Research Grant

Protest and Repress: issue politics, “militia-zation” and toxicity of everyday life in Iraq

By Zahra Ali

This project examines the context following the Islamic State invasion in Iraq characterized on the one hand by the “militia-zation” of the Iraqi regime and on the other hand by the strengthening of movements of civil protests. My argument here is that these polarized social and political phenomena, need to be analyzed in looking at neoliberal economic politics (privatization, job crisis etc.) the political economy of war (milita-zation, militarization etc.), and the “toxicity of everyday life” -defined here as the structural conditions of everyday life and livelihood such as health and sanitary infrastructures and environmental conditions-.

While this research project considers the importance of sectarian, ethnic and religious identities in contemporary Iraq, it also argues that there is a need to explore contemporary and recent Iraqi social, economy and political realities beyond communal and identity-based categories. In line with recent research (Ali 2018, Dodge 2018, Jabar 2018). I argue that while the context following the invasion and occupation of Iraq is clearly characterized by the institutionalization of communalism (sectarianism, ethnic and religious divisions) through the muhasasa system-: there is a shift away from identity politics in civil society protests ; and it is necessary to adopt a wider historical perspective rather than focus on the post-2003 context. I also argue that it is equally important to analyze communal identities as relational (existing in relation to one another), changing and dynamic.

Thus, this project intends to:

1)    broaden transnational feminist theoretical perspective in providing an analysis of the political economy of militarization and ethnosectarianism relying on the recent research such Joseph Sassoon (2016), Bassam Yousif (2016, 2010) and Fanar Haddad (2014, 2011), especially in the context following the Islamic State organization invasion of parts of northern and western Iraq in June 2014. I sought to understand and analyze how women, youth and civil society activists have addressed this particular context of crisis and exacerbated militarism. I explore what is commonly called “military capitalism” (Amar, 2018) and analyze how the ethnosectarian hypermilitarist dominant political realities shape youth and civil society movement’s: their definition of nationhood, sense of belonging, citizenship, notions of social justice and equality and of course the class dynamics of these movements.

2)    explore the articulation between different forms of structural violence, senses of belongings, and competing discourses and concrete practices of activism developed by women, youth, civil society social and political activists within the current southern uprising and more generally in Iraq today. I believe that an ethnographic approach of the southern and October uprisings coupled with the analysis of the continuum of ethnosectarian, political, economic and social violence in Iraq since at least the 1980s is needed to understand the current conjuncture.

3)    examine the relationship between civil society mobilizations and the “toxicity of everyday life” resulting from the lack of health and sanitary infrastructures (Al-Mohammad 2011, 2007), the water and electricity crisis as well as the pollution of oil exploitation and remains of war and conflicts (Dewachi 2017, 2013). How is the “toxicity of everyday life” shaping civil society activists’ mobilizations and demands? To which extend does it inform social and political developments in Basra, Baghdad, Nasriya and the rest of Iraq.

Research Context

In summer 2018, a spontaneous protest movement emerged in the south of Iraq. Similarly, to the ones in 2015 and 2011 that I explored in my recent research (Ali 2018, 2016), this movement of protest was launched from the oil-rich province of Basra. In addition to experience a shortage of drinking water and electricity as well as a high rate of unemployment, Basra also suffers from pollution, and serious sanitary and health phenomenon (Al-Mohammad 2011, 2007). However, unlike previous ones, the spontaneous movement of protest spreading in the Shi‘a South remains away from formal political groups and any centralized organization. Composed predominantly of young men, its slogans are more radical than the demands for functioning state services. From sentences such as “There is no homeland!”  to the slogan “No, no, no to parties !”, protestors call for radical political change (Ali & Khalaf 2018).

An essential feature of the protest movement is its violent repression by the Iraqi security forces and its attendants armed groups and militias. On July 8 2018, a group of young unemployed men gathered around the oil foreign companies’ offices in the north of Basra to demand employment. The Iraqi security forces violently repressed the demonstration killing the 26 years old father of three Saad Al-Mansuri pushing the local population to take the streets followed by other major cities of the South of Iraq. In the first two weeks of protests more than a dozen protesters were killed at the hand of the security forces and various armed groups, more than 600 wounded and 600 have been arrested, many released after being brutalized and threatened (IOHR 2018).Tanks and armored vehicles, American trained anti-terrorism forces that were involved in Mosul,  Iraqi national police as well as various armed groups and militias attacked the demonstrators (HRW 2018). For more than 10 days, the government cut the internet and telecommunication representing a loss of more than 40 million dollars a day. Protesters were depicted by Iraqi authorities as “saboteurs” and led by “foreign agents” or Ba‘th affiliates.

This violent repression carried not only by the state security forces but also by militiamen and armed groups indicates in important shift in the post-election Iraqi context that I call “militia-zation” of the Iraqi regime: the institutionalization of various armed groups and militias after their involvement in the front against the Islamist State in Mosul since June 2014. The normalization of these groups such as the paramilitary Iran-backed Hadi al-Ameri’s al-Badr, Qais al-Khazali’s Rightous League, Ammar al-Hakim’s Ashura Brigades, Kataeb Hezbollah or Moqtada al-Sadr’s militia, was reinforced through their participation to the general parliamentary elections in May 2018.

These protests paved the way to a major political phenomenon: the Iraqi October uprising. From October 2019, spontaneous protests turned into a massive uprising in Baghdad and major cities, mainly in the southern provinces of the country, such as Najaf, Karbala, Nasriya and Basra. While this movement has a lot in common with previous movement of protests especially the ones in 2015 and 2018, it is unprecedented in its scale, form and nature. It is leaderless movement demanding functioning state services from clean water and electricity provision, to health and education services. It rejects the muhasasa political system and widespread corruption and quickly gave way to more radical demands and calls for a revolution, with protestors chanting slogans ‘We want a country’.

More than 700 unarmed protestors have been killed and more than 25,000 wounded by government and paramilitary groups using live ammunition, machine guns, stun grenades, hunting guns, anti-riot tanks and military grade tear gas. This violence can partly be analyzed in looking at the hyper militarization of the Iraqi state and various armed groups following the Islamic State invasion. More generally, since 2003, weapons have been widely distributed among various actors such as tribal leaders, militia groups and paramilitary forces. What makes this violence pervasive and generalized is that protestors are not facing a coherent regime as the Iraqi state does not constitute a strong centralized state or regime, but rather militarized fragmented entities in which various political groups compete for power.

Despite the repression, protesters have demonstrated a firm commitment to non-violent civil disobedience. The protests are led by the youth and the disenfranchised, including many women and tuk-tuk taxi drivers from lower-class neighborhoods, but its ranks have also been joined by Iraqis from all backgrounds and regions across the country. Unions, syndicates, and students of all levels have been on strike and calling for civil disobedience. They call for the appointment of an independent interim Prime Minister that would organize elections to form a new parliament and government and draft a new constitution. Protestors also demand the investigation and prosecution of the ones responsible for the killing of unarmed protestors and the end of the rule of militias and armed groups tied to the political elite that have been attacking journalists, civil society activists and protestors.

The uprising goes beyond narrow political demands, revolutionaries are not only questioning economic and political oppression exercised through corruption, nepotism and discrimination, they are also questioning the system’s social and societal norms imposing a normative and conservative way of life. Protestors are not only asking for change, they are enacting it and living it, proposing new codes of conduct and building an inclusive sense of coexistence.

 What BISI’s grant allowed me to do

As mentioned in my initial research project, I obtained a grant from the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) Conflict Research Program of $22,000 in 2018 that allowed be to be on research leave (through a teaching buy out of two courses) in the Spring 2019 semester and afford part of the cost for fieldwork (see budget report). Both SSRC and BISI’s grant of £2,605 allowed me to conduct fieldwork in Baghdad, Najaf-Kufa, Karbala, Nasriya and Basra from February 26 and March 20, 2019 and with what was left of BISI’s grant I conducted fieldwork in Baghdad, mainly in Tahrir Square from December 25, 2019 to January 6th.

Based on the fieldwork conducted in the Spring 2019, I managed to write a peer-reviewed academic article titled “Under Peer-Review: From Recognition to Redistribution? Protest movements in Iraq in the age of ‘new civil society’.” It was accepted for publication and is now under a second peer-review with the Journal of Intervention and State Building for a special issue on Iraq prepared in collaboration with a group of researchers gathered in a workshop organized by the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies & Institute for Iraqi Studies at Boston University in April 2019. I also collaborated in a workshop titled Religion, Violence, and the State in Iraq organized by the Project Middle East Political Science & Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University in April 2019 that concluded in the publication of the article “Feminist activism in Post-Da’esh Iraq”  POMEPS Studies n°35, pp: 85-89. I also authored “Iraqis demand a country.” Middle East Report n° 292/293, pp. 2-5.

I also presented papers based on this research in international academic conferences such as the Middle East Studies Association annual conference, as well as workshops dedicated to the study of contemporary Iraq gathering scholars from Europe and the US. In order to make my research accessible to the general public, I also published pieces in online non-academic platforms and webzines such as the Washington PostMiddle East Eye and Open Democracy.


Articles for general audience based on these recent fieldwork trips

You have to walk in the path of life and in the path of death at the same time. I walked both paths and I survived” On the recent uprising in Iraq. Versopolis, February 2020.

