Year In Review: Iraq Fights On
By Mustafa Habib / Baghdad
NIQASH looks back at 2016 in Iraq. There were all of the usual: Political problems, protests, violence and fighting. Iraq’s various crises – political, security-related or economic – seemed to go one step toward some sort of resolution, before heading two steps backward.
But there were also lighter moments and times of hope, during which Iraqis distracted themselves from daily battles. On the whole the mood in the country is more hopeful this year, mostly due, one suspects, to the fact that pro-Iraqi forces have managed to win many fights against the extremist Islamic State group.
JANUARY: Anti-Saudi Protests
In early January, thousands of Iraqis took to the streets to demonstrate the execution of a Shiite Muslim Saudi cleric, Nimr al-Nimr. The protestors chanted anti-Saudi slogans and some Iraqi politicians called for the expulsion of Thamer al-Sabhan, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Iraq. The protests were organized by Iraq’s Shiite Muslim parties, many of which are affiliated with the Shiite Muslim volunteer militias involved in the fight against the IS group.
MARCH: Politics of Fashion
On March 12, the first fashion show to be held in Baghdad for almost three decades, took place. But in Iraq, a fashion show is more than just an outing to see some nice dresses. It is something of a gesture of protest, a sign that life goes on and that Iraqis in the capital city enjoy their culture as much as they ever did.
For the models who took to the runway, it was about even more than this. Getting on stage, let alone getting onstage dressed in what would be construed as immodest clothing in some conservative circles, is dangerous in Iraq.
Videos and pictures of the event were widely shared and mostly celebrated on Iraqi social media. The event was seen as a sign of hope for the future and as nostalgia for the past, when fashion shows were more common in the country’s cosmopolitan capital.
APRIL: Protestors Break into Parliament
On April 30, thousands of demonstrators managed to get into the heavily fortified Green Zone area of Baghdad, which houses Parliament as well as various ministries and the homes of senior politicians. Most of them were followers of the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and they were protesting political corruption, having already spent weeks in similar protests outside the Green Zone.
In a day that will be remembered by many ordinary Iraqis, the protestors took pictures of themselves inside the Parliament, sitting in the Speaker’s chair and relaxing in the gardens.
The Parliamentary Sofa
Following the demonstrations inside Parliament, some witty Iraqis launched a new campaign on social media. Called “The Parliamentary Sofa”, the campaign made a joke of the visit that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and the Speaker of the Parliament, Salim al-Jibouri, paid to government buildings after the protests. The politicians were checking out the damage done to the premises and one of the pieces of furniture they stopped by was a marked white couch.The Sofa campaigners made fun of the fact that the senior politicians appeared to care more about the broken sofa than they did about the many legitimate demands of the people.
MAY: Iranian Flags Fly in Basra
On May 6, some Iraqis in the southern Iraqi province of Basra toured the city in their cars, flying Iranian flags. This was ostensibly to thank the neighbouring nation for their help in the fight against the IS group. The outing led to recriminations, resentment and much debate though. Some Iraqis welcome Iranian influence in their country while many others oppose it.
The security crisis, which has seen Iranian-backed militias play an important role in the fight against the IS group and send senior military commanders into the country as consultants, has seen tensions between those who are pro-Iran and those who are anti, rise, both in political and military circles.
JUNE: Victory in Fallujah
June 17 this year marked a symbolic victory for Iraq’s pro-government forces against the IS group. Prime Minister al-Abadi announced that the city, which had been longest under the control of the IS group, had been “liberated”.
The end of IS control of Fallujah was not without controversy though. Various pro-government forces were accused of taking revenge on non-combatants fleeing the area and up until today, hundreds of locals who went missing during this period have not been heard from again.
JULY: A Day of Grief
On July 3, early in the afternoon, a car bomb exploded in the busy Karrada area of Baghdad. The explosion happened near a mall and caused a violent fire inside the shopping centre, which was busier than usual due to the annual Eid al-Fitr holiday: Around 300 people died in the attack.
Even for Iraq, which has seen much bloodshed, this was a major tragedy. The whole country mourned.
The site of the attack became a shrine as hundreds placed candles there.
AUGUST: Defence Minister Throws Political Dynamite
In a particularly dramatic session of the Iraqi Parliament in August, senior politicians traded accusations of corruption and wrong doing. The session was held in order to question the country’s Defence Minister Khaled al-Obeidi about alleged administrative and financial corruption. Instead of answering questions though, al-Obeidi made his own accusations, saying that the Speaker of the Parliament, Salim al-Jibouri and two other MPs, Mohammed al-Karbouli and Taleb al-Mimari, were guilty of corrupt practices.
