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Iraq and the Kurds: Confronting Withdrawal Fears
Iraq and the Kurds: Confronting Withdrawal Fears
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
How to Cope with Iraq’s Summer Brushfire
How to Cope with Iraq’s Summer Brushfire

Iraq and the Kurds: Confronting Withdrawal Fears

Iraq’s new coalition government and the Kurdistan regional government in Erbil must start talks on disputed internal boundaries or risk an outbreak of violent conflict along a “trigger” line dividing army troops and Kurdish regional guard forces, the peshmergas.

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Executive Summary

Iraq’s government was long in the making, but its inclusive nature and the way in which it was formed offer hope that it can make progress in the struggle between Arabs and Kurds. The conflict, which has left a devastating imprint on the country’s twentieth-century history, could cause political paralysis or, worse, precipitate Iraq’s break-up. Coalition partners have a unique opportunity to make headway. Failure to seize it would be inexcusable. Both sides should build on the apparent goodwill generated by efforts to establish a government to lay the foundations for a negotiated and peaceful settlement. In particular, they should immediately resume talks over the status of Kirkuk and other disputed territories. They also should use their January 2011 agreement to export Kurdish oil through the national pipeline as a basis for negotiations over a revenue-sharing law and a comprehensive hydrocarbons law.

As protests throughout the country have shown, Iraq is not immune from the revolutionary fervour that is coursing through the Middle East and North Africa. Nor should it be, as successive governments’ inability to provide essential services, most importantly a steady supply of electrical power, has given rise to legitimate grievances. In what will be an early test for the new government, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will have to find an effective response to protesters’ demands as a top priority, certainly before the arrival of the hot summer months. The same holds true for the Kurdistan regional government (KRG), which has long been buffeted by complaints concerning poor service delivery and widespread corruption. Protests in Suleimaniya in February and March 2011 show it is overdue in taking persuasive remedial action and thus faces the risk of escalating and spreading unrest.

Arab-Kurdish relations remain a tinderbox. In late February, the Kurdistan regional government sent military forces into Kirkuk in a transparent attempt to both deflect attention from events in Suleimaniya and rally the Kurdish population around the supremely emotive issue of Kir­kuk’s status. In doing so, it dangerously inflamed an already tense situation and exacerbated ethnic tensions. This should serve as a reminder of the need for leaders in Baghdad and Erbil to urgently attend to the structural Arab-Kurd fault line.

In joining the coalition government, Kurdish leaders presented conditions on power-sharing and outstanding claims over resources and territory. Maliki says he agreed to most, but to the Kurds the ultimate proof lies in whether and how he fulfils them. It is doubtful that the prime minister can or even would want to satisfy their every demand, and both sides will need to show flexibility in hammering out the required deals – notably on completing government formation, hydrocarbons and revenue-sharing legislation and the delineation of the Kurdistan region’s internal boundaries.

In the past, Crisis Group has argued that Kirkuk should gain special status as a stand-alone governorate, under neither Baghdad’s nor Erbil’s direct control, for an interim period, with a mechanism for ultimately resolving its status, and with a power-sharing arrangement in which political representatives of the main ethnic and religious groups are represented fairly. A deal along these lines appears within reach, and now is the time to pursue it. In January, building on their success in forming the coalition government, Baghdad and Erbil negotiated a tactical agreement on oil exports from the Kurdistan region whose implementation should prove beneficial to both. They ought to take this a step further by starting talks on the range of issues that have plagued their post-2003 relationship.

In June 2009, the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) set up a high-level task force whose stated goal was to work toward a negotiated solution – initially through confidence-building mechanisms – for the disputed territories, the broad swathe of land from the Syrian to the Iranian border that Kurds claim as historically part of Kurdistan. UNAMI realised full well, however, that the task force was unlikely to make progress in the months leading up to and following legislative elections, so its real objective was to keep the parties at the table until a new government was formed. This period, which lasted a year and a half, has now come to an end; today, the initiative should be invested with new life.

