On the streets of Baghdad, a 24-year-old blogger and freelance journalist points his camera at Iraqi protesters, capturing the anger and hope of tens of thousands who are demanding the fall of the political elite.
As security forces in Iraq continue to kill protesters, Moustafa Nader is making it his mission “to bring attention (to what’s happening) and to create positive energy through these photographs.”
“These photos will make people want to come to the protests,” he said to Global News in a phone interview in Arabic. “It will also help raise awareness internationally.”
As of Nov. 5, at least 267 protesters, mostly young people and teens, in Baghdad and across southern Iraq have been killed in two major waves of anti-government demonstrations in the country since Oct. 1.
The protesters want an overhaul of the political system established after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, accusing the government and major parties of corruption and incompetence, particularly in dealing with the economy and unemployment as well as the regular power cuts that take place in Iraq despite its vast oil reserves.
“I’ve bought a firefighter hat, a mask to protect me from tear gas and a breathing device. I also helped distribute these during the protests,” said Nader.
“It’s a very scary moment because as you start walking, you suddenly see the person who was walking next to you dead on the street because a tear bomb has hit him in the head. Not a bullet, but a bomb the size of your hands.”
Many of the demonstrations in Iraq have been caught on camera and circulated on social media. That’s how many of the Iraqi-Canadians in Halifax and all over Canada have been keeping up with the protests.
“The poor have become poorer, and the people in Iraq are just so tired of everything, and of course, we are very upset and trying to keep up with what’s happening from here,” said Ayad Dayne, who immigrated to Canada five years ago.
Dayne says he has two brothers and three nephews who are protesting in Tahrir Square, which is Baghdad’s biggest and most central square. He says he is very proud that they are there, despite the rising death toll.
“They are, of course, precious, but Iraq is more precious,” said Dayne. “The Iraqi people don’t deserve to live such a miserable life.”
Dayne said what’s pressuring the Iraqi government to change are the photos and videos being shared on social media as well as the protests happening in Iraq and worldwide.
But he feels there is very little media coverage of the uprising in Iraq and barely any global condemnation of the way the government has been dealing with protesters.
However, on Thursday, UN chief António Guterres has expressed his serious concern over the rising number of deaths and injuries during ongoing demonstrations there.
Amidst disturbing reports of the continued use of live ammunition against demonstrators, despite Wednesday’s reported government ban on live fire, Guterres urged all actors to refrain from violence, according to a United Nations Daily Brief.
The secretary-general also called on the government to “investigate all acts of violence seriously”, renewing his appeal for “meaningful dialogue”.
Tareq Ismael, a professor of political science at the University of Calgary in Alberta, agrees with Dayne and said there’s not much coverage because “the mass media, the West and the so-called experts” don’t understand the complications of the “Iraqi issue.”
The impact of the American invasion and occupation
After years of war and sectarian conflict following the country’s invasion and occupation by American military forces, Iraq has struggled to establish peace and strong governance.
“(The mass media and the West) seem to ignore the American occupation, which really destroyed the social, political and economic structure of a society,” added Ismael, who is also secretary-general of the International Association of Middle Eastern Studies and president of the International Centre for Contemporary Middle Eastern Studies.
Ismael has been an author, co-author and editor on more than 25 works on the Middle East, Iraq and international studies. He is also the editor of the International Journal of Contemporary Iraqi Studies.
The scholar explains that the United States has been involved in hundreds of government overthrows, beginning with Hawaii in 1893. Fourteen of the overthrows were successful, including Iraq in 2003.
“They were all takeovers — bring clients, deliver the country to them and then subjugate the country to your foreign policy wishes and whatever,” said Ismael.
“It’s a doctrine. It’s the basic foreign policy, which is to overthrow, destroy socio-economic political structures and walk out.”
Fighting against sectarianism and corruption
After the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, a number of prime ministers came to power, including Nouri al-Maliki and Haidar al-Abadi. Currently, it’s Adel Abdul Mahdi who’s in power and is known for his pro-Iranian orientation.
Ismael said the people who came after the occupation had no real interest in dealing with the resulting socio-economic problems that had accumulated.
“They just wanted to steal and get out so corruption was the basic feature,” he said.
But even with new leaders coming to the forefront, corruption is still rampant, according to a UN report on corruption in Iraq’s public sector.
According to the 2013 report, on average, Iraqi bribe-payers pay almost four bribes a year.
45.8 per cent of bribe-payers paid a bribe to speed up an administrative procedure, while 26.6 per cent to improve treatment or service. The prevalence of bribery is highest amongst citizens dealing with police, land registry and tax and revenue officers.
Sectarianism has also become a basic feature post-U.S. occupation in Iraq, according to Ismael.
In a 2015 report released by the UN, violations of international humanitarian and international human rights law reportedly committed by the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) have been documented.
