An Iraqi protester gestures the v-sign during a demonstration against failing public services (File image) Image Credit: AFP

Slogans on posters are appearing all over Baghdad as a statement of intent from the young Iraqis whose street protests last fall rocked the Iraqi political system and brought down a prime minister, but failed to deliver the change they wanted. Now they are back. And this time, their best hope of success may be to throw in with the prime minister, rather than throw him out.

The protest movement, known as the October Revolution, was undermined — by violence and political perfidy as much as the coronavirus pandemic. Many protesters were killed, many by Iran-backed militias and others by Iraqi security forces.

Any remaining momentum was lost in the lockdowns imposed after covid-19 cases spiked in the spring. The resumption of the revolution was hindered by the hottest summer on record as well as the government’s inability to control the pandemic.

On Thursday, the protesters returned to the public square, determined to complete their movement’s unfinished business. Their demands remain unaltered: a thoroughgoing reform of the sectarian political system, an end to the endemic corruption that permeates the state, the cessation of foreign interference in the country’s affairs and perhaps most important, economic opportunity.

Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhimi’s chances of keeping his job — and his promises of political and economic reform — may hinge on his ability to co-opt the October Revolution, and use it to overcome resistance from politicians in Baghdad and the puppet-masters in Tehran.

The protesters and the prime minister need each other. Lacking both a leader and an armed cohort, the protest remains vulnerable to the machinations of politicians as well as the muscle of the Iran-backed militias. They may be suspicious of Kadhimi — he is a product of the political elite they despise — but the protesters need the protection.

Determined to preserve the current system

In turn, they can provide Kadhimi with a political shield against the forces behind the militias, or beholden to them, who are determined to preserve the current system of apportioning power along sectarian lines. Strong support from the protesters might give him just enough legitimacy to push through his agenda before elections next June.

He has to earn it, though. Kadhimi has made the right noises about the revolution. He has released some detained protesters. But he has not kept his promises to investigate the killing of protesters, to punish the perpetrators and pay compensation for their victims.

The resumption of the October protests give the prime minister a chance to demonstrate his sincerity. He should deploy his security forces to protect the protesters, and speed up investigations into the previous killings. He should then press parliament to pass the new electoral law designed to end the sectarian system. It was approved in principle late last year, but many details need to be ironed out. The election commission needs a budget, and the federal court that must validate results of the vote doesn’t yet have a quorum.

Kadhimi will need to persuade the protesters to give him more time to clean up the Iraqi government: The corruption is connected to the system of sectarian patronage; uprooting it will require the implementation of political reforms. Reviving the economy and creating the jobs that the protesters need will be harder still.

Bobby Ghosh is a noted opinion columnist