At the core of the territorial dispute lies the disposition of Kirkuk, the name for three separate but overlapping entities – city, governorate and super-giant oil field – that are subject to competing claims. The 2005 constitution lays out a process for resolving the status of Kirkuk and other disputed areas, but it has run aground on profound differences over interpretation and lack of political will. Meanwhile, the situation in the disputed territories has been left to fester. In areas with a rich ethnic mix, such as Kirkuk city and several districts of Ninewa governorate, this has produced strong tensions and politically-motivated provocations aimed at sparking inter-communal conflict.

To prevent small incidents from escalating into a broader conflagration, the U.S. military in 2009 established so-called combined security mechanisms along the trigger line – the line of control between the Iraqi army and the Kurdish regional guard force, known as the peshmergas, that runs along the disputed region’s spine. The mechanisms’ key features are joint checkpoints and patrols involving army and guard force personnel with embedded U.S. officers, as well as coordination centres designed to improve communication and build trust between the two sides. Moreover, Baghdad and Erbil agreed to a set of rules governing the deployment of their respective security forces in these areas.

Together, these steps have reduced tensions, but the security forces’ presence and posture in their designated sectors remind a weary population the conflict is far from resolved. The standoff between the army and the peshmergas in Kirkuk’s environs, in particular, and provocative conduct of the Kurdish security police, the asaesh, inside the city augur trouble for the period after U.S. withdrawal, scheduled for the end of 2011. Events in late February-early March, when peshmerga forces deployed around Kirkuk city over the vehement protestations of local Arab and Turkoman leaders, were another warning that the security situation, relatively stable since 2003, may not hold.

The combined security mechanisms were intended to buy time for negotiations over the disputed territories’ status. So far, measures fashioned to break the deadlock, such as a process to organise provincial elections in Kirkuk, have reinforced it, increasing frustration and mutual recrimination. The impact has not been limited to the immediate area: a nationwide census has been postponed indefinitely because of disagreements over its application in the disputed territories. Without progress, conflict threatens to erupt as U.S. troops prepare to leave Iraq, including positions along the trigger line. This causes anxiety all around, especially among Kirkuk residents, who appear unanimous in calling for continued U.S. military protection.

There are no easy fixes. Although Maliki’s government might seek to negotiate a troop extension, the likelier scenario is that the U.S. troop presence in the north will be severely curtailed if not ended within a few months. UNAMI has begun to explore Baghdad’s and Erbil’s readiness to re-engage on core issues, but delays in filling key government posts, such as the defence and interior ministers, militate against an early resumption of talks.

The U.S. takes the position that its forces are leaving, so Iraqis will have to sort out problems along the trigger line without the psychological security blanket its military presence has provided. It also appears to believe the impending departure itself might concentrate Iraqi minds and produce political will to agree on the disposition of Kirkuk and other territories. That could be a logical wager, but it also is a risky one. At a minimum, the U.S. should provide strong diplomatic and financial support to UNAMI as it prepares for talks, including by making continued military aid conditional on stakeholders’ constructive participation in negotiations and commitment to refrain from unilateral military moves. UNAMI should propose specific confidence-building steps in the disputed territories based on its impressive (unpublished) April 2009 report. In so doing, it should make every effort to involve political representatives from the disputed territories. Both the Maliki and Kurdistan regional governments should encourage economic activity in the territories and, in Kirkuk, impartial use of extra revenue from oil sales on projects benefiting the entire community.

Most of all, leaders in Baghdad and Erbil need to ask themselves: will they be persuaded to pursue a negotiated solution by the realisation they cannot attain their objectives either by letting the matter linger or by using force? Or will they be prompted only by the outbreak of a violent conflict neither side wants and whose outcome they could not control?

Erbil/Baghdad/Brussels, 28 March 2011


A protester wears an Iraqi flag in front of security forces during a protest near the main provincial government building in Basra, Iraq 15 July, 2018. REUTERS/Essam al-Sudani

How to Cope with Iraq’s Summer Brushfire

In July protests against inadequate supplies of jobs, water and electricity swept across southern Iraq, reaching Baghdad. The ruling elites should heed demonstrators’ calls to improve public services and stamp out corruption – or risk reigniting popular discontent and tempting would-be strongmen to step in.

What’s new? Popular protests, spawned by anger at the state’s inability to deliver essential services, have spread throughout southern Iraq and reached the capital, Baghdad. They are an annual occurrence but this year they are larger and more intense.

Why does it matter? If the unrest is forcibly put down and citizens’ legitimate demands again go unmet, it is bound to recur before too long, but with still greater ferocity and, possibly, violence, threatening the post-2003 order and the ruling elites sustaining it.

What should be done? Institutional reforms are long overdue. Once it is seated, the new government should, with the help of parliament and the explicit backing of senior religious leaders, strengthen the judiciary and independent oversight agencies, which can ensure greater transparency and accountability, and thus curb corruption – Iraq’s public enemy number one.

I. Overview

Yet again this summer, residents of southern Iraq have taken to the streets to protest the government’s inability to provide clean water, a steady power supply or reliable employment. The protests started in Basra, which though it is home to most of the country’s oil fields suffers from persistent state neglect. Like a brushfire, the unrest spread to cities across the south, sometimes burning itself out or being extinguished by security forces, only to be rekindled in other locales, and eventually reaching Baghdad, where it smoulders today. The protests’ annual recurrence and present intensity suggest that the status quo – repeated, unfulfilled promises of reform by a politically bankrupt ruling elite – is shaky at best. If the state sticks to its firefighting approach, it is likely at best to ignite further rounds of protests; at worst, it risks being usurped by a new strongman. There is a much better third way forward: the new government, once it is seated, with the help of parliament and the full backing of the most senior religious authorities, should re-empower the judiciary and other independent oversight agencies to stamp out corruption – Iraq’s most dangerous foe.

Like a brushfire, the unrest [in Iraq] spread to cities across the south, sometimes burning itself out or being extinguished by security forces, only to be rekindled in other locales, and eventually reaching Baghdad, where it smoulders today.

Iraq has seen periodic popular protest since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, especially during the searing summer heat, when electricity consumption far exceeds available supply. The demonstrations accentuate growing estrangement from a governing elite that has failed for fifteen years to protect basic living standards for ordinary Iraqis. This time around, the protests have been fiercer, doing considerable property damage, as well as more widespread. The government has responded by cutting off the internet and other telecommunications to prevent protest coordination, and by deploying special forces to the south, which in some places fired on demonstrators, killing fifteen and wounding hundreds.

The protests came at a crossroads in Iraq’s post-2003 journey. Fresh from retaking the territory held by the Islamic State (ISIS), the government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi appeared conscious of the need to prevent the group from rebounding politically by embarking on the difficult process of building a more representative state. He tried to assert the state’s monopoly on the use of force and declined to marshal the state apparatus in support of his candidacy in the 12 May general elections, as his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, had done four years ago.

That process soon hit a bump in the road, however. The 12 May balloting saw the lowest turnout since January 2005, date of Iraq’s first free elections, as well as several claims of fraud (now being addressed through a partial recount). In Basra, the turnout is calculated to have been less than 20 per cent. The non-voting public clearly knew the score: when negotiations to form a new government started soon after the elections, they featured the same horse trading among politicians that has disaffected the citizenry since 2003.

Many Iraqis have concluded that change will not come through elections or (non-functioning) institutions. The protests broke out against this background, as the parliament elected in 2014 ended its term, leaving Iraq in the hands of a caretaker government no more capable of serving citizens than its predecessors. The protests should therefore be regarded as a serious warning that the brushfire risks turning into a wildfire and engulfing the state.

II. A Spreading Brushfire

The protests began in Basra on 8 July, near the West Qurna and Zubayr oil fields outside town, escalating when police fired on demonstrators at West Qurna.[fn]“Iraqi police open fire on protesters near southern oilfields”, Reuters, 8 July 2018.Hide Footnote That the largest city in Iraq’s south – and some of its largest oil fields – again became the epicentre of unrest is no coincidence. Many Basrawis see international oil companies and their own leaders as getting rich off their province’s oil, while little of that wealth trickles down to benefit them. By threatening oil production and trade, they are pressing the government to slice them a bigger piece of the pie through better service delivery and job creation. One typical protest banner read: “2,500,000 barrels per day; $70 per barrel; 2,500,000 x 70 = 0. Sorry, Pythagoras: we’re in Basra”.[fn]Facebook page of Babylon FM, 16 July 2018, at Footnote

The unprecedented scope and intensity of this year’s unrest underline the population’s deep alienation from the political system.

The unprecedented scope and intensity of this year’s unrest underline the population’s deep alienation from the political system. For the first time, protesters targeted the full spectrum of the (mainly Shiite) ruling elites, from former exiles backed by either the U.S. or Iran to those who survived Saddam’s regime and have developed strong nationalist orientations. They marched on and, at times, occupied or torched government buildings and political party offices without apparent distinction. In Basra, protesters demonstrated in front of the provincial council building and set on fire the headquarters of the Badr Organisation, a political party with ties to Iran.[fn]“Protesters burn Badr militia’s buildings in the Tawisa area of central Basra in southern Iraq”, Al-Mustaqbal (Arabic), 14 July 2018.Hide Footnote Elsewhere, they attacked offices of Daawa, Hikma, Fadhila, Kataeb Hizbollah and other parties, all of which have their electoral strongholds in the country’s centre and south. In Najaf, they stormed the airport, briefly occupying it and halting air traffic.[fn]“Widespread unrest erupts in southern Iraq amid acute shortages of water, electricity”, Washington Post, 14 July 2018.Hide Footnote In Karbala, they set ablaze the offices of Asaeb Ahl al-Haq, another party with close links to Iran. In Amara, they torched both the district government headquarters and the district director’s residence.[fn]“Amara: Fires at district headquarters and district director’s house, 23 hurt”, Iraq News (Arabic), 25 July 2018.Hide Footnote

In some southern cities, such as Hilla, the protesters even attacked the offices of the Sadr movement. The Sadrists had risen to prominence in 2003-2004 with their nationalist fervour and pitched battles with U.S. troops – as well as their rhetorical broadsides against parties, like Badr and Daawa, that were members of the U.S.-sponsored post-2003 governments.[fn]For background on the Sadrists, see Crisis Group Middle East Briefing Nº8, Iraq’s Shiites Under Occupation, 9 September 2003, pp. 16-20.Hide Footnote In the years since the 2011 U.S. troop withdrawal, the Sadrists have participated in and even led demonstrations similar to this summer’s. This time, the movement’s leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, refrained from encouraging his supporters to join the protests, his electoral alliance having finished first in the May polls and joined efforts to form a coalition government with the very same parties he had previously denounced for their corruption. Yet in a nod to the strength of popular sentiment, on 19 July, he called on the political parties to delay government formation in order to address the protesters’ demands.[fn]Muqtada al-Sadr’s Twitter feed, 19 July 2018, at Footnote

As in years past, demonstrators also denounced Iran. To many Iraqis, Iran’s role in supporting Iraq’s ruling elites makes Tehran an antagonist of their struggle for change. This summer’s protests erupted after Iran cut off its electricity supply to Iraq, prompting Iraqis to suggest that Iran was seeking to instigate unrest. There are conflicting explanations of what triggered the move – Iraq’s non-payment of electricity bills or Iran’s need to cope with spiking domestic demand, its own protests amid scorching heat and/or the weight of reimposed U.S. sanctions.[fn]Both arguments were reported by Iran’s state-owned English-language satellite channel, Press TV, on 17 July 2018.Hide Footnote But there is no evidence that Iran’s motive was sinister.

This summer’s protests erupted after Iran cut off its electricity supply to Iraq, prompting Iraqis to suggest that Iran was seeking to instigate unrest. [...] But there is no evidence that Iran’s motive was sinister.

More important, the heavily Shiite protesters did not spare their religious authorities from reprimand. Few actually blamed the Shiite clerical establishment for the country’s ills, but many expressed their disappointment in the ayatollahs’ early passivity as the disturbances spread and the state ratcheted up repression. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the Shiites’ foremost religious authority, came in for particular censure when he failed to condemn the government’s crackdown in his Friday sermon (delivered by his representative) in Karbala on 20 July.[fn]“Sistani representative avoids talking about protests in Friday sermon”, Sawt al-Iraq (Arabic), 21 July 2018. One protester hoisted a poster stating: “It is said that a man forbade the game of Clash of Clans [a reference to Sistani’s office prohibiting his followers from playing a video game]. We are still waiting for him to forbid the harming of unarmed protesters”. Reported on Twitter feed of Thair al-Ghanimi, 22 July 2018, at Footnote Overt criticism of Sistani is unusual. But it has been less rare since 2015, when he issued a call for reform that Baghdad’s political class ignored.[fn]“Iraq cleric pushes anti-corruption fight as protests flare”, Sawt al-Iraq, 21 July 2018. One protester hoisted a poster stating: “It is said that a man forbade the game of Clash of Clans [a reference to Sistani’s office prohibiting his followers from playing a video game]. We are still waiting for him to forbid the harming of unarmed protesters”. Reported on Twitter feed of Thair al-Ghanimi, 22 July 2018, at Footnote Many Iraqis perceive the ayatollah’s vaunted political influence as much diminished. Regardless, on 27 July Sistani’s representative read aloud a sharply worded prepared text that was highly critical of the political class and strongly supportive of the protesters and their demands. The text called for immediate reforms.[fn]Sistani called for the speedy formation of a government and said the next prime minister should “wage a relentless war on corrupt officials and their protectors” and, among other measures, give anti-corruption mechanisms greater authority. He added that if the government, parliament or judiciary obstruct these efforts in any way, “the only option people will have will be to develop their peaceful protests to impose their will on those in charge, supported by all the forces of good in the country”. Text reproduced by NRT TV, 27 July 2018.Hide Footnote

With Sadr on the sidelines, the protests have largely been leaderless. They appear sporadic (though persistent) and mostly spontaneous; if they are organised, it is by local notables, such as tribal leaders, clerics, schoolteachers or engineers, operating at the neighbourhood level through social media platforms such as WhatsApp and Facebook. Many of the major civil society organisations, which have their headquarters in Baghdad, have not been involved in guiding the demonstrations, though they have publicised them on social media. The capital was initially quiet, with only occasional small protests in solidarity with demonstrators in the south. A primary reason may be that the Sadrists, who formed the bulk of Baghdad marchers in the past, stayed home, depriving the protests of critical mass. The protest movement remains active in the capital, however, and will likely continue to mount periodic Friday protests throughout the year.

With Sadr on the sidelines, the protests have largely been leaderless. They appear sporadic (though persistent) and mostly spontaneous.

