Protesters Rise Up Over Iraq's Missed Economic Opportunities

Antigovernment protesters set fires and closed off streets during demonstrations in Baghdad on Friday. Nearly 100 people have been killed since the unrest began on Tuesday as protesters and security forces clashed. Photo: Khalid Mohammed/Associated Press

BAGHDAD—Years of runaway spending, economic mismanagement and corruption in Iraq have combusted in protests that have killed more than 100 people and risk spiraling into civil conflict.

The anger spilling into the streets for almost a week has built over the 16 years since the U.S.-led invasion, which Iraqis had hoped would usher in an era of prosperity after years of war and sanctions. Protesters braved tear gas, rubber bullets and live rounds, including sniper fire from unidentified men positioned on rooftops.

Successive governments have failed to spread the country’s massive oil wealth and create a vibrant economy while the population has boomed to nearly 40 million. The 800,000 people who reach working age each year have few options, widening the gap between rich and poor.

“We want jobs. We want salaries. We want to feel like we are part of this country. We want a decent life so we can feed our families,” said Salam Radif, a jobless 36-year-old Baghdad resident who took part in the protests. “We’re asking for basic services, not a miracle.”

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The protests, which have escalated since taking hold Tuesday, present a major crisis for Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, who took office a year ago vowing to overhaul the economy. In recent days, the government has rushed to promise jobs and funds for the poor in a bid to address protesters’ demands for employment and better living conditions. Many of the protesters are young men with no jobs and little to lose.

But protesters have dismissed Mr. Abdul-Mahdi’s pledges of reform and jobs as empty promises, increasing their demands to the removal of the entire political class. Iraqi security forces’ violent response could lead to further escalation if protesters respond in kind with increasing force, political analysts said.

“You’re kind of seeing glimmers of the early days of [the war in] Syria,” said Fanar Haddad, senior research fellow at the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore. “It’s not a spectacular scenario any longer for this to degenerate into civil war.”

The European Union, the International Committee of the Red Cross and other rights organizations have called on Iraqi security forces to exercise restraint. The British ambassador to Iraq said he had spoken to Mr. Abdul-Mahdi and President Barham Saleh and urged rapid action to deliver on the demands of protesters, expressing “extreme concern about the levels of violence used, including snipers.”

Protesters clashed with security forces Sunday in the sprawling eastern district of Sadr City, resulting in the deaths of 8 protesters, an Interior Ministry official said.

Interior Ministry spokesman Saad Maan earlier said the death toll from the protests had reached 104, including 8 members of the security forces. Yahya Rasool, the spokesman for Iraq’s Joint Operations Command, confirmed that snipers had fatally shot two protesters and two members of the security forces, saying the snipers weren’t under the command of security forces.

“We are committed by rules of engagement, and no live ammunition was used,” Mr. Rasool said. The protests appear leaderless, leaving authorities unsure of whom to negotiate with, said Defense Ministry spokesman Brig. Gen. Tahsin al-Khafaji.

Late Saturday, unidentified gunmen stormed the offices of several TV channels that had been covering the protests and smashed their equipment. State TV showed footage of calm streets and flowing traffic.

Mr. Abdul-Mahdi, an economist who studied at Paris’s Sorbonne University, came to power last year as a compromise leader following an election in which Iraqis cited corruption and the economy as the top concerns. He has struggled to convince Iraqis that he can reform the political and economic system. In a speech Friday addressing the protesters, he gave little hope, saying there was no “magic solution” to Iraq’s problems.

“The government cannot achieve in a year the dreams that couldn’t be achieved in the past [16] years,” he said.

Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets in cities across Iraq to demand jobs, improved quality of life and an end to government corruption. Dozens have been killed in clashes between demonstrators and security forces. Photo: EPA/Murtaja Lateef

The government hasn’t released unemployment statistics since 2017, when the jobless rate was 13% and youth unemployment nearly double that. Economic observers here say the job situation has only worsened since then.

Iraq’s economy contracted 0.6% in 2018, and the government’s budget is projected to shift from a surplus of close to 8% in 2018 to a deficit of 4% of gross domestic product in 2019, according to the International Monetary Fund.

On Sunday, the council of ministers unveiled a further raft of measures to appease protesters, including the distribution of plots of land to low-income families, the construction of 100,000 housing units, the provision of stipends to 150,000 unemployed people and a training program for a further 150,000 people without jobs.

After meeting with several dozen protesters on Saturday and listening to their demands, Parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi said all Iraqis with masters-level degrees or above would be put on the Education Ministry’s payroll. Security-forces members who deserted during the war with Islamic State would be rehired, and government contractors would get fixed employment.

Some economists said the government’s proposals would only deepen the underlying problem, pointing out that around 75% of Iraq’s budget already goes to current expenditure, much of it used for patronage by political parties that control the country’s ministries.

Of the remainder spent on investment, only a fraction goes to infrastructure, which is crumbling across the country.

“You can kick that can down the road but [eventually] it’s going to hit you,” said Ahmed Tabaqchali, a senior fellow at the Institute of Regional and International Studies at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani.

Iraqi protesters helping a wounded man amid clashes during a demonstration against state corruption, failing public services, and unemployment on Friday in Baghdad's central Khellani Square. Photo: ahmad al-rubaye/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Iraq made tentative steps to address its economic problems after a 2014-16 slump in the price of oil—which accounts for 90% of government revenue—tipped Iraq’s economy into recession as it fought a war against Islamic State. Under IMF guidance, Iraq made tentative steps to prune the payroll, introduce taxation and suspend government hiring.

But as soon as oil prices began recovering in 2018, the measures were reversed. The country’s 2019 budget swelled to $111.8 billion, from $88 billion in 2018. That 27% increase reflected large increases in the public-sector wage bill and a jump in allocations to the Kurdish region.

Antigovernment protesters set fires during a demonstration in Baghdad on Friday. Photo: Khalid Mohammed/Associated Press

Write to Isabel Coles at [email protected]

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