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Youth-Led Protests Topple Iraqi PM as Demonstrations Calling for Overhaul of Government Continue

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Anti-government protests are continuing in Iraq one day after the Iraqi Parliament voted to accept the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi. On Saturday, protesters set off fireworks in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square when Abdul-Mahdi announced he would submit his resignation, though he will remain in a caretaker capacity until a new government is formed. The resignation came two days after Iraqi security forces killed at least 44 people in the southern cities of Nasiriyah and Najaf after the Iranian Consulate was burned down on Wednesday night. Following the bloody crackdown, Iraq’s Shiite spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani urged the Iraqi Parliament to withdraw its support of the prime minister and warned that the escalating violence could lead to a civil war in Iraq. More than 400 Iraqi protesters have been killed and 15,000 injured since the widespread anti-government demonstrations began in October. We speak with Iraqi journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, correspondent for The Guardian newspaper, and Sinan Antoon, poet, novelist, translator and scholar born and raised in Baghdad.

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Video squareStoryNov 26, 2019Iraqi Scholar Sinan Antoon: Anti-Government Protests Have Led to “Reclaiming of Iraqi Identity”
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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Anti-government protests are continuing in Iraq one day after the Iraqi Parliament voted to accept the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi following two months of protests against corruption, lack of jobs and basic services, as well as Iranian influence on Iraq. On Friday, fireworks were set off in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square when Abdul-Mahdi announced his resignation, but protesters have vowed to stay in the streets.

ALI ABDEL AMIR: [translated] We want to send a message that Adel Abdul-Mahdi’s resignation doesn’t solve the entire problem. He is only part of the problem, only a broken piece in a chess game. He is not the problem. The problem is about the system that brought us Adel Abdul-Mahdi. They would be delusional if they think they can use him as a scapegoat and that the people will withdraw from the streets after he resigned. The people will continue. Our peaceful protests continue until we change the system that brought Adel Abdul-Mahdi.

AMY GOODMAN: Iraqi Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi resigned two days after Iraqi security forces killed at least 44 people in the southern cities of Nasiriyah and Najaf after the Iranian Consulate was burned down Wednesday night. Following the bloody crackdown, Iraq’s Shiite spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani urged the Iraqi Parliament to withdraw its support of the prime minister. Sistani warned the escalating violence could lead to a civil war in Iraq. More than 400 Iraqi protesters have been killed and 15,000 injured since the anti-government demonstrations began in October. When Abdul-Mahdi was officially resigned, he will keep serving in a caretaker government until a new one is formed.

We go right now to Iraqi journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad. He’s joining us from Baghdad, a correspondent for The Guardian newspaper. And here in New York, Sinan Antoon is with us, poet, novelist, translator and scholar born and raised in Baghdad, now associate professor at New York University. His most recent book, The Book of Collateral Damage.

Ghaith, let’s begin with you in Baghdad. Describe what’s happened over these few days. And were you surprised that the prime minister has now resigned?

GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: Well, Amy, I couldn’t agree more with the demonstrator you just interviewed. This is exactly the sentiment in the street. Adel Abdul-Mahdi is nothing but a figurehead or, as the demonstrator said, a piece of a chess board. I was in the square earlier today. There are tents, demonstrators, not that much of clashes between demonstrators and the police force, because there’s a sort of a kind of a ceasefire. But, yes, they are willing to stay in the square and continue these demonstrations until a total change of this whole political system that they describe as a rotten, corrupt political system.

AMY GOODMAN: And describe the extent of the mass protests.

GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: I mean, at this moment, it involves a large, a large — a majority of the Iraqis. And I don’t mean only the youth that went to the square early on, and they kind of like push against the security forces. I mean now you have students, you have middle class, you have a large section of the society. What is most amazing about these demonstrations, it’s the majority — if I may use some sectarian terms, it’s the majority-Shia population of Baghdad that spearheaded these demonstrations.

So, every opposition to this government of Baghdad in the last decade and a half have been spearheaded, let’s say, by people who rejected this political system, so, let’s say, the Sunnis, al-Qaeda, whatever. At this moment, this is a popular movement calling for social democracy. This is why neither the political system nor the militias or the pro-Iranian camps could label those guys as, you know, whatever, ISIS, al-Qaeda, as they used to do before, because this is the backbone of this regime.

Those kids, many of them did fight for this government against ISIS. They were volunteers on the front. But when the threat of ISIS was over, when they came back to their villages and towns and neighborhoods, be it in Baghdad, be it in the south, and they realized that this political system, those militia commanders, the party apparatchiks, so corrupt, been building this massive wealth, and that’s what created the spark for this revolution. It’s the injustice of this current political system in Baghdad.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you describe what has taken place in both Najaf and Nasiriyah, Ghaith?

GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: You know, Amy, I was in Nasiriyah, went there kind of a few weeks ago, and I’ve seen the situation on the ground. Unlike in Baghdad, where it’s a demonstration against a political regime, let’s say, in Nasiriyah, in the towns in the south, in Najaf also, it’s more personal. These are small towns. They know who joined the political party, who benefited, who became very wealthy since joining the Parliament or joining a militia. So it’s more personal.

The violence is also very personal, because in the south you have a certain militia dominating a certain security force. The reaction of the security forces was very brutal. I mean, 48 people, I think, were killed both in Nasiriyah and Najaf. In return, the demonstrators can target the houses or the symbols of this corruption. So, in a small town in Shatrah, where I was a few weeks ago, they go around, and they burn the houses of MPs, because that’s for them the symbol of corruption.

In Najaf, the demonstrations are taking place first against the Iranian Consulate, a huge setback for the Iranian influence in Iraq; second, against the shrine of a very revered, again, Shia cleric, who is part of this establishment, who is dead, so his shrine. So, in these places, it’s more personal, and the reaction is far more violent than in Baghdad.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. In addition to Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, who is joining us from Baghdad, Iraq, we’re joined by the Iraqi-born poet, writer, novelist Sinan Antoon. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Music by Naseer Shamma. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue to look at what’s happening in Iraq, more than 400 protesters killed. The prime minister has now acquiesced and said he is resigning. I want to turn right now to a representative of Iraq’s top Shiite Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, speaking Friday.

REPRESENTATIVE OF SISTANI: [translated] We confirm again that attacks against peaceful protesters are forbidden, as well as them being prevented from having the right to demand reforms. We also confirm that attacking private and public property is forbidden, and that property should not be left to be attacked by infiltrators and their allies.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined by Sinan Antoon, the translator, novelist, author, now a professor at New York University, Baghdad-born, Iraqi-raised, and Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, correspondent for The Guardian newspaper, speaking to us from Baghdad, Iraq.

Sinan Antoon, if you could respond to Sistani and also to — we just had you in last week, when hundreds of protesters had been killed, but you were also talking about the significance of this mass protest. Now one of their demands, the resignation of the prime minister, has been met.

SINAN ANTOON: Yes. I mean, about Sistani, Sistani is a revered figure for many Shiites, not only in Iraq, but all over the world. And the problem is with Sistani’s representatives who are speaking, who are themselves, for many of the protesters, part of this political system and implicated in the corruption. And Sistani himself, his statements have been read as being actually responding to the pressure from the protesters themselves, because many of the protesters in previous weeks have demanded that Sistani issue a fatwa, an edict declaring that it is unlawful to kill the protesters.

So, the resignation does not mean a lot to the protesters themselves. One of the signs that I saw this morning said, basically, “We tell them that the car is broken down, and they change the driver.” So, these protests are against the entire political system, against the political culture that has reigned since 2003, against the script and against all of the political class. And the demands from most of the protesters, that the new prime minister be someone from outside of this caste that they are tired of, that it be someone who has never been a minister or been a member of this elite. And now, of course, the parliamentary blocs are scrambling to try to select a representative, but there is also movement amongst the protesters themselves to perhaps suggest names. So this is what’s taking place on the ground right now.

AMY GOODMAN: If you can talk about what this means for the U.S.? You have President Trump going to Afghanistan on Thanksgiving Day. And you have the — you know, Afghanistan, the U.S. invaded in 2001. Bush invades Iraq in 2003. Do you see a total rejection of what has happened since U.S. invaded Iraq, what this means? Also, the extent of Iranian influence right now in Iraq? You have The Intercept that just released those hundreds and hundreds of pages of Iranian documents, the first time ever you see from the Iranian government’s point of view the level of infiltration of all aspects of Iran, this coming after the 2003 invasion. Of course, before, under Saddam Hussein, Iran and Iraq were at war for years.

SINAN ANTOON: I mean, these protests, while the anti-Iranian sentiment, which is completely understandable given the Iranian influence inside Iraq — but these protests are about reclaiming Iraqi sovereignty, as well. So, while in the mainstream media in the West there is so much focus on Iran, there have been — the voices of the protesters have been very clear. They’re against Turkish interference. They’re against U.S. interference. They’re against any interference from neighboring Gulf states and Iran, of course, because of its power within the political elite. But it’s a total rejection of the system that has prevailed since 2003.