The government responded to the protests with a heavier hand than in the past, while offering the usual promises of reform. On 15 July, Abadi dispatched several “emergency response” police divisions as well as Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) battalions to the south to protect government infrastructure and political party offices.[fn]“Iraqi protesters storm local government building amid anger over graft”, Reuters, 14 July 2018.Hide Footnote The deployment of the CTS, which made its mark in the fight against ISIS, fanned the flames; to the protesters, it implied that the government looks at them as enemies or even terrorists.[fn]Crisis Group phone interview, Iraqi protester, July 2018.Hide Footnote Police shot at protesters in various southern cities, killing fifteen (as of 21 July) and leaving hundreds wounded.[fn]“Iraq protests record a new death”, Shafaq (Arabic), 21 July 2018; “Iraq: Security forces deliberately attack peaceful protesters while internet is disabled”, Amnesty International, 19 July 2018.Hide Footnote Armed groups linked to Shiite Islamist political parties, the paramilitary Hashd al-Shaabi, also attacked protesters, to defend their political order.[fn]Crisis Group phone interview, Iraqi protester, July 2018.Hide Footnote In Baghdad, where protesters have been gathering around Tahrir Square on and off for several years, police for the first time used water cannons to disperse them on 20 July.[fn]Video images in tweet by Saadoun Mohsen Dhamad, @SDamad, journalist, 8:35pm, 20 July 2018, at Footnote

To help suppress the protests, the government took the unprecedented step of shutting down internet and other telecommunications on 12 July; service has remained intermittent since then.[fn]Amnesty International, media release, 20 July 2018.Hide Footnote This measure affected several industries, such as banks and airlines, and reportedly could be costing the country $50 million per day.[fn]Tweet by Hisham Alhashimi, @hushamalhashimi, researcher, 12:48am, 22 July 2018, at; and, 20 July 2018, at Footnote

At the same time, both the federal and local governments issued promises that they would make personnel changes, improve service delivery and carry out reforms to accommodate the protesters’ demands. For instance, Abadi announced he would spend some 3.5 trillion Iraqi dinars (almost $3 billion) on electricity, water and health projects in Basra, and inject 800 billion dinars ($675 million) into the housing fund, enabling it to make 25,000 housing loans and, in the process, generate jobs.[fn]“Three killed as joblessness protests in Iraq heat up”, The Independent, 17 July 2018; tweet by the prime minister’s media office, @IraqPMO, 2:18pm, 22 July 2018, at Footnote The oil minister announced he would create 10,000 more public sector jobs in the hydrocarbon industry.[fn]“Oil Ministry announces provision of 10,000 new jobs for the sons of Basra”, Al-Sumaria, 12 July 2018.Hide Footnote

The government’s harsh overall response appears to reflect its own sense of insecurity and awareness of its credibility deficit, if not outright lack of legitimacy.[fn]Many Iraqis have started comparing Abadi to Maliki, who as prime minister similarly suppressed protests (though particularly those of Sunni Arabs) in 2013.Hide Footnote Arguably, the repression and seemingly empty reform promises will merely stoke the fires, perhaps turning this year’s unrest into something more consequential than in the past.

III. Whither the Fire?

The gradual intensification of the protests over the years and the ruling elites’ longstanding inability to reform a political system from which they profit suggests the status quo has become increasingly fragile. Ordinary Iraqis are no longer protesting against individual politicians but against the post-2003 political order as a whole – excoriating the quota system (muhasasa) that has defined this order.

Ordinary Iraqis are no longer protesting against individual politicians but against the post-2003 political order as a whole.

That order – more a disorder – has many shortcomings. Chief among them is the absence of strong and autonomous institutions. The judiciary and independent oversight agencies – among them, the integrity commission that monitors corruption and the electoral commission that is supposed to organise and oversee free and fair elections – are beholden to the very political leaders they are tasked with holding to account. The political process that in theory ensures a regular alternation of power increasingly lacks credibility, judging from the low participation rate in the May elections; while the faces at the top may change, the class from which they are drawn – viewed by many as largely corrupt – does not. That class perpetuates itself through the quota system, which, by allocating positions to political parties based on ethno-sectarian identity, favours partisan loyalty over merit, and thus feeds corrupt practices at the expense of ordinary citizens.[fn]A former Iraqi ambassador to the U.S., Rend al-Rahim, tweeted a comment that expresses an increasingly shared sentiment: “I recommend that all current/former PMs, ministers, deputies and governors step aside, be barred from office for two CoR [Council of Representatives] terms. Since they failed the nation for 15 years (not to mention plundered it), this is the least they should do”. Tweet by Rend al-Rahim, @rendrf, 9:16am, 20 July 2018, at Footnote

