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lectricity cuts in Baghdad are unremarkable. Every few hours the power goes out. For how long depends on the quality of service in any given district. Well-off neighbourhoods are often provided national electricity for longer. Residents have become so used to such everyday patterns of power that homemakers plan their routines around these service cuts. Cooking is already exhausting, so prep work is carried out when the air conditioning can run. Washing machines draw lots of amperes; since private generator service is expensive, laundry is always done on the public grid. But for all its predictability, every now and again Baghdad’s notorious electricity can still surprise people, as it did Naeem al-Shwaily.
Calm and collected but obviously nervous, two months ago Naeem described in devastating detail the armed attacks launched against peaceful protesters in Baghdad on the night of 6 December. Al-Sharqiya, one of Iraq’s leading news channels, interviewed him the day after the attack. Naeem set the scene for his prime-time viewers: Protesters were occupying Sinak Garage located on Khilani Square, less than a kilometre north of Tahrir Square—the epicentre of Iraq’s ongoing revolution that began on 1 October. Around 8pm, Naeem received a call from his comrades who were at the garage. They were under attack. Naeem and his friends in Tahrir sprinted north to support them. But then something unexpected happened. “Right before we arrived at Sinak Garage, the power suddenly went out in Khilani Square.”
Naeem then took a second, maybe two, to softly clear his throat and catch his breath before continuing. In that stilted instant, without saying a word, he intimated that the power outage was no coincidence while foreshadowing the grim violence the darkness would help enable.
“Pick-up trucks and buses then entered the square. The shooting started from two sides.” Unidentified gunmen clad in black—the unofficial uniform of those tasked with killing peaceful protesters in Iraq since the beginning of October—poured out of the vehicles and opened fire. Naeem and his friends barely got away, withdrawing as quickly as they could back towards Tahrir Square. As they did, the group was surprised by another set of armed infiltrators who had made their way up from Tahrir Square and who also began shooting.
Naeem’s clinical description of the incident morphed into a post-mortem, of those killed, and of the political conditions that facilitated their demise. “What happened yesterday was a massacre, a huge massacre. Yesterday we lost more than 20 martyrs, and more than 100 were injured.” Had the protesters not pulled back when they did, Naeem insisted, the numbers of those killed would have been far higher—though maybe they already were: As Human Rights Watch reported ten days after the incident, estimates of those killed range from 29 to 80. Nobody was sure of the exact number.
Over the last four months, central and southern Iraq has been gripped by a prolonged revolution. After a summer of sporadic protests by jobless youth, Iraqis across generations have taken to the streets in unprecedented numbers demanding the fall of Iraq’s political system. Protesters see this system—one based on ethnic and religious divisions, and established by US-led occupation forces in 2003—as responsible for years of violence and corruption, poor basic services like education and clean water, and a lack of economic opportunities for a bulging youth population. Empty promises by an enriched political elite have taken their toll. Reform is no longer possible; only revolution will do.
For Naeem and others, the story of the massacre—indeed of the counterrevolution—starts and ends with how state and parastate transcend boundary and binary. “This [massacre] was at the hands of the militias, and in fact in coordination with the state. Today, when the state turns off the lights in the streets and turns off the electricity in a particular place, this is impossible without coordinating with the state.” Such counterrevolutionary coordination between parastatal armed actors and state agents is not new. Some of the most powerful political figures in Iraq today ran militia groups in the early days of the US occupation. At various points since, those groups came to control part of, or were formally integrated into, Iraq’s state security apparatuses—most famously with the formation and legalization of the Popular Mobilization Forces. State-parastatal unity suggests that discrete political elites, often seen as in conflict with each other, have coalesced around a strategy of wanton violence to quash the revolution and protect the political system from which they all benefit.
This strategy involves mobilizing different nodes of power inside Iraq. Militia groups have been incriminated in some of the worst violence against peaceful protesters. But more “traditional” institutions like ministries, including those responsible for security, are also implicated in counterrevolutionary violence. “When I left Khilani Square and headed home, three checkpoints stopped me. Three checkpoints, right next to the square,” Naeem continued incredulous. For most of this century, police and military checkpoints have dotted Baghdad’s urban landscape and conditioned mobility across the city. The coordinating body for this security architecture is Baghdad Operations Command, first established at the end of 2006 as part of Operation Enforcing the Law (also known as “the Surge” of US troops). Comprised of different security institutions and agencies largely from the defense and interior ministries, Baghdad Operations Command decides where checkpoints are placed and how they are run.
The checkpoints are manned by a variety of state security personnel, but primarily soldiers and federal police. Their omnipresence dates back to the US-led occupation of Iraq, when US counterinsurgency tactics included fortifying discrete neighbourhoods and districts of Baghdad, and establishing checkpoints intended to monitor the movement of people and stuff. This security infrastructure was inherited by Iraqi forces after the (temporary) US withdrawal at the end of 2011 and was kept more or less in place. In recent years, improved security conditions in Baghdad helped to justify the removal of some checkpoints. But hundreds still persist.