These violations, among many others committed by ISIL, the UN said, are largely targeted toward Iraq’s diverse ethnic groups, including Turkmen, Shabaks, Christians, Yezidi, Sabaeans, Kaka’e, Faili Kurds, Arab Shi’a, and others.
“Armed groups claiming to be affiliated to or supporting the government also perpetrated targeted killings, including of captured fighters from ISIL and its associated armed groups, abductions of civilians, and other abuses,” the report says.
“When you have an outside patron in direct control and destruction, none of these institutions — the socio-economic political structures — were allowed to function, and you did not replace them with anything that’s tangible,” Ismael said.
“It really was the worst of what Iraq social, economic and psychological conditions can deal with, i.e. sectarianism.”
He said sectarianism became the base that brought the Sunni, Shiite and even Christian militias to the scene.
Iraqis are rejecting the system
“The state has no power. The state has no army. They merged the militias into the army. The same thing with the police. The same thing with the security,” Ismael said. “The future becomes basically an ugly competition between those who happen to have what I call militia mafias.”
Now, young Iraqis, like Nader, are publicly rejecting the current federal parliamentary system, which was imposed by the United States, and are rejecting the existence of militias, which are supporting different political leaders and representatives.
According to the United Nations, Iraq is considered one of the most youthful countries in the world, with nearly half of its population under the age of 21.
“We want the prime minister out, we want to get rid of the current parliamentary system, we want the end of sectarian laws,” said Nader.
The U.S. embassy has urged the Iraqi government to “engage seriously and urgently” with the demonstrators and condemned attacks on them.
However, Ismael said U.S. officials “don’t care” about what the protesters want.
“All they want is the oil, and the oil is being stolen and sold to them and their markets the way they want it so why worry about the Iraqis?” he said.
A recent Iraqi opinion poll showed a favorability rating for the United States at 22 per cent, which at least was higher than the Iranians, who were at 16 per cent.
The poll also noted, however, that nearly 43 per cent of Iraqis believe the United States influences Iraq in a significant way and that 53 per cent believe the 2003 invasion’s purpose was to “occupy Iraq and plunder its wealth,” as stated by The World Economic Forum.
“Iraq is now a colony of Iran”
Nader says he feels the death of Iraqis isn’t seen as important to the world so the situation is not getting as much attention compared to current protests in Lebanon.
“It has become normalized. In this area, it has become known that people die, and that normalization is a major problem,” Nader said.
He wants people to know that they are being killed by the militias, such as the Quds Force, and “a good portion of them are Iranian-connected,” according to Ismael.
According to The Iran Primer, a project by 50 of the world’s top scholars on Iran representing some 20 foreign policy think tanks, eight universities, and senior foreign policy officials from six U.S. administrations, the Quds Force is part of The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which was created after the 1979 revolution to enforce Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s concept of an Islamic state.
The Quds Force reportedly has some 15,000 personnel, according to the project. Currently, the appointed Quds Force Commander for Iraq is Major General Qassem Soleimani.
“It’s very important for Iran to have control of the Shiite crescent in the region. If you lose Iraq, literally, you lose everything else so for them, (it) is a survival issue. And they would not let go. Iraq — economically, socially and even politically — is an extension of Iran now. Iraq is now a colony of Iran,” said Ismael.
Sunnis and Shiites are both Muslims following different sects.
Ismael said he doesn’t see the current uprising succeeding.
“I feel it’s not going to be easy to undo whatever the U.S. occupation has done,” said Ismael. “These militias have the guns, and it’s unfortunate that these young people are becoming the fuel of the so-called sectarian operation (the Quds Force operation).”
But Nader doesn’t agree.
“We won’t give up. We really hope we are going to make a difference and at least say that we did something,” Nader said.
A young woman in Halifax also shares the same hope. Aseel Mohammad Ali, 28, immigrated to Canada five years ago. She says more than 20 people from her family in Iraq are currently protesting on the streets of Baghdad.
“I’m proud of them and I’m also very worried for them,” said Ali, who organized a protest in October in Halifax to raise awareness of the situation in Iraq.
“I want to bring Iraqis together here and I want to do something, to at least do a little bit so that I can feel like I’m doing something for my homeland, which I was forced to leave,” she said.
She has also created an Iraqi society and registered it with the Nova Scotia government. It now has five people as board members and is looking for more.
Ali hopes the society will help raise awareness and pressure the Canadian government to speak out and condemn what’s happening in Iraq.
“I see we, as Iraqis here, are divided,” Ali said. “We don’t have a community so we find that our voices are not being heard, and nobody seems to know who we are, our history.”
For Ali, the society would be a place of unity and peace — a reality for which many Iraqi youth are sacrificing their lives.