icon caret Arrow Down Arrow Left Arrow Right Arrow Up Line Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Crisiswatch Alerts and Trends Box - 1080/761 Copy Twitter Video Camera  copyview Youtube
Widespread Protests Point to Iraq’s Cycle of Social Crisis
Widespread Protests Point to Iraq’s Cycle of Social Crisis
Protesters display a huge Iraqi flag during a demonstration in Kerbala, southwest of Baghdad, on 13 August 2015. REUTERS/Mushtaq Muhammed

Iraq Conflict Alert

A wave of protests has brought Iraq to the edge of yet more serious conflict. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has introduced sweeping reforms to halt the deterioration but in a manner that may make things worse. An important course correction is needed if he is to survive politically and Iraq is to avoid what could become in effect a military takeover.

The country has seen protests over the systemic inadequacy of service delivery before, but this crisis lays bare two overriding problems: massive, deeply entrenched corruption and growing militarism heightened by the war against the Islamic State (IS). The power grid’s failure during extreme summer heat was the trigger that turned general discontent into anger about governance and the political class. An ineffectual effort to overcome the crisis and start addressing fundamental problems could turn that anger into fury, precipitating a breakdown of the post-2003 order.

The protests tie into an intra-elite power struggle that opposes the prime minister, a year in office, to Iran-backed Shiite militia commanders whose credibility has been burnished by the war against IS and who seek to capitalise on popular disenchantment to assert control.

In tackling simultaneously the two most pressing problems, Abadi appears to have the support of the marjaiya, the Shiite religious leadership. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s 7 August call on him to institute overdue reforms amounts to an instruction and political cover. But the street’s explosive, anti-establishment mood could easily benefit Shiite militias claiming to be a radical alternative – even if several commanders are former officials with an abysmal government record.

Abadi is fighting a difficult two-front battle: against a political class whose failings brought the crisis but with which he is associated and whose support he can assume only if his reforms promise to change little; and against adroit, emerging challengers whose ambitions are backed by considerable resources and recently acquired legitimacy. The way he introduces change is critical.

The Shiite political leadership saw its legitimacy plunge over the past year, as it proved impotent against IS’s takeover of Sunni-populated areas. Those standing up to the threat were Shiite militias organised under the “popular mobilisation” umbrella to defend Baghdad and Shiite holy sites. Their success in partially pushing back IS resonated with unemployed young Shiites, who could measure that against the shortcomings of politicians locked within the Green Zone. Devoid of conventional prospects and in many cases even basic education, many joined the militias as the only way to have an income. Many are now in the forefront of the demonstrations.

The past year’s events opened a rift among Shiite forces. Militias with strong Iranian ties, such as the Badr Brigade, the League of the Sons of the Righteous and (Iraqi) Hizbollah, benefited the most, owing to a plentiful supply of weapons and military advice. Their commanders, especially Badr’s Hadi al-Ameri and the League’s Qais al-Khazali, became military heroes, their portraits prominent in Baghdad’s central districts, while commentators in social media began referring to leading politicians, including Abadi, derogatorily as inbitahi (“inert”). Some senior members (including Abadi’s predecessor and rival, Nouri al-Maliki) of established parties – al-Daawa, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and Moqtada al-Sadr’s al-Ahrar list – aligned with the militias to recover credibility.

Already in July, Khazali called for replacing the parliamentary system with a presidential one that would empower Iran-friendly figures, such as President Fuad Masoum and Maliki (now vice president), at the expense of the prime minister and legislature.

In Basra, the League used protests against electricity shortages and criticism of local officials to delegitimise provincial institutions, providing impetus for the protests to spread throughout the south and into Baghdad and threaten the political and religious establishment. Sistani extended his support to Abadi and called on him for major reforms in an attempt to change the course of events. This compelled even militia commanders and their allies to declare support for the reform program but also put it on Abadi to get results.

The absence of a clear plan is glaring, but other deficiencies could also scuttle the reform. Abadi has reduced his government’s size by scrapping some ministries, merging others and cancelling multiple deputy prime minister and vice president posts; he has also reduced ministry advisers and ministers’ bodyguards and created committees to select candidates for senior positions on merit and review officials’ salaries and benefits.

The package appears to tackle corruption and senior appointments based on party affiliation or ethnic/sectarian grounds. Yet, implementation repeats old unhelpful patterns. Abadi announced reforms frenetically to show real change, but they lacked a framework, criteria for decisions, a timeframe, and implementing agencies and procedures. With so much unclear, the public sector’s mid and upper ranks, where nepotism is most deeply rooted, have started to shift loyalty toward the militias to save their jobs.

Another troubling aspect is the decision to shun consultations with political blocs that are mistrustful and reluctant to surrender important positions both nationally and provincially. This risks alienating the support he needs to make substantive cuts. In the provinces, reforms have affected only the appendages of the petty-patronage network, mid-level local officials. In Baghdad, apart from the cancellation of the vice president and deputy prime minister posts, reform has been limited to statements and nominal threats about dismissal of controversial figures and representatives of minority groups whose departure would buy time. Disconnect with the political blocs prevents substantial achievement.

