October 14, 2019

Clashes between security forces and protesters at demonstrations in Iraq have killed more than 100 people and injured thousands since Oct. 1. Protests are motivated by anti-government sentiment derived from ill-governance, corruption, and high unemployment rates. Increased security measures and localized transportation and commercial disruptions are likely in areas that experience high levels of protest activity.

Additional demonstrations are possible in the coming days unless the government meets the demands of the protesters and institutes a series of political, social, and economic reforms. Authorities may restrict communications, including Internet access, to prevent activists from mobilizing and the demonstrations from spreading. The government has announced some reforms, but the protesters now demand that the administration of Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, who was sworn into office less than a year ago, resign. Militant groups operating in Iraq may exploit the country’s social instability to carry out attacks. 


Cause of Unrest in Iraq

On Sept. 27, Abdul-Mahdi removed Lt. Gen. Abdul-Wahab Al-Saadi as the commander of the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service (ICTS) and demoted him to a role in the Ministry of Defence. The decision to dismiss Al-Saadi angered many Iraqis who credit him with the territorial defeat of the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq in 2017. Al-Saadi is a widely respected military officer who grew in popularity because of his efforts to fight corruption with the ICTS. Al-Saadi has called Abdul-Mahdi's decision humiliating and initially stated that he would not accept the new appointment at the Ministry of Defence, though he later accepted the position. Many Iraqis view the reassignment as politically motivated and believe the prime minister made it at the behest of the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) due to Al-Saadi's apparent close ties with the US.

Al-Saadi’s reassignment catalyzed the nationwide demonstrations. However, once people had been mobilized, their focus shifted to the widespread corruption, unemployment, and poor public services in the country. Iraq is among the world’s top oil producers, but many Iraqis still live in poverty and have yet to feel the economic benefits of oil production. Poor public services have resulted in sporadic access to basic necessities such as water and electricity. Protests soon engulfed major cities in central and south Iraq, including Baghdad, Basra, Nasiriyah, Amara, Nahaf, and Hillah. The demonstrations appear to have grown spontaneously and organically; there appears to be no singular organization or leader associated with the demonstrations.

What is particularly of note is that these protests are not sectarian in nature. Past demonstrations in Baghdad and elsewhere in the country have involved Sunnis who demonstrated against a Shi'a government that they perceived was discriminatory and unjust. However, the recent protests involve Iraqis from all walks of life and from all religions, including Christianity. The secular nature of the demonstrations has added to their weight and appeal.


Government’s Response to the Civil Unrest

Following days of violent protests, the government appears to have realized that the heavy-handed tactics and measures it employed to quell the protests have brought about a swift response in the form of bigger demonstrations from the protesters. On Oct. 7, the government admitted to having used excessive force during the recent demonstrations. It said it would investigate the perpetrators of the recent bouts of violence and bring to account security personnel who violated rules of engagement. The government has also pledged to bring about a generous welfare program that would focus on housing, jobs, and a three-month stipend for the unemployed. Additionally, the government ordered a reshuffle of the cabinet and declared three days of national mourning in recognition of the Iraqis who were killed, Oct. 10. Throughout the past few years, the government has utilized a combination of piecemeal concessions and violent suppression of protests to quell unrest and maintain control. The result has been a preservation of Iraq’s ruling class and a continuation of corruption.


Continued Demonstrations Raise Concerns About the Possibility of Terror Attacks

Militant groups, including IS and al-Qaeda, continue to plan operations against security forces, civilians, and foreigners in Iraq. Despite the territorial defeat of IS in 2017, militants affiliated with IS maintain the ability to conduct lethal attacks across the country. These attacks primarily consist of targeted hit and runs, armed attacks, and assassinations. If the current anti-government demonstrations persist, it is possible that militant groups operating within Iraq will exploit the deteriorating security situation to carry out additional attacks.


Risk Mitigation Measures

Severe civil unrest can significantly disrupt your organization. Civil unrest in Iraq does not usually harm foreign visitors or expatriates unless they work at, patronize, or support the direct cause of the unrest, it is important to ensure your people understand their personal security risks and the security threats associated with civil unrest.

  • If someone in your organization has a trip planned, review the trip brief for that country and share the information with your people.
  • Provide intelligence about possible demonstrations or protests so your people can avoid the situation.
  • Remind employees how to access support services, such as a dedicate company hotline, if they find themselves in a potentially dangerous situation.
  • Heed the advice provided by local law enforcement.

For more personal safety tips during civil unrest, check out, “Tips for Reducing Your Vulnerability in the Event of Civil Unrest.” Learn more about WorldAware’s risk intelligence platform and hotline services to help you with decision support for your employees and to provide the appropriate duty of care measures for your employees.


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