during protests on Monday, while another 109 were injured. On Monday, the Iraqi Parliament met for the first time since the protests began. Lawmakers voted to dissolve provincial councils and cut the salaries of some high-ranking officials. But the influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr dismissed the measures as a “sham” and called on the Iraqi government to announce early parliamentary elections. We speak with Yanar Mohammed, president of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to Iraq where masked gunmen shot dead 18 protesters overnight and injured over 800 people in the Shiite holy city of Karbala. Nearly 225 Iraqis have been killed since a wave of anti-government protests swept the country last month. The protesters in Karbala were attacked while they camped out in the city’s Education Square to protest corruption, lack of jobs and poor public services. Meanwhile, in Baghdad, hospital officials said four people died during protests on Monday. Another 109 were injured. The Iraqi government declared a curfew in Baghdad between midnight and 6:00 a.m. in an attempt to quell the growing movement, but hundreds of Iraqis defied the curfew by staying in Tahrir Square, the center of the protest movement.

PROTESTER: [translated] No to the curfew. We will remain here. The curfew is one of their filthy games and tales. Now they say vehicles are banned. Now they say everyone who doesn’t go into the office will face severe punishment. Such things won’t scare us. We’ll remain here even if we lose 1,000 martyrs.

AMY GOODMAN: On Monday, the Iraqi Parliament met for the first time since the protests began. Lawmakers voted to dissolve provincial councils, cut the salaries of some high-ranking officials, but the influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr dismissed the measures as a, quote, “sham” and called on the Iraqi government to announce early parliamentary elections.

We are joined now in Toronto, Canada, by Yanar Mohammed, president of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq. She splits her time between Toronto and Baghdad, recently returned from the Kurdish region of Iraq. Last week, Mohammed testified at the United Nations in Geneva in front of the Committee on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Yanar Mohammed, welcome back to Democracy Now!. We want to ask you about this and then about the killing of al-Baghdadi. But I want to start off with these mass protests, 220 people dead. Why are people protesting and what about the government response?

YANAR MOHAMMED: The protests started youth asking for jobs, and that was more than a month ago. Graduate youth asking for jobs to be recruited into government jobs. But their response was being tear gassed. And there was another demonstration in the same time of people who had lost their houses, because the government brought a bulldozer and brought them down. So in the beginning, in October 1st, there was support for them, and the protesters began to go down to public squares and to ask for jobs and basic services.

And the way that the government cracked down at the demonstrators and the way with which they cold-bloodedly shot the millennial demonstrators made all the people angry, so it began to grow and grow until the people were no longer asking for jobs or for services; their main demand was the downfall of this government. So it grew and grew while the government became more and more violent.

And within 28 days, it became the honorable thing for every Iraqi family and every Iraqi individual to go down into the demonstration squares, which have spread all over Iraq, in many parts of the cities, in the public squares and the main intersections of the cities. And everybody’s out there and it has turned into a national uprising where everybody has agreed on the issue that the Iraqi government cannot continue like that. Definitely they want the downfall of the Iraqi government.

The teargas has also suffocated so many people. And if you notice on the pictures and the video clips on Facebook, it became the honorable thing to go down into the squares wearing the mask against the teargas. Young women, young girls, senior citizens, everybody is out there and they are distributing food to the demonstrators. And especially after the killing of the millennial youth who were shot in the head cold-bloodedly by the militias of the government and by the police and even by the Iranian militia who were spread around to work as snipers for the demonstrations, it has become a social phenomenon that cannot be silenced anymore.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you make of the call of Muqtada al-Sadr for new elections? Is he part of the political class of Iraq or is he part of the opposition? What is your sense of his call? Will that be sufficient in terms of the protesters?

YANAR MOHAMMED: Muqtada al-Sadr is part of the ruling class that were brought forward by the Americans in 2003 and eventually when they made the government in 2005. And he played it very smart, claiming that he is opposition while he was in the Parliament. He has a considerable number of seats in the Parliament. Had he wanted to eliminate corruption, he could have done it a long time ago, but he has his ways of sabotaging the demonstrations whenever they start. And this is very convenient for him because he can gain more seats in the government in the next round. And he has done it over and over again.

Muqtada al-Sadr is structurally a part of the current Islamic government, the corrupt government of Iraq, and this time he was unable to sabotage the movement. It’s on the streets. He meant to stop it with his allies who are the Iraqi Communist Party. It did not work out. So some of them have to save face and say that they are quitting from the Parliament so as to have some foothold with the people.

Because the people are all over the streets in Iraq now. It’s a general uprising and it’s the power of the people. The government is really nervous and still cracking down on everybody, killing its way around, tear gassing its way around and it is not leading them anywhere. Muqtada al-Sadr’s time has sort of passed.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Amazingly, we are hearing very little, next to nothing, from the Trump administration or the U.S. government about the amazing killings that are going on here.
Trump loves to rail about what is happening in Venezuela or other countries, but here you are seeing hundreds of people killed and virtually nothing coming from the White House.

