The largest civil protests in Iraq’s history began on October 1 and are poised to enter their third month with no sign of slowing down. Hundreds of thousands in cities and in the provinces have poured into the streets, often risking their lives to demand the complete dismantling of the current government. In their extraordinary scale and fervor, the protests might suggest a new Arab Spring. But to see them solely as a movement for political reform—as the small number of Western media reports have framed them—is to miss the point. The protesters’ rallying cry—“We Want a Country”—is, first and foremost, a demand by Iraq’s youth for a sustainable future. Their protests are at the vanguard of global climate change activism.
Those leading the protests represent the majority in a country of forty million where the median age is twenty. As their generation was learning to walk, American and American-trained soldiers manned the roads all around them, poised to shoot if passersby failed to properly stop at a crossing. The private spaces of their homes were invaded by military searches all the time, without warning, day or night. Marked by checkpoints and concrete blast walls, their public spaces—restaurants, schools, parks, hospitals—were subject to the spontaneous terror of abductions and car bombs that dominated post-invasion life. They are the children of the wars for oil extraction waged on their land, a toll imposed on their maturing bodies.
Now, this generation is seizing the places it has been denied with inexhaustible resourcefulness. Brigades of protesters and their supporters have occupied city centers, but they have also taken to cooking, cleaning the streets, and making extensive civic repairs to long-neglected urban infrastructure. There are new murals everywhere, evoking Iraq’s deep history and chronicling events of the resistance. A newly minted publication, Tuk Tuk (named for the modest auto-rickshaws whose drivers have become celebrated first responders for the injured), reports on the revolution and its demands, alongside banners unfurled from rooftops, music videos edited in real time, and short films distributed online. These efforts continue, despite the onslaught of military-grade tear gas and live fire from security forces, who have killed nearly four hundred citizens in sixty days. But Iraq’s exploitation has been so total that fear no longer has any purchase with a generation that has nothing left to lose. There is no pretense of democracy to believe in; no shared wealth to seduce them into complacency; and almost no soil, air, or water left for them to survive.
Vast stretches of earth, once rich with vegetation and wildlife, are now barren. Running cracks fragment sun-hardened dirt for hundreds of miles. Increasingly severe dust storms and triple-digit temperatures routinely consume the cities and towns that remain. Electricity is scarce; there are no working fans, air filters, or air conditioners. Water, when available, is often contaminated, but still ingested regularly despite the risks. Warfare is endless: both regular and irregular forces strafe civilian zones with bullets, grenades, and more dangerous munitions; militias abduct and kill with abandon; there are no authorities of use to turn to; citizenship offers no protections. Millions of people endure as fortunes are extracted from what remains of the land; the few who reap these fortunes are protected from the heat, the violence, and the majority of the population inside privately secured compounds.
These are the conditions behind the full-scale insurrection against the status quo. In its fourth decade of war, amid exploitation of its resources, and near the equator of a swiftly heating planet, Iraq now faces desertification across nearly 90 percent of its territory. The lush, historic waterways that once defined the country, including the Tigris and the Euphrates, have decreased in flow by more than 40 percent due to drought and the unfettered construction of dams upriver by Iran, Turkey, and Syria. Drought, conflict, and resource mismanagement have placed an agricultural system that was once the ancient world’s breadbasket on the brink of total collapse. Residue from hundreds of thousands of tons of bombs dropped by US and allied forces are entrenched in soil, waterways, and—worst of all—the bodies of the survivors. Contaminants from vast oil well and factory fires set by ISIL will linger in the lungs and lands affected for untold generations.
Despite this toll and the scale of ecological devastation, the world’s most lucrative trade, oil extraction, remains virtually untouched. Oil production in Iraq has nearly doubled in the past decade; it is OPEC’s second largest producer after Saudi Arabia. Last summer, Iraq produced nearly five million barrels per day—a new record—largely from its super oil fields in Basra, Iraq’s southernmost city, which connects to the country’s main outlet for oil and commodities at Umm Qasr Port.
A hub of massive oil wealth and profits, Basra nevertheless is in a ruinous state, notoriously drained of its marshes by Saddam Hussein in retaliation for the uprisings of the 1991 Gulf War. Its once famous palm forests were also debilitated by absorbing front line artillery barrages during the decade long Iran-Iraq War. Although billions of dollars have been poured into the oil industry since then, the city’s people have little access to jobs at the fields, which are managed and expanded by a laundry list of foreign companies including Shell, ExxonMobil, Eni, Lukoil, PetroChina, and BP. It takes tremendous water reserves to drill for oil, and the resulting water waste and contamination are staggering. Basra’s canals flow with open garbage and sewage; last summer protests broke out after water contamination left nearly 120,000 people hospitalized. Revitalized by protests in Baghdad, citizens across the south and in Basra have resumed these protests, raising the stakes by blocking entry to Umm Qasr, as well as roads leading to major oil fields.
