Corruption Iraq Political Reform
MENASource November 18, 2019

Explainer: Iraq’s autumn of discontent

By Christiana Haynes

Waves of protests have hit Iraq this past October and November, calling for the resignation of the post-war government and sweeping changes. Last month alone, there have been reports of hundreds of protesters killed and thousands wounded by security forces in clashes across the country, from Tahrir Square in Baghdad to cities like Diwaniyah, Najaf, and Nasiriya in the south. These protests snowballed into the biggest security challenge Iraq has faced since the removal of the Islamic State (ISIS) nearly two years ago.

These protests are directed at the political system, the exploitative class of elite leaders, and the growing Iranian influence seen directly in the powerful Iraqi Shia militias. Demands for change are the following:

  • Establish a new election law: to break up domination of entrenched political factions/parties, many of which are tied to Iran
  • Root out corruption and demand the government’s resignation: to remove the elite class of leaders accused of pillaging the country’s wealth while the country continues to grow poorer
  • Overhaul the judicial system: to ensure accountability and transparency is enforced
  • Improve job opportunities and basic services: to counter deteriorating living conditions and unemployment

Significant places and events

As an OPEC member with the fourth largest proven oil reserves in the world, Iraq still suffers from high unemployment and poor public services. The sectarian power-sharing government put in place after the US invasion in 2003 developed an entrenched political class despite regular elections. Currently, the government is dominated by the country’s Shia majority, and protesters have largely hailed from this sect as well.

Protests are backed by the influential, pro-Iranian Shia cleric, and political leader, Muqtada al-Sadr. He called upon the government to resign, which sparked further anti-Iranian sentiment among protesters. However, from the beginning of their movement, the protesters’ message has been clear: to no longer accept any current religious or political leadership. Additionally, with a Shia majority, this group of protesters has surprisingly harbored anti-Iranian sentiment, smacking their shoes against banners of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and chanting anti-Iranian slogans.

On the part of the Iraqi government, security forces have utilized live ammunition, rubber bullets, water cannons, and military-grade tear gas grenades in order to contain the protests and disperse demonstrators in certain areas. The international community has condemned the violent methods used by security forces. In addition to this, curfews have been placed in cities across the country, however this has done little to keep demonstrators from coming together.


