Travel Risk Analysis: Protests Continue as Rocket Hits International Zone in Iraq

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  • Anti-government protests have continued in Baghdad as protesters rallied near the International Zone (IZ).
  • A rocket landed in the IZ on 30 October, near the US Embassy killing an Iraqi soldier

  • PM Abdul Mahdi is under increasing pressure to resign as leaders of top parliamentary blocs work together to force his removal

  • Even if Abdul Mahdi resigns, unrest is likely to continue as protestors have been calling for an overhaul of the entire governing system

  • Expect elevated security in Baghdad and other urban city centres in the coming days as protests persist. Further clashes between protestors and security forces are a high probability 

Details about the protests

Anti-government protests have continued, with thousands of people rallying in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square on Wednesday, 30 October. Protesters blocked traffic near Jumhuriya Bridge, which leads to the International Zone (IZ) where many Iraqi government offices, including the prime minister’s offices and the Parliament building, are located. Security forces have fired tear gas at protestors who have tried to break through to the heavily fortified IZ.

Meanwhile, a rocket landed in the IZ on Wednesday night, just outside the Babylon restaurant. The restaurant is located on the same road as the United States Embassy, but outside its perimeter and the Katyusha rockets triggered alert sirens at the embassy. One Iraqi soldier who was manning a checkpoint near the restaurant was killed in the attack, and another was injured. On 28 October, three rockets hit near a large military base north of Baghdad that houses U.S. and Iraqi forces. No casualties were reported from that attack.

There’s growing unease as protestors continue to defy curfews

The rocket attacks have led to growing unease as anti-government unrest has been ongoing since 25 October, following a three-week hiatus. Students and schoolchildren have joined the protests in Baghdad and across the south, while trade unions representing teachers, lawyers and dentists have all declared strikes lasting several days. Attendance levels for protests are estimated to be in the thousands. Protesters have also defied a night-time curfew that was declared on the evening of 28 October in Baghdad from 0000hrs to 0600hrs local time. Further curfews have been implemented in Babil, Basra, Dhi Qar, Karbala, Maysan, Muthana and Wasit provinces.

The Iraqi security forces have continued to respond forcefully to the protesters, using tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition in a bid to break up the rallies. Iraq’s semi-official human rights commission said 100 people have been killed and over 5,000 injured since 25 October, when protests resumed. The deaths bring the overall toll to nearly 250 this month as security forces crackdown on the growing protest movement. Much of the recent violence has occurred in the southern city of Karbala, where at least 18 people were killed on 29 October when masked gunmen opened fire at anti-government protesters. Karbala’s governor, Naseef al-Khitaby, has since denied the incident occurred.

The Prime Minister is under increasing pressure

Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has come under increasing pressure as the protests have grown and activists have defied security force crackdowns. Protesters initially sought better services from the government like water and electricity, as well as jobs. However, as the demonstrations have gone on, the demands have become more far-reaching. Protests began to call for Mahdi’s resignation after his mishandling of nationwide protests that began on 1 October, which his government first sought to repress with violence. Following the deaths of 150 people and injury of thousands, the government finally tried to meet some of the protesters’ demands. On 22 October, the government announced that it would fire and even prosecute a dozen senior military and police commanders for using excessive force. However, attempts to appease protesters have been widely deemed too little, too late.

A PM resignation is probable, though protestors will continue demands for overhaul 

There is a high likelihood that Abdul Mahdi will resign in the coming days. On 29 October, Abdul Mahdi said he would be willing to resign and call early elections, but that it was up to parliament to make this call. He reportedly urged powerful Shiite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, who heads the largest bloc in parliament, and Hadi Al-Amiri, the leader of the second largest party, to agree to have a new government. Al-Sadr has demanded Abdul Mahdi’s resignation repeatedly since the protests began, calling for early elections that would be supervised by the United Nations and that might lead to an overhaul in the Iraqi system of government. Al-Amiri has said he supports working with al-Sadr to stabilise the current political situation, although it is unclear if al-Amiri supports al-Sadr’s call to remove Abdul Mahdi and hold early elections. Al-Sadr will require the support of other blocs to bring forward a confidence vote against the PM, and the ability of the rivals to come to an agreement on a strategy will be key to moving forward in the coming days.

However, even if Abul Mahdi does resign, it is unlikely that the protests will abate. Indeed, many protesters have set their sights on further concessions. They want to change the country’s entire system of governance. Many protesters claim their goal is “thawra” — the Arabic world for revolution, and have denounced the 2005 constitution as being out of date. Protesters want the ability to vote directly for the Iraqi president and many want to abolish altogether the power-sharing arrangement. These lofty demands will be difficult to navigate – there is no precedent for the resignation of a prime minister and there has been almost no public discussion about what it would involve to make the structural changes to Iraq’s government that are being demanded by protesters.

Expect heightened security in the coming days

Protests and a heightened security forces presence are likely to continue in Baghdad and other urban centers in the coming days. There is a high likelihood for additional clashes to occur between protesters and security forces, posing risks of exposure to incidental violence. Subsequently overland movement may become difficult across Baghdad and some other urban centres. Access to telecommunications may also be restricted as the government expands its crackdown. While the ire of the protesters has been largely focused on the government, there is a risk of foreign interests being caught up in the unrest, especially as al-Sadr has accused Iraq’s top politicians of being under the influence of foreign powers – namely Iran and the United States. Should sustained, violent unrest continue into the coming days, there is a realistic possibility that the viability of Abdul-Mahdi’s government will be at risk.

Escalatory points to monitor

  • Enhanced crackdowns and increased use of force by security personnel resulting in sharp rise in fatalities, e.g. over 100 deaths in a day
  • Shortages of basic goods
  • Sustained disruption to telecommunications and Internet
  • Infiltration of protesters by hardline actors
  • Involvement of tribal or factional armed groups in the unrest
  • Increased clashes between political parties and armed groups
  • Attempts by protesters to block roads leading to major oil fields
  • Attacks against diplomatic missions and/or foreign interests
  • Political parties withdrawing from parliament or disavowing Abdul Mahdi
  • Resignation of Abdul Mahdi as prime minister
  • Declaration of a state of emergency
  • Embassies withdrawing staff and issuing enhanced advice