Iraqis have been holding peaceful mass protests. The U.S. strike and its aftermath are undermining that. Washington PostJanuary 2020.

How US-Iran tensions have undermined Iraq’s peaceful uprisingMiddle East Eye, January 2020.

We demand a homeland”. The Revolution of the Youth of IraqThe Funambulist Magazine, n°27, pp. 2-5, January 2020.

(with Safaa Khalaf) In Iraq, demonstrators demand change and the government fights backWashington Post, October 2019.

Protest movements in Iraq in the age of ‘new civil society’LSE Blogs Open DemocracyLondon, October 2019.

Papers presented in 2019 based on these recent fieldwork trips

“We want a homeland”: Understanding the Iraqi Uprising Middle East Studies Association Annual Conference, New Orleans, Louisiana, November 2019.

“Militia-zation” and Protest movements in post-2014 Iraq, Middle East Studies Association Annual Conference, New Orleans, Louisiana, November 2019.

الحراك النسوي في العراق في ضل حركة الاحتجاج Conference titled « السلوك الاحتجاجي في العراق » organized by Baghdad Academy for Human Sciences and Iraqi Association of Political Psychology, Baghdad, June 2019.

Women and Protest Movements in Iraq. International Workshop Religion, Violence, and the State in Iraq, organized by the Project Middle East Political Science & and Crown Center for Middle East Studies, Brandeis University, April 2019.

Being a young protester in Iraq, Building Sustainable Peace in Iraq. International workshop The Role of Transnational Justice and Post-conflict Building, organized by Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies & Institute for Iraqi Studies, Boston University, April 2019.


Al-Mohammad, H. (2011) ‘You Have Car Insurance, We Have Tribes’. Negotiating Everyday Life in Basra and the Re-emergence of Tribalism. Anthropology of the Middle East (6:1) pp18-34.

(2007) Ordure and Disorder. The Case of Basra and the Anthropology of Excrement. Anthropology of the Middle East (2:2) pp1-23.

Ali, Z. (2018), Women and Gender in Iraq: Between Nation-Building and Fragmentation, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

(2018a) Women’s political activism in Iraq: caught between NGOization and the struggle

for a civil state. International Journal of Contemporary Iraqi Studies n°12/2 Summer/Fall 2018,


(2018b) with Khalaf, Safaa, Southern Discontent Spurs an Iraqi Protest Movement,

Current History. n°117/803, pp. 338-343.

(2016) Young grassroots activism on the rise in Iraq: Voices from Baghdad and Najaf, Open Democracy, 5 May.

Alkhafaji, H. (2018) Iraq’s Water Crisis. Challenges and Solutions. Al-Bayan Center For Planning and Studies Publication Series.

Amar, P. (2018) Military Capitalism, NACLA Report on the Americas (50:1).

Dewachi, O. (2017) Ungovernable Life. Mandatory Medicine and Statecraft in Iraq. California: Stanford University Press.

(2013) Toxicity of Life and Everyday Survival in Iraq. Jadaliyya, August 13.

Dodge, Toby. (2018) ‘Bourdieu goes to Baghdad’: Explaining hybrid political identities in Iraq. Journal of Historical Sociology (31:1) pp. 25-38.

Habib & al. (2015) Incidence of Cancer in Basrah: Results of a Household Survey. Asian Pacific Journal of Cancer Prevention (16:1) pp. 163-167.

(2005) The Burden of Cancer in Basrah. The State of the Art. First Report. University of Basrah.

Haddad, F. (2014), ‘A sectarian awakening: Reinventing Sunni identity in Iraq after 2003’, Current Trends in Islamist Ideology (14) pp.70.

(2011) Sectarianism in Iraq: Antagonistic Visions of Unity, Hurst.

Iraqi Observatory for Human Rights (IOHR). (2018) “Killings, Arrests and Abuse in Iraqi Demonstrations”. July, 22.

Jabar. F. (2018) The Iraqi Protest Movement: from Identity Politics to Issue Politics. LSE Middle East Center Paper Series.

Sassoon, J. (2016), ‘Iraq’s political economy post 2003: From transition to
corruption’, International Journal of Contemporary Iraqi Studies (1: 2) pp. 17-3.

Yousif, B. (2016), ‘Iraq’s stunted growth: human and economic development in perspective’, Contemporary Arab Affairs (9:2) pp. 212-236.

(2013), Human Development in Iraq. 1950-1990 (Routledge)

(2010), The Political Economy of sectarianism in Iraq. International Journal of Contemporary Iraqi Studies (4: 3) pp. 357-367.

© Zahra Ali


Recent Projects

BISI works to advance research and public education about Iraq in all of the arts, humanities and social sciences subjects, and enables exchange and collaboration between UK and Iraqi academics. Our grants and scholarships have helped the fund the following research projects.