As protests deepen in Iraq, Canada is caught in the middle

Adnan R. Khan: Iraqis are demanding more say in politics, their government has responded with violence, and Canada’s mission to the country has taken on added urgency  
An Iraqi protester, a national flag painted on his chest, gestures the victory sign in the capital Baghdad’s Khallani square during ongoing anti-government demonstrations on November 14, 2019. - Four protesters were killed by tear gas canisters in Baghdad today, medics told AFP, the latest deaths from what rights groups have slammed as a "gruesome" misuse of the weapon. (Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP) (Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images)

Back in April of this year, the scene at what was supposed to be Canada’s diplomatic mission in Iraq resembled more of a backroom poker game than a place where top minds gathered to discuss some of Canada’s most pressing foreign policy issues.

Housed in the British embassy, the mission was only just getting on its feet. By September, the Liberal government had appointed a full-time ambassador to Iraq for the first time in more than a quarter century and Canada had upped its military commitment with the deployment of just over 200 troops to head the newly-established NATO training mission, supplementing the 650 soldiers, including special forces already on the ground hunting for ISIS militants.

Given the stakes, and Canada’s deep involvement in Iraq since the rise of ISIS, the decision to re-open an embassy in Baghdad was long overdue. Canadian diplomats had complained for years that running Iraq policy from the embassy in Jordan had led to some grave mistakes. From such a distance, they told Maclean’s, it was impossible to understand the kinds of nuances in Iraqi politics that inform good decision making.

So it was that Paul Gibbard, Canada’s new ambassador, arrived in Baghdad and set up shop in what looked like a storage room in the bowels of the British embassy behind the fortified walls of the Green Zone. Not that Gibbard needed much space. The self-described “missionary kid” who had grown up in Central America was not one to grumble over amenities. Nor was he someone content with parking himself behind blast walls and deluding himself into believing he could do his job with any degree of competence.

“I’m very aware of the dangers of being cooped up in an area where you hear the things you want to hear,” Gibbard said back in April. “I’ve made a very concerted effort to get out as much as I can. In the last few months, I’ve been to I think 12 of [Iraq’s] 17 or 18 provinces.”

A few short years ago, such mobility for a Canadian diplomat, let alone an ambassador, would have been unheard of in Iraq. But in April, the situation had shifted dramatically. It was perhaps the one positive effect of the ISIS nightmare: Their brutality had forced Iraqis, regardless of sect or political affiliation, to work together.

Governance issues like corruption, nepotism and incompetence had taken a back seat to the immediate danger of the growing caliphate. And besides, ISIS leaders, in their obsession with ruling their own territory, had largely left Baghdad and southern Iraq alone, particularly once that territory came under attack by Iraqi forces and the international coalition backing them, including Canada.

By April 2019, Baghdad and much of Iraq’s predominantly Shia south had already experienced two years of relative calm. ISIS had been on the retreat since 2017, under siege in Mosul and all but defeated in other parts of the country. Attacks in the capital had declined significantly, creating the space for Iraqis to start rebuilding their lives.

Friday markets were bustling again; Abu Nawas, the famous promenade along the eastern bank of the Tigris River, brimmed with families and friends and couples out for an evening stroll, away from the maddening urban congestion. Not much more than a decade ago, Abu Nawas was deserted, save for the occasional groups of men tasked with the macabre duty of fishing dead bodies—the victims of Iraq’s spiralling sectarian violence—out of the Tigris.

Iraqis haven’t forgotten those days, of course, but they have been filed away under the “Never Again” category, tucked into a recess of the brain where the trauma won’t poison the atmosphere of calm, where eating masgouf (fresh carp fished from the Tigris and grilled over open coals) doesn’t invoke the horror of what those fish may have fed on, where sucking back hubbly-bubbly (water pipes burning fragrantly with flavoured tobacco) and sipping sweet black tea won’t be punctuated by the deafening crack of a car bomb.

In April, Iraqis in Baghdad were tasting those sublime moments again. “It’s such a different city,” Gibbard noted at the time. “You’ve got a country now where political elites have kind of figured out how to get along without shooting each other. They’ve figured out other ways to resolve conflict and to negotiate.”

But there was also a feeling that something wasn’t quite right. Gibbard felt it, too, in the mounting discontent among Iraqi youth who had risen up on occasion to condemn the central government’s corruption and lack of sensitivity to their needs.

Sporadic protests in 2015, 2016 and 2017 had been met with violence. Protesters in Baghdad had directed their ire against the Green Zone, where both Iraqi government officials and foreign embassies are housed behind blast walls. The Green Zone had become a symbol of the disconnect between everyday Iraqis and the elite who ruled them.

READ MORE: Inside the secret war in Iraq

Those protests were crushed quickly but it was clear something was building. You could see it in the artwork produced by a new generation of Iraqi artists—dark, ominous pieces expressing the frustrations of an entire generation subjected to a political system unwilling, or unable, to address its needs. These young people, many of them still children when Saddam’s regime fell, had grown up with the promise of a better future, a promise that never materialized.

The government’s failures were a hard pill to swallow at a time when Iraq’s oil sector was extracting black gold at a record pace. It was harder still to watch as Iraqis with the right connections—or enough money to pay bribes—were awarded jobs while young university graduates were forced into menial labour at best or, at worst, left jobless.

