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Iraqi Journalist: Amid Low Election Turnout, “Iraq’s Streets Littered with the Memories of Our Dead”

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Voter turnout at the fifth parliamentary election in Iraq hit an all-time low, with many Iraqis refusing to vote as widespread faith in the democratic process and politics falters. Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who has been a vocal opponent of foreign invasion, won the most seats. He has also been accused of kidnapping and killing his critics. “The election has more to do with making this regime and this system look good than responding to the demands of the people,” says Nabil Salih, Iraqi journalist and photographer, who also discusses protests that sped up the election and conditions in Iraq’s hospitals. His latest piece for Middle East Eye is “Iraq’s streets are littered with the memories of our dead.”

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StoryJan 01, 20142013 In Review: Power, Politics and Resistance
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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

We turn now to Iraq, where people headed to the polls Sunday for just the fifth parliamentary election since the U.S. overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Turnout was just over 40%, many Iraqis refusing to vote. Initial results showed the political party of the populist Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose fighters battled U.S. forces throughout the occupation, won the biggest gains. The Sadrist Movement has won over 70 seats, making it the single biggest bloc in the Iraqi parliament. Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is expected to have the second-largest number of seats in parliament, while a powerful Iran-aligned bloc fell far behind. Pro-Iranian parties and armed groups in Iraq denounced the early election results as a “scam.” Al-Sadr claimed victory Monday.

MUQTADA AL-SADR: [translated] We welcome all embassies that do not interfere in Iraq’s internal affairs, so long as they do not interfere in Iraq’s affairs, as well as the formation of government. With any intervention, we will have a diplomatic response, or perhaps a popular one, which is suitable to the offense. Iraq is only for Iraqis. Iraq is only for Iraqis. … We will work on uniting tribal fronts, giving them the effective role in protecting Iraq, its stability, the stability of its safety. Weapons are not to be raised beyond the scope of the state under any circumstances. … We will not allow parties to take control of public money and resources. They are for the people. Every corrupt person will be held accountable, whoever they are, whoever they are.

AMY GOODMAN: Al-Sadr has called for the withdrawal of all U.S. troops and is a longtime critic of neighboring Iran. His armed movement has also been accused of kidnapping and killing its critics, reportedly including a 17-year-old boy ahead of the parliamentary election. Sunday’s vote was held several months ahead of schedule, triggered by youth-led, massive protests that drew tens of thousands of Iraqis to the streets in late 2019 and early 2020, denouncing corruption, unemployment, the worsening living conditions in Iraq. Security forces violently cracked down on the anti-government protests, killing over 600 demonstrators and injuring thousands more.

Our next guest was at the demonstrations himself. Nabil Salih is an Iraqi journalist and photographer from Baghdad, now a graduate student at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. His most recent article for Middle East Eye is headlined “Iraq’s streets are littered with the memories of our dead.”

Nabil Salih, it’s wonderful to have you with us. Thank you for joining us. Can you start off by talking about the significance of Muqtada al-Sadr’s victory? And then talk about the condition of your country, still occupied by the United States.

NABIL SALIH: Good morning, Amy. Thank you for having me.

And, well, thanks to the United States of America, every government that’s ruled Iraq after the barbaric invasion and occupation of 2003 has either killed or failed miserably in protecting Iraqis. So, Muqtada al-Sadr is no different. In fact, the protesters on the ground, as reported by both local and international media, remember all too well that his followers during the October uprising, that started in October 2019, have not only stabbed activists but also shot at them, for example, in Najaf and Karbala. And, of course, that is all dormant, because as a powerful guy who has his own militia, it is not easy to touch him. So, imagine. And, of course, let’s not forget the role Jaysh al-Mahdi, his militia, played in what our colleagues in the Western media like to call a civil war. Yes, Jaysh al-Mahdi terrorized and abducted and displaced Iraqis, and no apologies. Now the same guy, you know, had the most seats in this election.

So, you know, I fear for the future of Iraq, not only that the previous men in suits were any better. You know, for example, take Mustafa al-Khadimi, who is a favorite of Western media. People still got killed and abducted, assassinated and terrorized during his tenure. So, yes, I think I will quote Muhammad Mahdi Al-Jawahiri, the greatest Arabian poet, by saying, ”I see a horizon lit with blood / And many a starless night / A generation comes, another goes / And the fire keeps burning.” So, yes.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Nabil, I wanted to ask you: To what do you owe, though, the continued growth of support, at least in this election, for al-Sadr? Is part of it that he’s been walking this tightrope between those forces in your country that continue to support or be under the direction of the United States versus those who support Iran and others that maybe are supportive of more Sunni activists supported by other Middle East states? Is he seen as one of the few leaders pushing for Iraq independence?

NABIL SALIH: Well, it is important to remind that the shipped-in crooks who ruled after the invasion don’t speak the language of the people. They speak in a different tone. Muqtada al-Sadr speaks in their language. He is one of them. He’s a populist. He speaks like any other ordinary citizen during his media appearances. And people like that, especially, for example, in eastern Baghdad in the area that is loyal to him.