Protests Begin
  • Anti-government peaceful protests start in Baghdad after a call for demonstrations on Facebook.
  • Authorities across the country impose curfews and cut access to the internet, plunging the country into an information blackout.
Violence begins
Violence begins
  • Unidentified snipers” kill four in Baghdad – later reports indicate that two are security forces and two are civilians, according to Al Jazeera.
  • In southern Iraq’s town of Diwaniyah, protesters storm the provincial council after violent clashes with security forces – protesters throw stones and security forces shoot live ammunition.
  • Iraqi security forces open fire on protesters in Baghdad.
  • Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar put out a travel advisory for Iraq.
Public statements
  • Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani backs the protests, urging security forces and protesters not to use violence along with criticizing Iraqi leaders for failing to eradicate corruption.
  • UN urges Iraq to investigate the use of force by anti-police in a rapid and transparent way.
  • Muqtada al-Sadr calls for the government to resign and a snap election to be held. Al-Sadr’s coalition had won the largest number of seats in the previous election held last year. He additionally urges members of parliament to boycott the emergency session scheduled for the next day.
  • Speaker of Parliament Mohamad al-Halbousi expresses support for the protesters’ demands.
Death toll at sixty-five
Gunmen storm media outlets
Gunmen storm media outlets
  • Unknown assailants attack the offices of several media outlets in Baghdad. Masked gunmen storm the offices, attack employees, and smash equipment before leaving.
  • Security forces block access to Tahrir Square despite the lifting of the government-imposed curfew that was imposed on October 3.
  • At least five protesters are shot and killed in demonstrations in four neighborhoods in Baghdad, according to the Associated Press. Across the city, the day’s death toll rises to fourteen as more clashes take place with security forces.
  • Mohamad al-Halbousi, meets with representatives of the protesters in an attempt to defuse the political crisis.
Death toll reaches ninety-nine
  • Protesters in Nasiriya set fire to two political party offices, receiving live ammunition responses by security forces.
  • In Diwaniyah, protesters march towards local government offices with no reports of violence.
  • A previously scheduled emergency session of parliament doesn’t take place, as a number of key politicians fail to show up. Three major blocs decide to boycott the session since they believe that the government doesn’t possess an agenda it can implement, rendering the session useless.
  • The death toll reaches ninety-nine, with nearly 4,000 wounded according to Iraq’s semi-official High Commission for Human Rights.
Attacks in Sadr City
Attacks in Sadr City
  • New clashes break out between demonstrators and security forces in Baghdad – live ammunition along with tear gas is utilized to disperse crowds in Sadr City, a suburb of Baghdad. Eight protesters are killed, and twenty-five are wounded.
  • Eight party buildings and fifty-one public and private institutions are set on fire during the protests, along with two police checkpoints
  • The government designates those killed as “martyrs,” granting their families special benefits.
Khamenei issues statement
Khamenei issues statement
  • Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Hosseini Khamenei declares in a tweet that “enemies” are trying to drive a wedge between Iran and Iraq amid the unrest.
President Salih issues statement
  • In a televised speech, Iraqi President Barham Salih condemns the attacks on protesters and the media, urging the security forces to preserve Iraqi rights. He additionally calls for ministerial changes and urges parliament to enact reforms, including electoral changes, to address the protesters’ demands. He also states that compensation should be given to those who have been affected by this week’s violence. “The right to protest and freedom of expression are guaranteed by the constitution,” he says.
  • Sadr City saw 200 protesters take to the streets demanding job opportunities and denouncing the killing of demonstrators the night before. At least eight people are killed in clashes with security forces, with scores wounded.
  • Iraq’s military admits to the usage of “excessive force” against protesters in Baghdad and other cities in the south.
Death toll at 109
  • The Iranian government urges the Iraqi government to “preserve unity, show restraint.”
  • The paramilitary force Hashd al-Shaabi is declared ready to implement government orders to prevent a “coup d’etat or a rebellion.”
  • The death toll rises to 109
Abdul Mahdi issues reform plan
  • US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urges Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi to exercise “maximum restraint” over the protests, along with addressing the grievances of the protesters. Pompeo states that those who had “violated human rights should be held accountable.”
  • Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi issues a thirteen-point reform plan centered on subsidies and housing for the poor, along with training and educational initiatives for unemployed youth.
  • Iraq’s parliament holds its first session after the wave of protests – there is a belief that this is the end of unrest and that life has “returned to normal” after a week of protests.
Last day of first wave of protests
Last day of first wave of protests
  • The head of Iraq’s state grain agency is replaced – this is linked to the protests over grievances towards living conditions.
  • The fortified Green Zone in Baghdad reopens. The first wave of protests ends.
150 dead, Abdul Mahdi announces mourning period
  • Iraqi Prime Minister announces three days of mourning for protesters that have been killed. At least 150 people have been killed with more than 6,000 wounded across the country since security forces have cracked down on protesters.
  • Access to social media sites remains restricted, as internet access in Iraq had been limited for a week. Transparency of the crisis and press coverage has been greatly impacted.
Sistani condemns lack of discipline
  • Iraq’s top Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani gives the Iraqi government two weeks to find out which “undisciplined elements” had used snipers to attack protesters.
Cabinet approves construction projects
  • In a weekly meeting, the Cabinet approves the project of installing two desalination plants in Basra, creating jobs for post-graduate degree holders. Additionally, the Cabinet discusses other policies on employment, housing, and transportation.
Cabinet attempts to address demands
  • In a weekly meeting, the Cabinet approves measures and funding to support the construction of low-cost housing units in order to meet demands made by protesters.
  • Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi attends a meeting at Al-Salam Palace in Baghdad along with President Salih and other high-level government officials to discuss the political and security developments following the recent protests and the martyrdom and injury of civilians and security force members. In the meeting they agree to establish a panel to address the weaknesses of the state system, expediate the release of all detained protesters who have not been charged with criminal offenses, ensure that the work of the Commission of Inquiry into cases of violence and excessive force is independent, and refer all cases of corruption to the courts.
Salih addresses anti-protester violence
  • President Barham Salih addresses the nation via Twitter in opposition to the violence against protesters
Government announces job initiatives
  • The Iraqi government announces new initiatives to create jobs and conduct training courses in an attempt to meet the demands of protesters. Additionally, the government drafts an amendment to the law pertaining to income taxes, exempting several low-income groups from paying.
Abdul Mahdi promises right to nonviolent protests
  • Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi gives a televised speech promising the right to demonstrate, stressing that violence would not be tolerated.
Renewed protests
  • Protests begin again in Baghdad and the provinces of Basra, Maysan, Dhi Qar, and Muthanna – all located in the south. Demonstrations start up again due to failure by officials to address the protesters demands.
  • Death toll for the new wave of protests at thirty with more than 2,000 wounded.
Emergency Parliamentary session
  • Parliament holds an emergency session to discuss the resumption of deadly demonstrations.
  • Protests continue around Tahrir Square where security forces attempt to clear protesters for the emergency session, firing tear gas, and stun grenades for dispersal.
  • Death toll reaches forty-two with more than 2,300 wounded.
Death toll from second wave of protests hits sixty-three
Death toll from second wave of protests hits sixty-three
  • Thousands of students from universities and secondary schools skip classes and join the protests in Tahrir Square.
  • Death toll reaches sixty-three since the start of the new wave of protests on October 25.
Violence escalates
  • Iraqi security officials state that two rockets have been fired into Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, killing one Iraqi soldier. A soldier manning a checkpoint near a restaurant is also killed. At least one of the Katyusha rockets fired lands about 100 meters from the US Embassy.
  • Tear gas canisters are fired by security forces at protesters in the vicinity of Tahrir Square. Sixty protesters are wounded in scuffles with security forces.
  • Demonstrators in Umm Qasr block access to the port, preventing trucks from entering or exiting the facility, halting operations in shipping lanes. Reports state that protesters view the port’s revenue as being diverted away from the city, leaving the people there with poor basic services.
  • In a weekly meeting, the Cabinet meets to approve lowering the retirement age of public service employees, creating room for more jobs in this sector.
Salih calls for reforms, says Abdul Mahdi willing to resign
  • Iraqi President Barham Salih calls for the drafting of a new election law and states that he would approve early elections once it’s enacted. This new election law would break up the domination of entrenched political factions, many of which are tied to Iran. He goes on to state that Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi is prepared to resign once political leaders agree on a replacement. “The current status quo is no longer sustainable,” he said, calling for wide-ranging reforms.
  • Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blames the United States and its allies for spreading “insecurity and turmoil” in Iraq and Lebanon. Khamenei urges anti-government protesters to seek changes in a lawful way.
  • Demonstrators clash with security forces on a second bridge (Sanak Bridge) leading to the Green Zone, with at least one killed and 60 wounded.
Sistani’s sermon denigrates foreign involvement
  • Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani gives his weekly sermon, stating that “no person or group, no side with a particular view, no regional or international actor may seize the will of the Iraqi people and impose its will on them.”
Umm Qasr at standstill
  • Protesters continue to block access to Umm Qasr port with concrete blocks and burning tires. Operations at the port are at a standstill, with the port receiving the bulk of Iraq’s imports of grain, vegetable oils and sugar.
  • Clashes between security forces and protesters leave 120 people injured, according to Iraq’s semi-official human rights commission.
Protesters attack Iranian consulate
  • Dozens of protesters attack the Iranian consulate in Karbala, scaling the concrete barriers and bringing down the Iranian flag to replace it with the Iraqi one. Security forces fired in the air along with tear gas to disperse protesters who threw stones and burned tires around the building.
  • Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi calls for markets, factories, schools, and universities to reopen and operate normally. He additionally states that “outlaws” are using peaceful protesters as human shields to attack the security forces.
Mass arrests
  • Thirteen protesters are shot dead by security forces in Baghdad, Umm Qasr, and Shatra. Tear gas was also fired at protesters to disperse demonstrations. Protesters seize an armored vehicle.
  • Protesters attempt to take Ahrar Bridge in Baghdad. Security forces violently clear demonstrators from three major bridges.
  • Security forces start arresting protesters en masse.
More protesters killed
  • Basra imposes a 10 pm curfew in an attempt to disperse the sit-in.
  • In Shatra, two of the thirteen total killed were attempting to attack the house of a senior government official.
  • Two protesters are killed and dozens wounded at the port in Umm Qasr.
Protests dispersed at Shuhada Bridge
  • Protesters block Shuhada Bridge in Baghdad in an attempt to bring the country to a standstill. Security forces shoot dead at least thirteen protesters.
  • Security forces deploy a sound bomb near an unidentified bridge to disperse protesters – no casualties have been reported.
  • Iraqi authorities cut off internet access for most of Baghdad and restore it later that afternoon, with social media and messaging applications still blocked or degraded.
  • In a weekly meeting, the Cabinet decides to grant numerous ministries projects to create jobs, among other reforms.
Demonstrations block fuel tankers
Demonstrations block fuel tankers
  • Protesters block the entrance to the Nasiriya oil refinery, specifically blocking tankers that transport fuel to gas stations from entering the refinery, which has caused fuel shortages across Dhi Qar province.
  • In Basra, protesters block and expel employees from an oil-storage warehouse.
  • In Baghdad, security forces fire tear gas and live rounds into the air to disperse protesters on three of the capital’s main bridges – Ahrar, Shuhada, and Bab al-Muatham – which have become focal points of the protests. At least three people are killed and seventeen others are injured.
Arrest warrants issued
  • Four people die from injuries sustained at earlier protests over the past week.
  • Protests continue in Najaf.
  • Arrest warrants arrive from Baghdad to all provinces to arrest protest organizers.
Protests continue at Umm Qasr
Protests continue at Umm Qasr
  • Security forces shoot dead at least six protesters in Baghdad, according to police and medical sources. Another thirty-eight people are wounded near Shuhada Bridge, as demonstrations continue for the thirteenth straight day in the capital.
  • According to port officials in Umm Qasr, protesters re-block the entrance and prevent trucks from transporting food imports after briefly allowing entrance for a few hours.
Internet outages spread, Nasiriyah operations resume
  • Internet outages begin to hit the private sector, with private banks in Iraq recording losses of some $16 million per day since the internet was shut down on October 3.
  • Operations at the Nasiriya oil refinery resume, with oil production and exports not significantly affected, according to oil ministry officials. However, the halting of fuel tankers has created a fuel shortage across the Iraqi province of Dhi Qar.
Sistani assert violence the security forces’ responsibility
Sistani assert violence the security forces’ responsibility
  • Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani gives his weekly Friday sermon, stating that it is the responsibility of the security forces to ensure that protests are peaceful and avoid using excessive force against the demonstrators.
Abdul Mahdi suggests plans for government reshuffle
  • Security forces in Baghdad kill six protesters and wound more than 100 others, pushing the demonstrators back from three major bridges, according to medical and security officials.
  • In Basra, three protesters are killed and at least ten are wounded in clashes with security forces.
  • Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi states in a televised speech that “we consider the peaceful protests of our people as among the most important events since 2003,” calling to meet the protesters demands. He additionally states that the electoral reforms were to be put forward soon along with “an important government reshuffle.”
United Nations Assistance Mission proposes roadmap
  • Security forces shoot at least three protesters dead in Nasiriya after gathering on a bridge in the city, according to police and medics. More than 100 people were wounded in the clashes, along with at least thirty-four arbitrarily arrested.
  • Tear gas was fired on demonstrators in Baghdad, wounding twenty.
  • The United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq proposes a roadmap out of the country’s social upheaval. The roadmap urges politicians to chart a way forward, laying out a series of reforms and anti-corruption measures. Additionally, it calls for the release of all peaceful demonstrators that have been detained since October 1.
Total death toll reported at 319
  • The Iraqi Human Rights Commission releases a new report stating that at least 319 protesters have been killed in clashes with security forces since October 1.
  • The White House issues a statement calling for a halt to the violence against protesters.
Sistani supports UN roadmap
Sistani supports UN roadmap
  • Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani supports the UN roadmap, stating that a “new approach” was needed in order to end the protests.
  • At least twelve protesters are wounded in new confrontations with security forces around Baghdad’s Khilani Square, being hit by tear gas cannisters.