It is unclear what will happen next. Three plausible scenarios present themselves. The first, most obvious, one is that the elites plod along the same path with only occasional detours to appease the restless, pre-empt organised opposition and douse fires when they break out – as they almost certainly will. Under this scenario, the leadership would continue to switch around personnel and inject cash into the system at various times, mainly to buy off critical constituencies, while banking on the security forces and paramilitary groups to keep it in power if a serious and sustained popular challenge arose. Some argue that the state’s frailty and the diffusion of power will encourage intra-elite consensus and cooperation for the sake of self-preservation, akin to power-sharing agreements in Lebanon. While that course may preserve stability in the short run, over time the absence of real change is likely to foment escalating protests.[fn]An upsurge in regionalism could also be a consequence. In a possible sign of things to come, the head of Basra provincial council, Walid Kitan, chaired an extraordinary council session that voted to submit a request to the Council of Representatives to turn Basra from a governorate into a region, an act that would give it far greater autonomy from the central government. Tweet by Ghanem al-Aabed, @GH3ABID, political commentator, 7:06am, 22 July 2018, The council is unlikely to endorse such a move.Hide Footnote Moreover, as others have argued, the state’s perpetual weakness makes it vulnerable to a cycle of internal conflict, which has been both Sunni-Shiite and Shiite-Shiite in character, outside meddling, and possibly even collapse.[fn]See Renad Mansour, “Iraq after the Fall of ISIS: The Struggle for the State”, Chatham House, July 2017.Hide Footnote Since 2003, Iraq has muddled through but with bone-jarring shocks to the system, delivered by violent insurgency and external intervention.

The first scenario may lead to a second, less probable but certainly more dangerous one: the possible takeover of the state by an aspiring strongman seeking to quash the unrest while vowing to fix the country outside democratic procedures. To some extent, the precedent would lie in Nouri al-Maliki’s efforts at centralising power (2006-2014), when he took direct control of security and other state institutions and tried to eliminate political opposition. It is unlikely, but conceivable, that segments of the security forces and/or armed groups could back such a leader in either a silent or overt takeover to end popular challenges to the failing state cycle. Escalating violence against peaceful protesters, especially in Baghdad, could trigger such an eventuality. Some quarters of Iraqi society may indeed wish for a return to strongman rule. Iraqi youth, the largest segment of the population, increasingly express nostalgia for leadership akin to the pre-2003 Baathist model.[fn]Marsin Alshamary, “Authoritarian nostalgia among Iraqi youth: Roots and repercussions”, War on the Rocks, 25 July 2018.Hide Footnote But the dangers would be great: many Iraqis fear that a coup would precipitate another civil war rather than restore calm.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Baghdad, April 2018.Hide Footnote

There is a third way forward – not as likely as the first scenario, because it requires political actors to work with active and positive intent rather than remain on the default setting, but not implausible, and indeed the better way. The first and most important step would be to de-escalate the violence and tensions between security forces and protesters: to put out the fires, but carefully, lest they reignite and spread with increased ferocity. In the past, protests have been largely non-violent, and although some individuals may use the occasion to incite violence, the government should issue clear orders to security forces not to shoot at protesters or undertake politically motivated arrests – and to grant any detainees due process. That would mean ending the reported intimidation of detained protesters, such as with their release on condition they refrain from protesting.[fn]Crisis Group phone interviews, civil society activists, Baghdad, July 2018.Hide Footnote

Secondly, Prime Minister Abadi, even in his caretaker capacity, should take urgent steps to centralise the command of the security forces technically under his control; to the extent possible, he should rein in the paramilitary groups in the south. The latter have taken the law into their own hands, though formally they remain under the authority of the prime minister’s office, through which they receive their funding. The government should seek to ensure that no armed group uses violence or illegally detains protesters who enjoy the internationally protected rights of peaceful assembly and free expression.

