Since the chaotic demonstrations in Basra during the summer of 2018, protesting in Iraq has become increasingly dangerous and fraught with violence. The southeast – and particularly protest hubs in Basra and Dhi Qar – has witnessed some of the highest levels of protest violence. Yet the nature of this violence, and its effects in shaping protest dynamics, have varied considerably from province to province, and when comparing different phases of mobilisation over time. Consequently, frequently cited macro-level factors (e.g., a breakdown in the elite-citizen social contract, uneven socio-economic development, poor public services, widespread corruption etc.) provide only a partial explanation of violent dynamics and cannot account for temporal and geographic disparities.

By contrast, this paper takes a granular and ground-level view of protest violence by drawing on a unique database of several thousand incidents of protest and protest-related violence and combining this data with targeted interviews with activists and informed observers. It identifies the local factors that shape violent dynamics, including the socio demographic composition and organisation of protest groups, the interconnected networks of influence that span political, paramilitary and security structures, the varying salience of potentially ameliorative social formations (e.g. tribal), among others. Ultimately, the paper explains how these local structures interact and intersect with broader structural conditions and national-level politics to produce distinct social logics that govern the application of protest violence and its effects in specific localities.

A key finding of the paper is that the diffusion of power within these local structures favours political actors who not only traverse the theoretical boundaries between the Iraqi state and civil society, but also mediate the distance between the complex social formations of power at a provincial, district, or neighbourhood level, and the domain of elite politics. Consequently, when it comes to regulating protest violence, so-called control processes circulate locally, and those actors able to close the gap between command and control and local social logics of violence are best situated to influence dynamics.

The empirical cases discussed in this paper clarify this distinction. Despite analyses focusing on Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s efforts to rein in anti-protest violence via a continuous cycle of appointments across elite security sector positions – at both national and provincial level – the data presented here does not provide evidence that this impacted violent dynamics around protests. The key reason for this is the PM’s lack of power where it really matters – where control processes circulate locally. Indeed, in some cases, Kadhimi opted to appoint security leaders who lacked local ties, hoping this would increase their autonomy and reliability vis-a-vis central control. However, this can hinder rather than help the PM to extend his own authority into local power bases.

By contrast, a group like the Sadrists has proven more effective at regulating protest violence in the southeast. This is not merely a function of coercive capacity, but, more importantly, of the movement’s diffuse power at the local level. Moreover, the mediation of this local power with the Sadrist leadership typically functions through highly personal ties at only one or two steps removed, that is, through a personal mode of representation at the provincial level that functions as a ‘floating broker’ capacity knitting together diverse forms of coercive, political, economic, social and religious power.

Consequently, from a policy perspective, the expectation that reform – and particularly progress towards accountability for anti-protest violence – is a process running critically through the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and its struggle for influence over Iraq’s security apparatus has been misplaced. This has been most apparent in the disjuncture between the fervent debates that surround each attempt by the PM and Iraqi authorities to arrest militiamen responsible for killing protesters, and the comparative silence visà vis the more salient fact that the Kadhimi administration (and the political survival of Kadhimi himself) has to an extent fallen hostage to the power of the most effective, and frequently violent, counter-protest actor in Iraq, namely the Sadrist movement. This disjuncture would appear to reflect a misdiagnosis of power – where it lies, how it operates, who can wield it – that is unlikely to provide a sound basis for strategic thinking aimed at mapping Iraq’s pathway out of destabilising protest violence and repression.

Photo: Hayder Mohsin /