“You want me to believe these checkpoints didn’t see the militiamen?” Naeem asked derisively. “They were sitting there in the same place for six hours. The commander of Baghdad Operations Command isn’t able to send forces after these guys and arrest them?” Such inaction led Naeem to a simple conclusion: On behalf of all the protesters there that night, he accused the government of direct complicity in the massacre.
Ostensibly in place to quell violence and insecurity, these checkpoints have for years symbolized what is wrong with governance in Baghdad and Iraq. Through their mere presence, they have often revealed the inability of security forces to prevent spectacular acts of violence like car bombs. But for all of the criticism checkpoints receive from Baghdadis, Naeem’s condemnation pointed to something far more sinister. His indictment of the state authorities was not for their passive ineffectiveness but rather their active killing.
Such accusations are a reminder of how urban space is critical to revolution. The city can be “a crucible for revolutionary potential,” Charles Tripp, writing about revolution and space in Tunisia, tells us (2015: 8). In this respect, Baghdad is no different from Tunis in 2011, or Beirut and Khartoum over the past year. But Baghdad’s contemporary history, defined by occupation, war, and violence, offers important contrasts. Over the last 17 years, the city has been transformed by security architectures—initiated by US occupying forces in 2003 and slowly inherited by Iraqi personnel—that, in the eyes of most Baghdadis, have done little to provide security, physical or otherwise. How does such an urban history, and the social-spatial conditions it engenders, embed different meanings into the fabric of the city from which revolutionary newness might be drawn?
One of the tiniest and most profound tactics deployed by activists across central and southern Iraq has been the blocking of critical roads and highways within and between cities. At various points, from October through January, protesters in Basra in southern Iraq cut off road access to Um Qasr Port. In one instance in November, activists blocked highways leading to the port by using mock coffins painted with the Iraqi flag and on which were written the names of dead revolutionaries killed by security forces during protests. That day, the epitaph “Rest in Power” took on incredible and tragic significance as unjust death and counterrevolutionary murder became both the content and form of revolt.
Road blockages in Baghdad have also been ubiquitous. At various points in December and January, months into their revolution, protesters blocked part of Mohammed al-Qassim Expressway, an elevated highway in the eastern part of the city. It is a key north-south artery that connects an ever-expanding population. While carrying out part of my doctoral fieldwork in Baghdad in 2018, the expressway was closed for repairs over a number of days. Most of my interlocutors who drove it to and from work were outraged. Already-bad traffic was made far worse. State authorities were routinely condemned for neglecting maintenance on the expressway; fears that part of it might break off or collapse finally pushed them to act. But the general public once again was made to suffer through poor planning and governance.
Revolutionaries often try to occupy urban spaces that hold symbolic and material power. Protesters in Baghdad have repeatedly sought to march on the infamous “Green Zone,” a roughly 10-square-kilometre area in the centre of the capital that is home to key buildings like the prime minister’s office, parliament, and the US embassy. Security forces have repeatedly and violently pushed back demonstrators, shutting in the process two critical bridges that feed into the Green Zone.
My own interest is less in such symbolically-resonant spaces of coercion and kleptocracy. Instead, the blockages of thoroughfares like Mohammed al-Qassim Expressway direct our attention to a different set of grievances: the mundane, everyday, and no-longer-tolerable conditions that help engender revolutionary moments. The civil disobedience that protesters in Baghdad and elsewhere are engaging in speak in part to how their towns, cities, and provinces have been determined and transformed by concerns about “security,” such as through the ubiquity of checkpoints. Little else has appeared to matter, and as such neglect and corruption have left other sites of everyday infrastructure—like electricity, roads, and highways—in disrepair. Ironically, and devastatingly, such banal infrastructural sites can just as easily morph into spaces of a more recognizable violence: On 22 January, Iraqi security forces attacked protesters occupying the expressway, repeatedly beating them with batons when they were not shooting at them with live ammunition.
Spatial interpretations of Iraq’s ongoing revolution are more than an attempt to read into everyday acts of protest. These reflections are instead a product of interpreting with Iraqi revolutionaries who are fighting and dying to birth new futures for themselves, their families, and their homeland. Everyday conditions are critical to understanding how people’s futures have until now been extinguished by a corrupt political elite, and why Iraq’s revolutionaries are still in the streets. Four months since the revolution began, protesters continue to block roads and highways. The consequences of their bravery remain dire, as security forces respond with more killing.
But this is of no surprise to people like Naeem. At the end of his interview two months ago, he was only steadfast: “I swear to God, we are persisting with our protests. We will not retreat, and we will not back down. And you won’t scare us, not with your bullets nor your militias, not with your kidnapping nor your assassinations. Nothing will scare us. We will never retreat.”
Omar Sirri is a PhD Candidate in political science at the University of Toronto. He is currently an Affiliated Scholar at the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut.