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Why we must stand with Iraq’s protesters

Whether you supported the 2003 invasion or not, it would be hard to make a morally convincing argument that we can abandon the Iraqi people now

In February 2005, Paul Bremer, former chief of the occupation authority in Iraq following the US-led invasion, delivered a forecast for the newly de-Baathised country’s political and social future. 

Billed as the keynote speaker for an investment conference in San Diego, California, Bremer listed promises to the Iraqi people, both kept and stillborn. 

“Fifteen months ago, working with Iraqis, I laid out a clear path to take Iraq from where it was to representative government,” Bremer declared. He rattled off his proudest achievements, including, but certainly not limited to, "complete freedom of expression and assembly” under the freshly penned Iraqi constitution - which, he vowed, "has the most robust bill of rights of any country in the region".

Firing on unarmed protesters

Despite the optimism and self-congratulatory tone, and while invoking that haggard old cliche about "bumps in the road ahead", there was a detectable note of cynicism. Bremer has reportedly raised quiet concerns about the future of Iraq’s political institutions on more than one occasion. And for those keeping up to date with Iraq’s convulsive transition from Baathist sadism, Bremer’s cautious optimism was wholly justified. 

Few other spectacles warrant this claim more than the sight of “Iraqi security forces” - as they are often vaguely called - opening fire on unarmed protesters last month.

Demonstrations began, and are still ongoing, in oil-rich Basra, home to 70 percent of Iraq’s oil production, yet the majority of jobs in the industry are given to foreign contractors rather than locals. Protesters in the southern city have called for increased employment opportunities and an end to slum-like living conditions and corruption among Baghdad’s political elite. 

Today, the project of forming an accountable and representative government in Baghdad has the stability of a pyramid balancing on its apex

In response, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi - often coupled with that hackneyed word “moderate” in Western journalese - dispatched the country’s “elite counter-terrorism service” to swiftly crush the protests before momentum could reach truly inconvenient levels. This was the same unit used in the battle to retake Mosul from the Islamic State (IS) group.

Within days, seven people in Basra had been killed and many mercilessly beaten, which led to protests in other parts of the country. Accounts in Arabic media vary, but at least 12 protesters are believed to have been killed by regime forces, while hundreds more languish in their dungeons, with some reportedly tortured.

Whither freedom of expression?

This unavoidably raises the question: where is that “representative government” and constitutional guarantee of “complete freedom of expression and assembly” that Bremer extolled all those years ago? 

Today, the project of forming an accountable and representative government in Baghdad has the stability of a pyramid balancing on its apex. 

Even more to the point, do we - the US and UK in particular - not have the moral duty, after invading and occupying Iraq, to pressure Abadi to rein in the draconian excesses being meted out against dissenters? Do we not have an obligation to stand with Iraqi protesters? 

Iraqi protesters have called for increased employment opportunities and an end to poor living conditions and corruption (AFP)

While we’ve heard a whimper of support from Foggy Bottom’s Heather Nauert - offered in routinely drab Washington-speak - we haven’t seen near the level of commitment needed to convince the Iraqi people that we’re on the side of their right to freedom and dignity, rights Washington and London claimed they were rescuing through intervention in the first place. 

This should be part of a wider moral enterprise aimed at long-overdue efforts to help Iraq establish the necessary infrastructure, public services and political institutions sufficient for social stability and prosperity. This must begin, at the very least, with using all means at our disposal to ensure that Abadi and his successors stop approving state violence. It is simply cowardice masquerading as “non-intervention” to ignore wholesale violations of basic human dignity. 

A moral debt

Interscholastic debate over just war theory - which attempts to set out criteria for when going to war is morally right or wrong - has long been animated over the question of whether a set of principles exist for jus post bellum (justice after war). It has been argued by some moral ethicists that victorious or invading powers have a series of moral obligations to the peoples of the other country.

I believe the US and UK have an ongoing set of obligations to Iraqis to help them bring about lasting security, especially after decades of carpet-bombing of their cities and the occupation of their lands.

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Whether you supported the 2003 invasion or not, it would be hard to make a morally convincing argument that, after everything, we can abandon the Iraqi people now. If they need more doctors, we must send our own and help to train theirs. If they need help rebuilding cities such as Mosul, pulverised by coalition bombing and the IS rampage, we must provide it. 

And if they wish to take their political leaders to task through the legitimate exercise of protest, we must stand with them and punish Baghdad when it treats that right with contempt. We owe it to them.

- Matthew Ayton is a reporter, and a politics and history lecturer based in Beirut. He has previously reported from the occupied Palestinian territories. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Iraqis protest in Basra on 10 August (AFP)