[Iraq] desperately needs a fully empowered government, and many of the Iraqis who voted, and arguably many of those who did not, want to see the old government gone.

At the national level, the winners of the May parliamentary elections should not delay negotiations to form a new government. The country desperately needs a fully empowered government, and many of the Iraqis who voted, and arguably many of those who did not, want to see the old government gone. The onus is on Muqtada al-Sadr to lead efforts to form a governing coalition that will institute far-reaching reform. It is up to the populist cleric to prove to his base and all Iraqis that he is serious about systemic change.

In the long term, the new parliament, which represents 65 per cent fresh blood, should seek to get rid of the muhasasa quota system, de-emphasising personalities and instead building institutions – the absence or non-functioning of which sit at the core of the grievances that perennially give rise to popular protests. The incoming government, working with the new parliament, should re-staff (beyond identity-based considerations) institutions that can serve as checks on the elite, and in particular strengthen the mandates and autonomy of the judiciary and the various independent oversight agencies.

To succeed, the government will need the explicit backing of the senior Shiite religious leadership, which continues to command enormous respect and hold great moral authority over the Iraqi population, not just Shiites. Although Ayatollah Sistani is the leading exponent of the quietist school in Shiism that opposes a direct clerical role in politics, he has made significant political interventions to protect and improve the post-2003 order: calling for free elections to a constituent assembly; calling up volunteers to defend the country against ISIS in June 2014; and, a month later, demanding in a letter that Maliki step down after ISIS overran one third of Iraq.

International stakeholders should stop worrying about which Iraqi personalities hold what posts and move toward supporting institutions able to hold the Iraqi political class to account.

In response to the current protests, and in addition to the speech he distributed on 27 July, Sistani should publicly urge the new parliament and government to rebuild national institutions in order to make the political system more transparent and more accountable. Iraqi leaders would have difficulty ignoring or contravening a call from Sistani, especially if delivered in the form of a fatwa, or religious edict. Even a fatwa might be insufficient to get them to do what is right – there are plenty of examples where politicians paid little more than lip service to Sistani’s rulings – but without it, nothing will happen, and the country could face one of the two perilous scenarios described above.

For their part, international stakeholders should stop worrying about which Iraqi personalities hold what posts and move toward supporting institutions able to hold the Iraqi political class to account – or see their considerable investment in rebuilding post-2003 institutions go up in smoke.[fn]See Renad Mansour, “Iraq’s Western allies need to support institutions, not individuals”, Chatham House, 10 April 2018.Hide Footnote

IV. Conclusion

Drastic change is overdue, judging from the frequent recurrence of popular protests. But it must be managed. Iraq’s most important assets are institutions staffed by capable technocrats who know how to deliver basic services – when they are not thwarted by those in national and local government who are corrupt, incompetent or both. Among these institutions, those designed to monitor state agents’ compliance with the rule of law arguably are the most critical. These have been severely corroded, however, along with everything else, in the fifteen years since April 2003.

The greatest current threat to the [Iraqi] state is corruption, which has spread throughout the body politic, sapping institutions and blocking opportunities.

If the Iraqi system is to recover now that ISIS has been defeated, the political elites will need to take a number of urgent fire prevention measures. The greatest current threat to the state is corruption, which has spread throughout the body politic, sapping institutions and blocking opportunities. What young Iraqi would want to grow up in such an environment? It is little surprise that so many seek to leave. And it is just as unsurprising that so many people, young and old of all social strata, take to the streets in the hope that, if nothing else can, agitation will bring the change they so desperately desire.

The political elites have a chance to put the country on a safer course, away from the fires that could engulf it. They need to seize the opportunity of a refreshed parliament and – hopefully soon – a new government to rebuild institutions and effect thorough reforms, in sum, to generate new hope for a people who have known only war, sanctions, invasions, insurgencies and the near-total breakdown of society. At present, the people have taken the initiative, and the elites should follow their cues.