But also, the fact that he won so many seats goes back to the fact that the rest of Iraqis, who don’t follow him, actually don’t bother going to vote, because it doesn’t make a difference. Like I said, Iraqis will still be killed, and the next government will still fail them, fail to protect them, and enable their necessary death that started long way back in '91. So, yes, and it is important also to notice that in his speech that you just aired, the tone that he speaks in, it's threatening. So, imagine someone whose first speech — who speaks in this tone in his first speech.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And these elections only came about because of an unusual protest, mass protest movement that developed. Some of the supporters of the protests did gain a few seats. But do you think —

NABIL SALIH: True.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: — that, overall, it was advisable for these elections to occur, because — now that we see the results?

NABIL SALIH: Well, the elections has more to do with making this regime and this system look good than responding to the demands of the people, because it was — I was covering the protests and, if not covering the protests, then protesting myself. And I saw every banner that was hoisted on al-Tahrir Square in Baghdad. And it was one of so many other demands, including basically respect and bread and accountability. And so, yes, it is more of making the system look good.

And, yes, some new faces from the protest movement won a few seats. For example, the Imtidad Movement by Alaa al-Rikabi, who was a protester from Nasiriyah and a pharmacist, they won like eight or nine seats — I’m not sure of the exact number — which is a good sign. But, of course, one needs to remember that Sadr has, in the '70s, and Halbousi, who is the incumbent parliament speaker, and, of course, Nouri al-Maliki, who's the former prime minister under whose leadership a third of Iraq’s territory was given or handed on a silver platter to a few “Allahu Akbar”-yelling gangs of so-called Daesh. So, yes, it is — they are a minority. OK, it’s a good start, but it will be a long, long way to actually sense a concrete change in the lives of the ordinary citizens in Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: Nabil Salih, I wanted to ask you about the piece you wrote in Middle East Eye and your own family’s experience. The piece is headlined “Iraq’s streets are littered with the memories of our dead.” And you write, “The daily repertoire of deadly misery leaves me suffocated, shouting aloud inside my head words I cannot write. To no avail, the water pump wheezes tonight. Iraq, the land between two rivers, is thirsty. Barely a few drops drip from the kitchen faucet in my family’s residence in Baghdad. The power is off, too, [and] private diesel generators roar [deep] into the night. The tranquility that used to lullaby Baghdad’s alleys, allowing its residents to sleep during the hot summer nights on rooftops, has long gone.” Can you talk about what you describe as this distant lifetime, and what there is now, and what has happened to your own family?

NABIL SALIH: Well, I hope the listeners excuse us, because we will remind them of the nuisance that is Iraq, and the crime of 2003 is better remained dormant, after all its consequences. But I hope they bear with us a few minutes.

Well, I opened my eyes to the genocidal sanctions of the United Nations in the '90s and the poverty, which was, of course — the price was worth it, Madeleine Albright said at the time. And, of course, the airstrikes of ’98, these are some of my earliest memories, is watching from our rooftop as my hometown gets bombed by America and its allies in ’98 in Operation Desert Fox to straighten us up, you know? And, of course, the invasion of 2003 and the cluster bomblets that landed in my family's garden. And, of course, after the invasion, I remember, you know, some of — what my family have been through, has been through, is nothing compared to what so many other families suffered, but, for example, my father was kidnapped by a militia claiming to represent the Shias. My uncle was kidnapped by al-Qaeda. We were displaced by another militia that claims to support the Sunnis. To be honest, I still have bombs going off in my head, and the enduring trauma is still haunting millions of Iraqis. But, of course, that is not important for Western media. We don’t hear about it. And, yes, and Iraq —

AMY GOODMAN: Your mother this summer?

NABIL SALIH: Yes, my mother actually passed away on July 25 in a hospital, in a state hospital out in Baghdad, in which me and my beautiful sisters and brother had to beg and bribe to have nurses actually giving her medication at time. The power goes off for many hours. And imagine, even the doctors don’t — you know, feel hopeless and helpless. And they don’t call, for example, the technicians or the administration in the hospital to tell them to fix it. And I end up calling an official from the Ministry of Health and beg him to try and do something. And the whole day, until sunset, you know, my mother, my late mother, used to say how the weather was hot and she wanted air. And it’s chaotic. You know, I was speaking with a friend the other day, and she told me, “So, people actually go there to die.” And, yes, that’s what happens.

And I also want to — again, thanks to the United States of America and its benevolence, the Ministry of Health is often the share of the Sadrists, who are the biggest winners in this elections. So, imagine if that’s how one ministry functioned, if I can use the word, imagine what the country — what the rest of the country will look like under their domination, not to say they are not dominant yet. But again, I will need to remind our listeners that he will not be able to form the next government on his own, because he needs 50-plus-one seats in the parliament to do so, out of 328. So, coalitions will take place afterwards, and deliberations will take months, of course, and who pays who. And they will, of course, deceit — deceive the people again. That’s the thing. When you vote in Iraq, you don’t end up being ruled by the one you voted for.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to wrap, but we have 30 seconds. There are 2,500 U.S. troops still in Iraq. As you watched the U.S. troops pulled out of Afghanistan, do you want to see the same thing in Iraq, Nabil?

NABIL SALIH: Well, I will just say — quote Saadi Youssef’s, the late Iraqi poet’s poem, which says, ”A beautiful Iraq will come / Iraq will come / When the American leaves / And the Persian servant in his turban.

AMY GOODMAN: Nabil Salih, Iraqi journalist from Baghdad. We’ll link to your piece in Middle East Eye, “Iraq’s streets are littered with the memories of our dead.” He’s now a student at Georgetown in Washington, D.C.

Next up, President Biden, is he pursuing a new Cold War with China? Stay with us.

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