Iraq's ruling elite fear the unity of the Iraqi people because it directly undermines their divisive rule.

The news that the death toll as a result of protests that have been ongoing in Iraq for longer than a month has risen to 319 killed and 15,000 wounded was met with relative silence outside Iraq and exasperated fury inside the country.

While Amnesty International has termed these extrajudicial slayings of protesters as “nothing short of a bloodbath,” very little has been offered by the international community apart from lacklustre efforts at laughable mediation from the United Nations.

After all, what is there to mediate between a people calling for their democratic rights and a political and military elite who want to ensure those rights are crushed into the dust? Instead, what is required is for the international community to pressure the Iraqi regime to simply stop butchering its own people.

UN mediation won’t resolve crisis

In signs of desperation, even Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Shia Islam’s highest religious authority, has held meetings with the United Nations Assistance Mission to Iraq (UNAMI). This is noteworthy, as Sistani rarely meets with anyone and prefers to deal with both his followers and dignitaries through his representatives.

It is also noteworthy in that UNAMI preferred to meet with Sistani rather than government representatives, and likely because Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Qods Force commander, Qassem Soleimani, had already whipped parliament into getting behind the government of Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi.

UNAMI has suggested a roadmap including the immediate cessation of violence, followed by reforms and legislation to be enacted within two weeks, such as anti-graft measures designed to keep Iraqi politicians honest. Sistani’s office backed UNAMI’s proposals but has said that the ayatollah doubts the government will honestly stick to reforms.

Sistani is right to doubt the Iraqi government as they have had almost 17 years to get things right. Iraq’s present political elite are comprised of people who were ushered into power on the backs of American tanks and propped up by Iran. These people spent decades blaming the Baathist dictatorship of Saddam Hussein for all of Iraq’s woes, yet in almost two decades of Saddam’s ouster they have managed to make matters even worse than they already were.

It is likely they are simply paying lip service to reforms so that they can quiet tensions, allow security forces to brutalise and kill those who refuse to return home, and to simply return Iraq to yet another electoral cycle of pilfering public finances to line the pockets of an unworthy elite.

Illegitimacy of terrorism vs legitimacy of activism

But this is entirely the point behind the mass slaughter of Iraqi people – the continuation of a corrupt status quo that serves neither Sunni or Shia, Arab or Kurd or Turkmen, Muslim or non-Muslim.

As has been argued elsewhere, sectarianism has been used as a tool by a political elite propped up variously by the United States and Iran to keep the Iraqi people divided. Simply put, if Iraqi citizens believed that their problems and woes were down to one segment of society or another, power holders in Baghdad could keep the public distracted with intracommunal hatred while they pillaged the nation’s coffers.

Now that the sectarian establishment is feeling the wrath of the Shia-majority southern governorates they previously relied upon to legitimise them, it is clear that popular political activism has achieved what the terrorism of equally sectarian groups such as Daesh failed to do.

The corrupt regime could easily hide behind Daesh’s brutality because no one would disagree that they were a devastating force of social, cultural, and religious backwardness that needed to be stopped.

What Daesh lacked was popular legitimacy and that meant that, as dangerous as they were, they could never truly succeed in holding all that territory across Iraq and Syria. This is simply because they did not have enough manpower or organisational sophistication to overcome the fact that almost every one of the millions who lived under them did not want them as their overlords, enacting savage punishments on a whim in a bid for totalitarian control.

The beauty of the current protests is that the people of Iraq are themselves leading the charge for deep-rooted reform in their country. These are people who have faces and names, who are known to their communities, and who have hopes, aspirations, and expectations that their country’s politicians should work for them.

These are people like medic and activist Saba Al-Mahdawi, a 35-year-old woman who eyewitnesses say was pulled off the streets of Baghdad and into a car by masked men earlier this month. She had been providing medical assistance to protesters who had been victims of police and pro-Iran militia brutality, such as those fatally shot in the head with tear gas cannisters, and had called home to say she would be back in an hour. She never returned.

The circumstances of her disappearance are very familiar to all Iraqis who have been the victims of abductions perpetrated by sectarian Shia militias and men wearing federal police uniforms. Saba was taken off the streets by men whose only interest in her was because of her regular attendance at protests and her profile in rendering medical assistance to people who had been wounded by government forces and allied Tehran-backed militants.

People like Saba have legitimacy. Because they are peaceful, known to their community, and are willing to stand bravely in the face of fire to call for the collective rights of all Iraqis, they have what neither the government, nor the sectarian militias, nor even Daesh ever had – legitimacy.

It is easy to sympathise with legitimacy as embodied by Saba, to get behind it and to support its just cause. It is impossible, however, to sympathise with corruption, nepotism, state-sanctioned torture and murder, and the outright villainy embodied by Iraq’s elites. And that is what they fear the most.

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