Abdul Mahdi and Salih promise to draft electoral reform
Abdul Mahdi and Salih promise to draft electoral reform
  • Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi attends a meeting at the Al-Salam Palace in Baghdad with President Salih and other high-ranking officials to discuss the ongoing protests and address the demands expressed by the protesters. By the end of the meeting they agree to continue investigating cases of corruption and prosecute the accused, in addition to drafting a new electoral law and establishing a national dialogue to review Iraq’s governance and constitution.
Police push protesters into city center
  • At least four protesters are killed in Baghdad, as security forces sought to push them back to their main camp in the center of the city, according to police and medics.
Five killed in Baghdad
  • Three are killed in Baghdad after security forces fire live ammunition in renewed clashes.
  • A bomb placed under a car in central Baghdad kills two more protesters and wounds many others, occurring between Tahrir Square and Tayaran Square.
  • Protesters attempt to take down a concrete barrier wall that was placed to block access to Khilani Square.
  • Tuk tuk drivers continue to ferry injured back and forth from the protests to hospitals.
  • Death toll rises to 320.
Protesters regain control of Khilani Square
  • Protesters inch closer to taking the Green Zone after taking control of Khilani Square in Baghdad, where security forces fall back to part of Sinak Bridge.
  • An activist involved in the protests is shot dead.
Protesters block port in Basra
  • Protesters block the entrance to the Khor al-Zubair commodities port near Basra, preventing trucks from entering.
  • US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo states that the United States is willing to sanction any Iraqi leaders found to be corrupt as well as responsible for the deaths and wounding of peaceful protesters.
Khor al-Zubair reopens
  • Roads to Khor al-Zubair, Iraq’s second-largest port, reopen by protesters, allowing trucks with oil products to filter into the country.
  • At least twenty-seven protesters are wounded by tear gas canisters in additional clashes with security forces in Baghdad near Ahrar Bridge.
More protesters killed in Baghdad
  • Four protesters are killed in Baghdad along with forty-eight wounded as security forces shoot live ammunition and tear gas canisters.
  • One protester is killed at Sinak Bridge and one near Ahrar Bridge.
  • Protesters continue to hold ground in central Baghdad in Tahrir Square.
US Vice President calls for restraint
  • U.S. Vice President Mike Pence visits Irbil, calling on the Iraqi government to exercise restraint with the protesters in the southern part of the country.
  • Iraqi Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi declines to visit Vice President Pence at the US al-Asad Air Base in Irbil.
Government official releases death toll
  • Security forces kill nine protesters and wound dozens of others in Baghdad and other cities, according to police and medical sources.
  • A government official releases an official death toll of 111 since October 25, the first government figure since that date.
  • Death toll rises to 339 total deaths thus far.
“One of the worst” days since October 1
  • Protesters burn tires and block major roads in Basra, receiving live ammunition by security forces after clashes.
  • Thirteen protesters are killed, being deemed by a local government official as “one of the worst” days since the start of the protests back on October 1.
  • In Baghdad, protesters continue to occupy Ahrar, Jumhuriya, and Sinar bridges in continuing clashes with security forces.
  • Protesters block key thoroughfares and bridges in Nasiriya after setting fire to the city’s Shia Endowment building, which is in charge of mosque administration.
Three explosions leave six dead
  • According to medical and security sources, six people are killed and fifteen others are wounded in three separate explosions in Baghdad. The first two explosions involve motorcycles, with the third explosion being a detonated IED. No immediate claim of responsibility is made.
Protesters burn down Iranian consulate
  • In Najaf, protesters burn down the Iranian consulate building, with one protester killed and thirty-five others injured in clashes with security forces.
  • Local authorities impose a curfew on the southern town, after Iranian consulate workers escape the building unharmed.
Iraqi Parliament approves PM’s resignation
Iraqi prime minister's resignation, Adil Abdul-Mahdi
  • Iraq’s parliament votes to accept the resignation of Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi.
Pope condemns attacks on protesters
  • Pope Francis criticizes Iraq’s crackdown on anti-government protests and professes a desire to visit Iraq in the coming year.

What is the future outlook for Iraq?

Changes have already been made in the aftermath of these waves of protests, such as the resignation announcement of Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abd al-Mahdi along with the declaration by President Barham Salih to draft a new election law, with early elections to be planned once enacted. Further responses by the government and parliament have been to reshuffle posts and promise public sector jobs to fix the unemployment crisis. The ongoing demands of the protesters have been a long time coming, creating a social movement that is focused not only on changing the government, but the system itself.

Christiana Haynes is an intern with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East programs and a Master’s Candidate in Middle East Studies at The George Washington University.

Adam Aluzri supported in building the timeline function.

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Image: School students chant slogans as they take part in a protest over corruption, lack of jobs, and poor services, near the Governorate building in Basra, Iraq, October 28, 2019. REUTERS/Essam al-Sudani