“We all know this can end at any moment,” Muhammad al Tamimi, 33, a translator who worked with Maclean’s, said in April. “Right now, young people are just trying to enjoy the peace we have, to enjoy life a little. But we all know this won’t last.”

At the beginning of October, al Tamimi’s honeymoon with peace came to an abrupt end. Weeks before, the popular commander of Iraq’s Counter Terrorism Services, General Abdul-Wahab al Saadi, was inexplicably demoted. Al Saadi is considered a hero by many in Iraq for his role in leading the fight against ISIS, as well as his vocal opposition to the influence of Iranian-backed Shia militias operating in Iraq, known as the Hashd al Shaabi. His punishment was interpreted as another instance of the Iraqi government’s inability, or unwillingness, to stand up to the militias and, by extension, Iran.

Anger toward the Hashd al Shaabi had been growing for months. Its political influence had expanded exponentially in the aftermath of the ISIS defeat. Now, al Tamimi tells Maclean’s by telephone from Baghdad, if a person wants a job in a government ministry, he or she must go through the militia leadership.

“You have to obtain a letter from them,” he says. “Getting a letter means you now owe them and they can, in the future, ask you for favours. It’s like a mafia.”

In the wake of al Saadi’s demotion, thousands took to Baghdad’s streets, joining thousands more across cities in southern Iraq demanding better government services, jobs, and an end to foreign influence. Protesters targeted Iran directly, hurling Molotov cocktails at its consulate in Karbala and assaulting posters depicting Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, Iran’s supreme leader, with their shoes, an act which in Arab culture is considered deeply insulting.

Iran has responded with its usual conspiratorial finger pointing, blaming the protests on the U.S. and its “foreign agents”. The Iraqi government has reacted with its usual incompetence. Security forces have turned their guns on unarmed protesters. Over the first four days of demonstrations alone, nearly 50 were killed and hundreds more injured. At least 150 more have died since. But unlike past protests, the violent crackdowns haven’t had their intended effect: protesters are not slinking away in fear. Their numbers are swelling.


Understanding the breadth and depth of Iraq’s protests, why it’s different this time, is intimately tied with Canada’s mission in Iraq. A key plank of the military training is professionalizing Iraqi’s security services so they aren’t used as a tool of repression against their own people and can meet the security needs of Iraq without outsourcing to foreign-controlled militias.

In April, when Maclean’s toured Canada’s NATO deployment in Iraq, the Iranian militias were already becoming a problem. Major-General Dany Fortin, the top commander in charge of the training mission, noted that Iraq’s leaders had not proven that vast array of groups were “under the direct and effective control of the Iraqi government.” Canadian soldiers on the ground made a much more disconcerting observation: Militia members were watching them, tracking their movements and apparently taking notes, likely on their numbers, equipment and procedures.

From the diplomatic perspective, Gibbard was keen to emphasize that while Iraq’s leaders had foregone violence as a political tool, they were still deeply out of touch with the people they governed. Good governance, with a focus on decentralizing Iraq’s governing structures, he said, was at the heart of what Canada was trying to do.

“Building functioning communities at the local level—police forces, hospitals, water services and electricity, etc.—these are the kinds of things that will build trust between the people and the government,” he said. “We’re putting a lot of effort into the issue of decentralization, and not just for decentralization’s sake. The fundamental focus is how do you bring government closer to people.”

It was nuts and bolts kind of stuff, from how to do budgets to distributing resources fairly to getting officials at the local and federal levels working together. The problem was convincing the central government to get fully on board.

“When you’ve got power and money it’s really hard to give that up,” Gibbard said. “So a consistent complaint from the provinces is: ‘We’ve gotten the responsibilities, the responsibilities have been devolved down to us, but the money hasn’t followed.'”

Those issues are now front and centre among protesters. Every day, young Iraqis are risking their lives to demand exactly those things Canada has been trying to help the Iraqi government deliver. But in any nation building exercise, time is the most precious commodity. And time has caught up to events.

As the situation on the ground has shifted, so it seems has Canada’s strategy. Gibbard, after a little over a year, is on his way out of Iraq. He will be replaced by Ulric Shannon, the outgoing Consul General in Istanbul. It’s a prudent change. Gibbard is clearly a competent administrator with the kind of curiosity and desire for understanding that serves an ambassador well in the initial stages of a nation building process.

Shannon brings with him a different, though complimentary, skill set. He has developed a reputation in Istanbul of being a keen observer in a rapidly evolving environment with an uncanny ability to read events quickly. He also has the language skills—both Arabic and Turkish—any ambassador tasked with helping Canada shape policy in a challenging environment like Iraq needs.

The question is if he will have the same kind of freedom to engage with people on the ground in the way Gibbard did. The protesters in Baghdad come from a broad cross-section of Iraqi society: Shia and Sunni, rural and urban, secular and religious. The vast majority are young people under 30, many are women, and all say they are prepared to risk everything for a new dawn in Iraqi politics. Their revolutionary zeal is both inspiring and worrying (revolutionary fervour in the Middle East tends not to end well); it is also complex, and that complexity will require a nuanced understanding.

But they say they are united, for now, despite attempts to divide them.

“We are living in a dream,” Haidar Alawi, a 23-year old artist tells Maclean’s by telephone. “Everyone is helping each other. It doesn’t matter your sect or your ethnic background. We are one people.”

Canada has re-engaged in Iraq at what might be its most critical moment. It’s time to move out of the basement and into the light.