YANAR MOHAMMED: Well, ask him, did the Iraqi oil stop pumping for a single minute throughout this whole ordeal? No. That is where his concerns are. He said it loud and clear many times that going to Iraq and to the Middle East was for the oil. For him, Iraqi people’s lives does not mean anything. I don’t know if any people’s life mean anything for this president. I feel that our president in Iraq, our presidents in Iraq and prime ministers, share this issue with Donald Trump. They are at the same wavelength. They are at the same mentality. They do the same things.

AMY GOODMAN: Yanar Mohammed, can you talk more about the significance of the massacre in Karbala by the masked men and the fact that a lot of the protests have been in Shiite areas?

YANAR MOHAMMED: This Iraqi government was built on the—its strength was that it divided and conquered. The Iraqi government was built on a sectarian let’s say foothold, and their strength throughout the years was to oppress the Sunni population of Iraq and to turn them into enemies, into al-Qaeda, into ISIS. So all of this time they were treating them as the enemy from where all of the fighting comes and all of the resistance comes.

But what happened during this uprising is that the main strength of the demonstrations came from the Shiite footholds in the city of Baghdad, in what is called the Sadr City in Baghdad, and also in Karbala and Najaf. The demonstrators are the so-called Shiite youth who are the strongest in asking and demanding the downfall of this government. So the sectarian claims of this government that the enemy is in Saudi Arabia and that the enemy is in some Sunni support where they are attacking the Iraqi government—those claims don’t hold any grounds anymore. The main demonstrations, the strongest demonstrations were from the Shiite parts of the Iraqi cities and Karbala where it is called the holy city and the pilgrimage place of the Shias. That is where the demonstrations are the strongest. And that is where the crackdown was the strongest, on their own youth.

And there are big claims that the Iranian militias who have filled those cities—thousands of them have come through the border, and they are doing the sniping and they are actually burning the demonstrators with guns of fire. It’s some weapons that we have not seen before. So when they come and burn the peaceful demonstrators who only hold the Iraqi flag, it is a precedent.

Iraq has reached a point where the people’s power is there. The people who are in the tens of millions realize finally that it’s their decision, not the decision of somebody sitting in the White House or in the Green Zone or in some other country. They are in the streets, and most of them don’t want to come back. Even the curfew that was announced yesterday, and many days before, the people have gone on purpose with their cars to the streets after midnight, celebrating just like a carnival. Everybody is out there celebrating in a euphoric way their liberation from being fooled by this Iraqi government who claims in the name of religion to be wanting the best for the Iraqis.

It is a corrupt government. It is an oppressive government. It took us back so long in time. And we are not living the modern times. We were not living the modern times in Iraq. In such a rich country, the millennials do not have a job. Everybody is poor while the Green Zone is living in filthy richness, and they split it with somebody else. The Iraqi oil is for them and for anybody but the Iraqis, and that cannot continue anymore.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I would like to turn to the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who died in a U.S. raid in Syria on Sunday. And I’d like you to read the words of Nobel Peace Laureate Nadia Murad, a Yazidi Kurdish human rights activist from Iraq. She was kidnapped by the self-proclaimed Islamic State and held as a sex slave for almost three months in 2014. She welcomed the news of al-Baghdadi’s death, tweeting on Sunday, quote, “Baghdadi died as he lived—a coward using children as a shield. Let today be the beginning of the global fight to bring ISIS to justice. Those captured alive need to be brought to justice in an open court for the world to see. Justice is the only acceptable course of action. We must unite and hold #ISIS terrorists accountable in the same way the world tried the Nazis in an open court at the Nuremberg Trials.” I am wondering your response to the announcement by President Trump of the death of al-Baghdadi?

YANAR MOHAMMED: Nadia is right when she says that we should celebrate the death of such a criminal. But the story does not start with him. The story starts with who created him. Where was he groomed and trained for months and months? In which prison where was he supported to recruit other of his inmates into al-Qaeda and later on turning it into ISIS? Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s death did not mean much for people in Iraq because our enemies are sitting in the Green Zone. They are ruling us. They are robbing us of all our wealth. And they are oppressing us. And once we say no to that, they are shooting us in the head. That was their signature in the first weeks of the demonstrations, shooting demonstrators in the head, hitting them with teargas bombs in the head.

Many of my friends were killed and some of them are lying down in the hospitals, and some of them had to run away from hospitals because the police are coming, picking them up from the hospitals. So in the time when the people are in war with our enemies, with our own Abu Bakr al-Baghdadis in the Green Zone, what would the killing of another Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi somewhere mean to us? I don’t think it means much. I really sympathize with Nadia Murad and all of the Yazidis and the people in Western Iraq who suffered from ISIS crimes and attacks. But at this point, our enemies are somewhere else.

AMY GOODMAN: Yanar Mohammed, I want to thank you for being with us. President of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, splitting her time between Toronto in Canada and Baghdad, Iraq. Recently returned from the Kurdish region of Iraq. And just last week testified in front of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, speaking in front of the Committee on CEDAW, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. When we come back, we go to Santiago, Chile. Mass protests against neoliberalism continue there despite the president reshuffling the cabinet. Stay with us.

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