Anti-government protests are continuing in Iraq one day after the Iraqi parliament voted to accept the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi. On Saturday, protesters set off fireworks in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square when Abdul Mahdi announced he would submit his resignation, though he will remain in a caretaker capacity until a new government is formed. The resignation came two days after Iraqi security forces killed at least 44 people in the southern cities of Nasiriya and Najaf after the Iranian consulate was burned down on Wednesday night. Following the bloody crackdown, Iraq’s Shi’ite spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani urged the Iraqi Parliament to withdraw its support of the prime minister and warned that the escalating violence could lead to a civil war in Iraq. More than 400 Iraqi protesters have been killed and 15,000 injured since the widespread anti-government demonstrations began in October. We speak with Iraqi journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, correspondent for the Guardian newspaper, and Sinan Antoon, poet, novelist, translator and scholar born and raised in Baghdad.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, Democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
Anti-government protests are continuing in Iraq one day after the Iraqi parliament voted to accept the resignation of Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi following two months of protests against corruption, lack of jobs and basic services as well as Iranian influence on Iraq. On Friday, fireworks were set off in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square when Abdul-Mahdi announced his resignation, but protesters have vowed to stay in the streets.
PROTESTER: [translated] We want to send a message that Adil Abdul-Mahdi’s resignation doesn’t solve the entire problem. He is only part of the problem, only a broken piece in a chess game. He is not the problem. The problem is about the system that brought us Adil Abdul-Mahdi. They would be delusional if they think they can use him as a scapegoat and that the people will withdraw from the streets after he resigned. The people will continue. Our peaceful protests continue until we change the system that brought Adil Abdul-Mahdi.
AMY GOODMAN: Iraqi Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi resigned two days after Iraqi security forces killed at least 44 people in the southern cities of Nasiriyah and Najaf after the Iranian consulate was burned down Wednesday night. Following the bloody crackdown, Iraq Shiite spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani urged the Iraqi parliament to withdraw its support of the prime minister. Sistani warned the escalating violence could lead to a civil war in Iraq. More than 400 Iraqi protesters have been killed and 15,000 injured since the anti-government demonstrations began in October. When Abdul-Mahdi was officially resigned, he will keep serving in a caretaker government until a new one is formed.
We go right now to Iraqi journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad. He is joining us from Baghdad, a correspondent for The Guardian newspaper. And here in New York Sinan Antoon is with us — poet, novelist, translator and scholar born and raised in Baghdad, now associate professor at New York University. His most recent book, The Book of Collateral Damage. Ghaith, let’s begin with you in Baghdad. Describe what has happened over these few days. And were you surprised that the prime minister has now resigned?
GHAITH ABDUL–AHAD: Well, Amy, I couldn’t agree more with the demonstrator you just interviewed. This is exactly the sentiment in the street. Adil Abdul-Mahdi is nothing but a figurehead or, as the demonstrator said, a piece of a chess board. I was in the square earlier today. There are tents, demonstrators. Not that much of clashes between demonstrators and the police force, because there’s sort of kind of a ceasefire. But yes, they are willing to stay in the square and continue these demonstrations until a total change of this whole political system that they describe as a rotten, corrupt political system.
AMY GOODMAN: Describe the extent of the mass protests.
GHAITH ABDUL–AHAD: At this moment, it involves a large, a majority of the Iraqis. And I don’t mean only the youth that went to the square early on and they kind of like pushed against the security forces. I mean now you have students, you have middle class, you have a large section of the society. What is most amazing about these demonstrations — it’s the majority — if I may use some sectarian terms, it’s the majority Shia population of Baghdad that spearheaded these demonstrations.
So every opposition to this government of Baghdad in the last decade and a half have been spearheaded, let’s say, by people who rejected this political system, so let’s say the Sunnis, al-Qaeda or whatever. At this moment, this is a popular movement, calling for social democracy. This is why neither the political system nor the militias or the pro-Iranian camps could label those guys as, you know, whatever — ISIS or al-Qaeda, as they used to do before, because this is the backbone of this regime.
Those kids, many of them did fight for this government against ISIS. They were volunteers on the front. But when the threat of ISIS was over, when they came back to their villages and towns and neighborhoods, be it in Baghdad, be it in the south, and they realized that this political system, those militia commanders, the party apparatchiks, so corrupt, been building this massive wealth, and that is what created the spark for this revolution. It’s the injustice of this current political system in Baghdad.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe what has taken place in both Najaf and Nasiriyah, Ghaith?
GHAITH ABDUL–AHAD: Amy, I was in Nasiriyah a few weeks ago, and I’ve seen the situation on the ground. Unlike in Baghdad where it’s a demonstration against a political regime, let’s say in Nasiriyah, in the towns in the south, in Najaf also, it’s more personal. These are small towns. They know who joined the political party, who benefited, who became very wealthy since joining the parliament or joining a militia. So it is more personal.
The violence is also very personal because in the south you have a certain militia dominating a certain security force. The reaction of the security forces was very brutal. Forth-eight people I think were killed both in Nasiriyah and Najaf. In return, the demonstrators can target the houses or the symbols of this corruption. So in a small town in Shatrah where I was a few weeks ago, they go around and they burned the houses of MPs because that’s for them the symbol of corruption.
In Najaf, the demonstrations are taking place first against the Iranian consulate, a huge setback for the Iranian influence in Iraq. Second against the shrine of a very revered, again, Shia cleric, who is part of this establishment, who is dead, so his shrine. So in these places, it is more personal and the reaction is far more violent than in Baghdad.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. In addition to Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, who is joining us from Baghdad, Iraq, we are joined by the Iraqi-born poet, writer, novelist Sinan Antoon. Stay with us.