Abadi also risks his endeavour by putting it on shaky constitutional ground. Rushing to regain the street’s favour, he launched it partly outside the constitution, cancelling the vice presidents’ posts, for example, without legal power to do so. This sets a precedent that could be overturned by the Supreme Court and exploited by political rivals to remove him.

Abadi has raised expectations of a deeply impatient public. Failure to meet them would play into militia commanders’ hands. They and their allies do not want to openly defy Sistani, but if street dissatisfaction peaks again, they will be ready to sow chaos, especially in southern provinces where frustration grows daily. Militia members in the protests could spark clashes with police or popular mobilisation branches affiliated with other Shiite groups lacking equal Iranian support, including Moqtada al-Sadr’s Peace Brigades. If popular anger explodes, those on the militias’ side could denounce existing institutions as obsolete and, on the pretext of reestablishing order, use military superiority to impose their rule.

Abadi needs to display consummate political skill. Rather than unilaterally rushing through dramatic changes that challenge the legal order, he should work with his political partners to put forward a clear, realistic plan that reinforces that order, using Sistani’s support to manage expectations and mitigate the street’s impatience. In particular, he should build on unprecedented, but temporary parliament and council of ministers support to introduce a new, non-sectarian brand of politics and governance with the following elements:

  • A concerted effort with parliament to pass or revise implementing legislation for key constitutional articles, whose absence or inadequacy has blocked a workable government system for a decade. It should prioritise reversing party control of state institutions and reviving parliament’s role in national and provincial affairs. This requires a political parties law regulating activities, duties and funding; revision of the provincial powers law to define relations between central and provincial governments and give parliament more oversight of provincial officials; a law delineating the role of the security forces, including police and army, and addressing militias’ status; and regulating employment procedures in all ministries to ensure fair, non-partisan competition.
     
  • Close cooperation with his political partners to effect the cancellation of senior government posts without a major backlash. Particularly the Shiite political blocs need to calculate that compromise on senior posts is the ticket to longevity and influence. Recognising the difficulty in removing his own and allied parties’ corrupt officials, Abadi should instead set the tone for governance going forward, making clear corrupt practices will no longer be tolerated from anyone, and instructing police and judiciary to act against offenders regardless of political affiliation.
     
  • Use of external support to gain time needed for results. Years of state dysfunction cannot be surmounted in a few weeks or months. Abadi already has help from an actor (Sistani) who could persuade protesters to be patient. Western governments, particularly the U.S., should openly declare support of a prime minister they helped install and of the reform effort, so as to preserve and strengthen the political process and institutions they have invested in. Abadi should reach out to Iran, which has an interest in protecting Iraqi territorial integrity that is under threat from militias Tehran empowers but whose actions foster centrifugal forces, in effect partition.
     
  • The Baghdad political elite can save itself only if it changes its ways meaningfully. This requires rooting out the corruption that has kept many in power regardless of competence, and reinforcing the many institutions that have become empty shells.

If the current reforms prove little more than window-dressing, they will mean the end of the political life of the prime minister and large portions of the political class. In their place, militia commanders would ride popular anger and military supremacy to power. There are many precedents in Iraq’s history. It was, after all, only a year ago that IS used Sunni anger and a lightening military strike to impose repressive rule in large parts of the country.

Baghdad/Brussels

Iraqi demonstrators gather during an anti-government protests against unemployment, corruption in Baghdad, Iraq on 7 October 2019. AFP via Anadolu Agency/Murtadha Sudani

Widespread Protests Point to Iraq’s Cycle of Social Crisis

A surge in street protests in Iraq has left some 110 people dead and exposed a rift between the government and a population frustrated by poor governance, inadequate services and miserable living conditions. To avert further violence, the authorities and protesters should open dialogue channels.

Street protests have engulfed Baghdad and southern cities such as Nasiriya and Diwaniya since 1 October, causing a staggering death toll of at least 110 victims in seven days. This deadliest outburst of violence from popular protests since the 2003 U.S. invasion has shaken the foundations of the already fragile government led by Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi.

The prime minister is on thin ice. In the aftermath of the May 2018 elections, a drawn-out tug of war over government formation produced broadly acceptable but politically weak office holders. Neither the prime minister nor any of his cabinet members belong to the main parliamentary blocs (al-Fatah, a Shiite Islamist coalition with links to paramilitary groups and Iran, and Sairoun, an alliance between followers of populist Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr and the Communist Party). None enjoys significant support within his or her own party. Furthermore, Washington’s “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran and Tehran’s response are putting a severe strain on this government, a partner to both. Already squeezed by Iran and the U.S., the prime minister now also faces pressure from parliament and the street for not delivering the reforms that a significant part of the population has been demanding for some time.

Iraq’s government and protesters need a framework for negotiating reforms and a common vision for the country’s future.

In order to break out of this dangerous dynamic, Iraq’s government and protesters need a framework for negotiating reforms and a common vision for the country’s future.

