Rage Comes to Baghdad

Will Iraq's Recent Protests Lead to Revolt?

Saddam Hussein may have been overthrown in 2003, but the dawn of more representative government in Iraq has not inoculated the country from the popular unrest now sweeping through the Arab world. Over the past month, demonstrations protesting the woeful lack of services and widespread corruption have taken place throughout the country. These culminated in a violent “day of rage” in a number of Iraqi cities, including one in Baghdad on February 25 that left more than 20 protesters dead.

These protests have not reached the scale of those witnessed in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, and demonstrators have not demanded regime change per se. Nonetheless, the tight security measures taken to contain the “day of rage” protests in Baghdad -- including blocking access to the city and putting a tight military cordon around Tahrir Square, the focal point of the demonstrations -- and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s efforts to link the unrest to al Qaeda and Baathist provocateurs suggest that his government is rattled. And with good cause, because if Baghdad cannot respond effectively to popular demands, the current government’s political survival is no less at stake than those in Cairo, Tripoli, and Tunis.

Although there is undoubtedly an element of contagion influencing events in Iraq, which began with small demonstrations in Baghdad led by intellectuals and professionals, the protests there are driven by local grievances. Popular anger at the persistent lack of services -- especially electricity -- has been rising steadily over the past few years. Demonstrations protesting power shortages occurred in Basra last summer, expressing a frustration common to Iraqis across the country; some parts of Baghdad, for example, received around two hours of electricity per day from the national grid in early February. Iraqis also share growing resentment toward pervasive government corruption, a factor that has been particularly important in driving demonstrations against the regional administration in Kurdistan. Iraq ranked 175 out of 178 countries on Transparency International’s 2010 corruption index. Meanwhile, there is broad resentment of the high salaries and generous benefits that public officials have granted themselves, especially given the government’s apparent ineptitude.

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