Meanwhile, in Baghdad, the symbolic heart of the revolution is the city’s Tahrir Square. There, the people have created a communal, spontaneous, ever-growing public display of everything Iraqis have to give and to gain together. Volunteers provide free food, water, blankets, and tear gas antidotes, and even the grandmothers doing laundry refuse to accept payment, in solidarity. They accept only donations of detergent. There is a makeshift hospital, a legal clinic, a radio station, a screening room, and a library. All of this is in obvious contrast and a strong rebuke to the sectarianism and cronyism that has defined post-2003 Iraq. Ali Eyal, an Iraqi artist taking part in the uprising, describes this space as “another Green Zone. A Green Zone of our dreams, of our hopes.”
The Green Zone of reality and of despair is, of course, the massive compound that was once the central command of Saddam Hussein’s regime, until it was taken over by US occupation forces. A monument to power, exclusion, and privilege, today it houses the Iraqi government and parliament buildings, a number of corporate offices and residences, and foreign embassies, including the largest and most expensive US embassy anywhere in the world. (The embassy cost $750 million to build.) Inside the Green Zone’s heavily fortified borders, only accessible by bridge but highly visible due to its central location along the Tigris, residents and employees—mainly associated with Iraqi or foreign governments—enjoy security, the windfalls of oil sales and government contracts, clean water, and round-the-clock electricity.
In addition to occupying Tahrir Square, Baghdad’s protesters have also taken over several strategic buildings and bridges. At the foot of the Jamhuriyah Bridge sits the “Turkish Restaurant” building, a high-rise abandoned since 2003 that has recently become an iconic part of the uprising’s architecture. When protests first broke out in October, snipers took aim at participants from the building’s open floors, but after a one-week break (for the religious gathering of Arbaeen), the protesters took advantage of official complacency to occupy the building and make sure the snipers couldn’t return.
Towering over Tahrir Square on one side and the bridge to the Green Zone on the other, the Restaurant, now hung with banners, houses protesters day and night. They have restored the building’s electricity and elevators, cleaned its interiors, and transformed it into a kind of logistical headquarters, experimental space, and staging ground. The high-rise is also used by protesters to communicate and to protect their friends gathered below, within sight and earshot of the armed forces guarding the bridge to the Green Zone. Images proliferate of protesters locked in a standoff, surveying the army from above, as does footage of Iraqis at the foot of the bridge taking bullets and tear gas canisters. But their partners in the Turkish Restaurant are not the only ones watching. Government employees, private contractors, and soldiers on the other side are also able to clearly see the carnage unfolding from the safety of the Green Zone. So, too, can an international community that watched and participated in the two “official” wars against Iraq, and which continues to watch today with little analysis or understanding of their complicity in the conditions the protests seek to change.
This failure on the part of various global media and institutions to understand and properly frame the protests in Iraq is not just detrimental to the Iraqi youth fighting for their lives, it threatens the entirety of the climate change movement itself. The United Nations, long seen as a proponent of comprehensive climate change awareness and civil rights, has revealed its support of unencumbered oil exports over the rightful demands of citizens. As the death toll of protesters climbed, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, the special representative of the United Nations secretary-general for Iraq, took to Twitter:
Disruption of critical infrastructure also of grave concern. Responsibility of all to protect public facilities. Threats/closures of roads to oil installations, ports causing billions in losses. Detrimental to #Iraq’s economy, undermines fulfilling protesters’ legitimate demands.
The statement sent shock waves through the ongoing protests. A mural created in response depicted an oil rig in a raised middle finger with the words here is your oil, world.
In Western countries, climate change efforts have been focused almost exclusively on American and European organizations and individuals. Western climate change actions, whether in the form of student walkouts, the Extinction Rebellion movement, or activists like Greta Thunberg, should consider learning from, and raising awareness of, the areas and movements most critically affected by the forces that affect climate change. Major newspapers heavily documented the global student-climate strikes that took place last September and continue to cover associated walkouts. In these strikes the stakes for young people are possible disciplinary action for skipped classes. This isn’t to imply that these actions aren’t laudable or legitimate, but rather to contrast them with those of the Iraqi youth, whose student protesters have been abducted, maimed, and executed for striking against government inaction.
In spite of the bloodshed and the ferocity of the military response, the protests continue in swelling numbers all over the country. The result of so many young people losing their limbs or lives is a kind of collective tenderness, protectiveness, grief, and, perhaps most of all, awe among parents and elders who know, implicitly and tragically, that the world has failed them. They do not need to be convinced that strikes are necessary. They understand fully the stakes at hand, and the blunt courage being activated by this generation. The movement in Iraq represents the true kind of inclusive, nationwide climate change movement that Western campaigns ostensibly aspire to. They include strikes from nearly every sector, from teachers’ unions to engineers, and enjoy widespread support from Iraqi citizens in the country and the diaspora that has swelled into the millions in the years since the two gulf wars took place. If any collective headway in the popular defense of our planet is possible, the lessons are all here.
Military forces and governments all over the world are prepared to combat, by any means necessary, progressive movements that have and will continue to expand due to the stresses of climate change, extraction, and social and economic stratification. All the world’s people, Western and otherwise, will need to gather previously unimaginable levels of courage and perseverance in order to move governments toward a more equitable, livable world.