Now, whenever there is a vacuum or whenever there is a formation of a new government, in the back channels and backstage, there is always Iranian and U.S. interference, of course, because both countries are interested in pushing a candidate that’s more answerable to their interests. So, while, of course, on the popular level this is a rejection of the entire political system, it should be no surprise that the United States and Iran are trying to push a candidate who would be favored by their own geopolitical interests.

AMY GOODMAN: And the youth of the protesters? And we spoke about this last week. I mean, a number of the protesters were not even born in 2003.

SINAN ANTOON: Yes. I mean, this is also what I said last week, but it bears repeating, in that most of these protesters are unencumbered and are not concerned with some of these old binaries and these old questions that oftentimes — or these old accusations and fears stoking fires of fear from the return of the Ba’ath or from ISIS or from this and that.

As my friend Ghaith mentioned, a lot of these youth have credibility because they themselves fought to defend the country and to liberate parts of Iraq from ISIS. So they speak with credibility, and they’ve come to the realization now, and it’s been accumulating for many years, that this political system is incapable of producing anything. The political machine only produces violence, corruption, and it’s unable also to protect its own citizens. And there is this rampant influence by these militias, these masked men who are going around and shooting innocent protesters.

So the protesters know that this is one chance that comes in a generation, that staying in the streets and remaining peaceful is the only way to put more pressure to change the entire political system, not just one figure replaced by another similar figure, having a new election law and having a new constitution that does not leave the country beholden to the power of ethnosectarian parties and the patronage system.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, if you can talk about what you see happening next? And also, who is held accountable for the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of protesters who have been killed, well over 400, it looks like at this point?

GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: Yes. But just before that, if I can just say one thing regarding what Sinan was just saying. I mean, it’s exactly — it’s true. I mean, if you see the demonstration, if you see the calls in the street, it’s rejecting both American influence and Iranian influence, because both countries are held responsible in the streets of Iraq. They are seen as responsible for establishing and empowering this corrupt political system. The Iranians are rejected because they’re backing these militias, while all these politicians who rule Baghdad now in the parties came with the Americans’ invasion. So that’s the first thing.

What you see on the ground, I mean, you see two powers now facing each other. Power one, which is the people in the streets, the people in the streets are — as Sinan was saying, as the demonstrators were saying, are not going to accept just a make-up change to the system. They want a whole change to the political process. And their demands are very logical, you know, and they’re very sensible. They want a new, independent prime minister. They want a new election law, a new election committee and U.N.-supervised elections to lead to a redrawing of the Constitution. These are very basic.

But then you have, on the other hand, all the members of the Parliament, all the political parties and all their militias. They have been siphoning billions of dollars out of Iraq’s budget in the last 15 years. Are they willing to give up all of this wealth, all these sources of income and the powers of the militias, the weapons? Are they going to give up all these things easily? No. So what we are seeing now, the people are feeling victorious because they’ve achieved step one, toppling the prime minister. But the confrontation is going to go for weeks, if not months, to come.

AMY GOODMAN: Sinan Antoon, you’re a translator, you’re an author, you’re a poet. If you can talk about the poem you chose to share with us today?

SINAN ANTOON: I mean, the poem is about martyrs, which I wrote three years ago during the Syrian uprising and its aftermath. But one of the protesters who were killed in the early days happened to be a friend of mine, Safaa al-Saray, who has now become one of the icons of this. And we corresponded for many years, and I met him in my last trip to Baghdad. And he is an exemplary figure of what types of protesters are — very young, talented Iraqi artist and poet from a working-class background who studied engineering but couldn’t find a job, and who was always at the forefront of all of these protesters. And he was killed on the 28th with one of these canisters, these war-grade canisters. This is just an excerpt from a poem that’s called “Psalm” that I’d love to read, and thank you for giving me the opportunity.

Martyrs do not go to paradise
They live through the heavenly book
Each in their own way
As a bird, a star or a cloud
They appear to us every day and cry for us
We who are still in this hell
They try to extinguish with their blood.

Now, and I want to read it because of the countless young men and women who have been killed only for protesting peacefully, and the attempts of the regime and of its agents, frankly, to disfigure the memory of some of these activists nowadays on social media.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you so much for being with us, Sinan Antoon, poet, novelist, translator, scholar, born and raised in Baghdad, Iraq, now an associate professor at New York University. His most recent novel, The Book of Collateral Damage. Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, speaking to us from Baghdad, Iraq, correspondent for The Guardian newspaper.

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