The Sunday Magazine

'Iraq for Iraqis': After decades of corruption, occupation and proxy wars, young Iraqis demand a new future

Seventeen years after the U.S.-led invasion that ended Saddam Hussein's regime, peace, prosperity, stability or good government still have yet to come to the Iraqi people. And now they find themselves in the middle of the US-Iran conflict. Yanar Mohammed is an Iraqi-Canadian feminist who was in the thick of anti-government protests that filled Baghdad's streets last year, and she knows well the fears, frustrations and hopes of Iraqis as they nervously await Iran's and the U.S.'s next moves.
Iraqi demonstrators wave their country's national flags during ongoing anti-government demonstrations at Tahrir Square in the capital Baghdad, on October 30, 2019. (Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP via Getty Images)

For months, Baghdad's Tahrir Square has been the site of an existential fight over the future of Iraq. Protestors have jammed the square in the hundreds of thousands, rallying around slogans like "There is no homeland" and "We want a nation."

The government has responded to these protests with brute force, killing more than 500 people and injuring more than 19,000. 

Most of the protestors are young — the first generation to grow up in a post-Saddam Iraq, after he was deposed in 2003 in the U.S.-led invasion. Their country has been occupied by U.S. forces and terrorist organizations like ISIS. And it's been used as a chessboard for proxy wars between outside powers, most notably the U.S. and Iran. 

Now, in the wake of the assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani on Iraqi soil — and the escalating tensions between the U.S. and Iran — Iraqis fear being caught in the crossfire yet again.

Yanar Mohammed is an Iraqi-Canadian feminist and founded the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq in Baghdad in 2003. (UN Women/Ryan Brown)

Yanar Mohammed knows those fears well. She was a regular at the Tahrir Square protests in Baghdad throughout the fall — until recently, when she learned that she's been put on a blacklist by militias who patrol the square. 

Mohammed is an Iraqi-Canadian feminist and founded the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq in Baghdad in 2003. Here are some highlights from her conversation with The Sunday Edition's Michael Enright. Mohammed's comments have been edited for clarity and condensed.

What is daily life like in Baghdad, or in the rest of the country, for these young people who are demonstrating?

You would have one person from your family having a governmental employment, which gives a salary which is not enough to support your family. You, as a young man, you are applying for jobs that are non-existent. So you are a young man or a young woman who is striving to build their lives and there is no way that you can put food on the table.

Iraq has had a very tough history in the past decades. I was born in 1960 so I had free education. I was able to get a job very easily and I was able to buy a house and have a small family. But after that came the economic sanctions, which the U.S. and the U.N. put on Iraq. Ten years of extreme poverty for everybody. And after that came the invasion, which again started an era of poverty for Iraqi people — but not for all. There is wealth for the one per cent, who have connected their interests to the government under occupation, and most of those have become connected to the Islamic Republic of Iran.

As I understand it, in the demonstrations there are Shia alongside the Sunni. Is that right?

When you look at the square and you speak to people, you cannot tell what their sect is. You see that all of them are raising the same slogans and some of them have added slogans saying that we will not let sectarian differences divide us from each other. So the uprising is totally against sectarian differences and those identities.

You would be surprised that 90 per cent of the uprising is from the Shia and that is the people whose representatives should be running the government and who are from the same sect that Iran comes from.

On their IDs they are Shia, but in reality these are citizens who have rights that have been denied to them since 2003. And they are saying enough is enough. 

Yanar Mohammed won the Gruber Foundation Women's Rights Prize in 2008 and in 2018. She was listed as one of the BBC's top 100 inspiring and influential women from around the world. (UN Photo/Amanda Voisard)

Last month Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi resigned. But he stayed on as a kind of caretaker. Who, if anybody, is going to replace him and will that person simply carry on the old policies?

The resignation was a major victory for the uprising. It was almost about to be followed by the resignation of President Barham Salih. But Donald Trump on this side of the world was going into a dire situation, not knowing what to do with his impeachment. At the same time, Adel Abdul-Mahdi was also in a bad situation. So the strike and death of Qassem Soleimani was a convenient event for both of them.

Trump spoke as if he was saving everybody from a major terrorist. At the same time, Abdul-Mahdi's resignation was tabled and nobody spoke about it anymore. 

But the prime minister needed to explain why there was such a violation of the country's sovereignty on his watch. Abdul-Mahdi began to sound like a credible prime minister while Donald Trump began to sound like a credible president who got rid of terrorists. So this was really convenient for both of them.

The parliament has passed a resolution saying that the American forces have to leave. Is there a fear that if foreign troops leave, ISIS will regroup and once again become a power to be dealt with?

There are two issues when we're talking about foreign troops leaving. First is the fear of ISIS taking over the western side of the country again. Second, and more important for the Iraqi people, is if the Iraqi government has taken a resolution that foreign troops should leave and those troops answer back, "No, we're not leaving," is this a sovereign country? Is this a democratic country? 

That's the core of the problem, isn't it? You're trapped between Iran and the United States, getting squeezed from both ends.

And we believe that we will fight both state terrorisms until we get the country back and make it for Iraqis, about Iraqis, and keep our resources for ourselves. And it's about time.

In the end, what are the priorities for Iraqi people? What do they want?

We want a real democracy based on the councils of revolutionaries that have gathered in Tahrir Square, in Haboubi Square in Nasiriya, in the squares in Basra and other cities. We want an international community that supports the will of the Iraqi people to have a new kind of a government — one that is not connected to Iran and one that is not ruled by the U.S.

Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.


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