Al-Obeidi said he was being accused because he had refused bribery and that al-Jibouri and the others had tried to blackmail him. Most of his accusations were in fact directed at those who had previously criticized him and that included both Sunni and Shiite MPs.
During the session MPs began to speak in an unusually open way and al-Obeidi was seen as a hero by many Iraqis. Unfortunately a deal behind closed doors eventually saw al-Obeidi removed from his job, effectively silencing him.
"Those who brought Iraq to where it is now have triumphed. I tried with everything to fight corruption but it appears that its masters are stronger, their voices louder and their actions more enduring,” Reuters reported al-Obeidi writing in a Facebook post after he lost his job.
OCTOBER: Goodbye to an Icon
In late October, Iraqis mourned playwright Youssef al-Ani, a pioneer of Iraqi and Arab drama. He used colloquial Iraqi speech in his plays and was known as a writer who prized the common man as a protagonist. Al-Ani died aged 89 in Jordan and when his body was returned to Iraq, a large funeral procession was organized in Baghdad.
Iraqi Football Champions
On October 2, a nation of football fans rejoiced. The Iraqi team had won the 2016 Asian Football Confederation’s Under-16 Championship. And they had beaten the Iranians in the finals, to do so.
Not in High Spirits
Later in October, Iraq’s parliamentarians decided that Iraqis should no longer be allowed to drink alcohol. A new law banned the import, manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages.
Despite being a Muslim country, plenty of Iraqis like an occasional beer and the law angered many, especially those religious minorities, such as the country’s Christians, who run liquor shops. There was much criticism of MP Mahmoud al-Hassan, the Shiite Muslim politician, who proposed the law.
Eventually Iraq’s president Fouad Masum came out against the alcohol ban and has suggested that the law be amended.
The Toughest Fight
In mid-October, the Iraqi government announced the beginning of a major campaign to re-take the northern city of Mosul from the IS group. Within a matter of weeks, Iraq’s elite counter-terrorism forces were able to enter the city and push the IS group out of several suburbs. However the ongoing fighting has been complicated by the number of civilians in the city and a state of urban warfare, where fighting takes place street by street.
After a positive beginning, the battle appears bogged down and senior commanders say it will take at least another few months to push the extremists out of the city they have controlled for over two years.
NOVEMBER: No Elections in 2017
On November 10, Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission, or IHEC, announced that provincial elections slated for April 2017 were to be postponed. The decision was made by senior politicians and it marks the first time Iraqi elections have been postponed like this. The decision was made because of the security crisis, IHEC said. For one thing, the IS group still controls parts of the country and voters in those areas would not be able to take part. For another, there are millions of displaced Iraqis who may not be able to vote.
The provincial elections, held to elect local councils, will now be held at the same time as the federal elections, in 2018.
A pan-Arab newspaper, Asharq Al-Awsat, caused a scandal in Iraq in late November when it published an article about unwanted “illegal” pregnancies that occurred every year when Shiite Muslim pilgrims visited the southern Iraqi city of Karbala. The article was allegedly based on a statement from the World Health Organisation. The uproar was such that the World Health Organisation eventually issued a statement saying they had never said any such thing and Asharq Al-Awsat was forced to retract the story.
Many Iraqi locals called upon the government to file a lawsuit against the Saudi-funded newspaper and force the closure of the paper’s Iraqi offices. Many Iraqi journalists working for Asharq Al-Awsat were also threatened.
DECEMBER: Girls On Bikes
In early December, a small group of women in Baghdad made big news by riding their bicycles around town. Women in more conservative Middle Eastern countries are not encouraged to ride bicycles; in some places, they are forbidden from doing so. Riding bicycles is seen by conservatives as an unseemly athletic pursuit that might allow males to catch sight of a woman’s legs or posterior.
But in Baghdad a group of young women launched a campaign on Facebook called “I am the society”; the bike riding around Baghdad, which has generated a lot of debate and controversy, was a way of launching the campaign for female rights.
Al-Maliki Kicked Out
On December 12, Iraq’s unpopular former prime minister, Nouri al- Maliki, visited cities in the southern parts of the country, including Maysan, Basra and Nasiriya. Thousands of protestors, many of them affiliated with the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, were waiting for him. Some even tried to attack him and would have, had security staff not intervened.
Al-Maliki, who is perceived by many to be at least partially responsible for the country’s current security crisis, has often stood in opposition to al-Sadr. The former is seen as having close ties to Iran whereas the latter says he wants Iraq for Iraqis, without external interference.
After the protests and attempted attacks, al-Maliki threatened al-Sadr – this is yet another indication of the schism within the Shiite Muslim political block.
Story by Mustafa Habib in Baghdad
Multi-media artwork by Veronica Manchego
Photo credits: Getty Images, YouTube, Facebook