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The Breakout of Iraq Protests 2019: The Reasons, the Response and What’s to Come

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes below.

The Protests and the Reasons for Them

Iraq has long been a country involved in conflict, both internationally and within the country itself. On the first day of October 2019, the people of Baghdad decided protests were in order, calling for the Iraqi government to undergo change. The main reason for these protests was the anger the people felt over their government’s inability to improve or even maintain good living conditions, in particular when they were aware of Iraq’s great resources in oil.[1] The people were demanding for the end of “high unemployment, dire public services and foreign interference”, and perhaps more significantly, the corruption manifested in the government.[2]This corruption was particularly highlighted when Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi demoted Iraq’s well supported “counter-terrorism chief”.[3]This was one of the key triggers of the start of the protests. The protestors, largely under the age of 30, believe it is time for this government, set up in 2003 by a new political system, to be overhauled.[4]

They argue that corruption and conflict will never be resolved if only a handful of elitists have all the power as a result of a “quota system that allocates positions to political parties based on sectarian and ethnic identity”.[5]

They believe they deserve better.

Iraq’s response

The Iraqi authorities, on the other hand, somewhat disagree. At first the government appeared to respond positively, with Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi stating he would reshuffle his cabinet in response to the first set of protests.[6] However, protests resumed on October 25th, when the Prime Minister then resigned, believing it was “necessary as part of the de-escalation” of the protests.[7]Nonetheless problems continue, in particular as protestors have been met with security forces and constant violence, including unlawful use of “tear-gas grenades, live ammunition and sniper attacks”.[8]This has led to over 400 protest deaths from October 1st to early December.[9]This indicates how the government is in fact attempting to continue their hold on centralised power and how, despite the protests, corruption and terrorism remain a grave problem. Having said this, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a top Shia cleric in Iraq, has demanded that the government investigate which “undisciplined elements” ordered the shooting of the protestors, referring to Iran-backed militias accused of having a role in trying to terminate the protests.[10] There is therefore some hope that certain Iraqi officials are backing the people of their nation, proving there are alternatives.

What next?

More difficulties.

The problem surrounding reforming the government has yet to be resolved. Although the Prime Minister has resigned, he is continuing to act as a caretaker of the government until his successor is chosen, a task that could take months.[11] This is especially due to the “multiple feuding factions” struggling to find a compromise.[12]Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has great hope that “the head of the new government and its members are chosen within the constitutional deadline and according to the aspirations of the people”.[13]However, many others believe that his hopes are highly unlikely. For example, as senior adviser for the International Crisis Group on both Iraq and Syria, Maria Fantappie, has concerns for what is to come next for Iraq’s political situation.[14] She comments on how it is incredibly hard to find a person who “is both broadly the protestors, but who also has the… political support to navigate the transition”.[15] Additionally, even if this person was miraculously found, the people of Iraq want a revolutionary change to the government, and do not believe that simply replacing the Prime Minister into the same corrupt system.

As put by protestor Medhi Chassin, a college student from southern Amara in Baghdad-“another guy will come who will be just the same. We want them all to go.”[16]

International Outrage

As well as the likes of Grand Ayatollah in Iraq, other international governments have voiced their outrage at the Iraqi government, both for their current governmental system and their violent and unlawful response to the protests. This included the US, who on December 6th supported Grand Ayatollah by claiming to have “imposed sanctions” on militia leaders for their role “in the brutal crackdown on peaceful protests in Iraq”, as well as on businessmen for “bribing officials and engaging in corruption.”[17] This shows the government is being put under pressure to reform from those other than ones involved in the protests. However, nothing can be guaranteed, in particular when they have all the power.


Overall, the Iraqi protests have brought to light many internal conflicts within Iraq, and just how unhappy the people are with their government. Although problems are yet to be resolved, and many other problems such as the deaths of the protestors have arisen, it is at least encouraging to see that the people are standing up for their rights, and that they have the support of various people, both within and out of Iraq. However, it is a difficult time and more obtacles lie ahead. The only thing to do now is to wait and watch, and hope that slowly problems are resolved rather than exacerbated.

Kyla Haslett-Hawkins

Feature Writer

Middle East


[1] BBC News, ‘The Iraq protests explained in 100 and 500 words’ (BBC News, 2 December 2019) <> accessed 15 February 2020

[2] Ibid.

[3] BBC News (n 1)

[4] Ibid.

[5] BBC News (n 1)

[6] Ibid.

[7] BBC News (n 1)

[8] Ibid.

[9] Abdul-Ahad, G. and Graham-Harrison E., ‘Defiant protestors back in Baghdad square within an hour of slaughter’ (The Guardian, 7 December 2019).

[10] Aljazeera, ‘Iraq protests: All the latest updates’ (Aljazeera News/Middle East, 11 October 2019) <> accessed 15 February 2020

[11] Abdul-Ahad, G. and Graham-Harrison E. (n 9)

[12] Ibid.

[13] Abdul-Ahad, G. and Graham-Harrison E. (n 9)

[14] Rubin, A. ‘Iraq in Worst Political Crisis in Years as Death Toll Mounts From Protests’ (The New York Times, 21 December 2019) <> accessed February 16 2020

[15] Ibid.

[16] Rubin, A. (n 14)

[17] Abdul-Ahad, G. and Graham-Harrison E. (n 9)

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