Viral Anger Fuels a Protest Wave

Street protests have erupted on a regular basis since 2015, in most cases motivated by manifest failures of governance, lack of services and miserable living conditions. This time around, what helped the protests gain strength was Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi’s decision at the end of September to demote a popular senior commander of the war with ISIS, General Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi of the Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS), who had become a national icon for his heroism and integrity. Anger greeted the decision on social media, with many interpreting it as yet another expression of the prime minister’s feebleness in standing up to corruption in the security forces. The CTS is in competition with al-Hashd al-Shaabi, an array of paramilitary groups, the most powerful of which are linked to Iran. Those critical of Iran’s role in Iraq additionally saw the prime minister as giving in to the Hashd by demoting the general.

The affair quickly blossomed into something broader. As anger over the prime minister’s decision went viral online, social media influencers, largely Facebook users, encouraged people to join protests. On 1 October, protesters gathered in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square and in cities across the south, and security forces opened fire to disperse them. The next day, security agencies banned access to social media. The heavy-handed response caused the first casualties, adding to popular fury. On 3 October, early in the morning, the authorities imposed a curfew in Baghdad and southern cities, blocked access to major street intersections and government buildings, and shut down the internet. Fear of repression acted as a disincentive in some areas, including in Basra, which had been a protest hub during previous rounds.

Tensions increased further over the weekend of 4-5 October. Protesters torched the offices of leading Shiite Islamist parties in Nasiriya (including Daawa, Hikma and Asaeb Ahl al-Haq) and paramilitary groups, and masked men in civilian clothing attacked media outlets in Baghdad. The number of victims grew quickly, mostly on the protesters’ side but also among the security forces.

Protests, Politics and Participation

For a growing part of the population, resorting to street action has become the only meaningful form of participation in politics. Recurrent failure of governance and blatant incompetence and corruption, manifested most glaringly in the army’s humiliating collapse in the face of the ISIS onslaught in 2014, have left most Iraqis deeply disillusioned about politicians of all stripes, and disdainful of the notion that voting in elections can deliver change. By contrast, many see street protests as a more effective way to force politicians’ collective hand, as evidenced by government efforts to improve the water supply in the south after riots in the summer of 2018 over the lack of clean water.

The large majority of protesters are millennials under 30, an age group that makes up 67 per cent of the population.

This trend is amplified by a generational factor. The large majority of protesters are millennials under 30, an age group that makes up 67 per cent of the population. They came of age seeing the same faces taking turns and failing at governance. They did not experience the Saddam Hussein regime’s repression. Nor are they inclined to give much credit to current leaders for the roles they claim to have played in resisting that regime, regardless of how accurate those claims may be.

But though many come from the same age bracket, the protesters otherwise represent a cross-section of society that spans both sectarian and class differences. They include lower middle-class youths with no access to quality education or state employment as well as well-educated, English-speaking, upper middle-class individuals involved in private-sector initiatives and civic organisations. They share the experience of growing up in a political system dominated by a narrow elite that has failed to create prospects for a liveable future, despite the country’s enormous resources; they distrust formal politics and its democratic mechanisms such as elections, which they see as directly manipulated by those in power. Street protests are their effort at advancing a political agenda by other means.

Whether they can succeed is another question. Thus far, protests are proving to be an effective means of challenging the political system and leadership, but it is less clear how they can advance the radical change for which protesters are calling. They present the government with a mission impossible: delivering immediate solutions to problems that require long-term strategies, whether for improving governance, bettering service provision or reforming the entire political system.

Protests [...] present the government with a mission impossible: delivering immediate solutions to problems that require long-term strategies.

Against this backdrop, Baghdad has tended to focus on ad hoc, short-term fixes. On 6 October, for example, the prime minister gathered his cabinet for an emergency meeting and adopted a seventeen-point plan that included housing programs for low-income families and monthly stipends for the unemployed. The government does not, however, appear to have a strategy for coming together with the protest movement around a shared vision for the country’s future.

Protesters, for their part, lack an intermediary who can bring concrete proposals to the government. Their interest in maintaining their autonomy from a political system they oppose has kept their movement leaderless. As the government fails to address the protesters’ real concerns and the security forces move to suppress the protests, killing scores, protesters’ rejection of any sort of engagement with the government only hardens, and the movement begins to respond to violence with violence.

For the time being, the country is caught up in a destructive blame game. Protesters blame the leadership for the repression. Security officials blame the protesters for resorting to violence. Political and religious leaders blame each other for the crisis without themselves taking responsibility. On 4 October, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the Shiites’ paramount religious leader, denounced the largest political blocs and the government for failing to deliver long-promised reforms. On the same day, Moqtada al-Sadr, the Shiite cleric who leads the biggest parliamentary bloc, Sairoun, called on the prime minister to resign and for new elections to be held under international supervision; he also instructed his party’s lawmakers to boycott the next parliamentary session.

Manoeuvring Between Tehran and Washington

If the prime minister manages to survive politically, he will be even weaker and more vulnerable to pressure from the largest political blocs. The fallout from the protests will further complicate his efforts to pursue a foreign policy aimed at insulating the country from the unfolding U.S.-Iran competition, as well as his attempts to carry out political reforms. If he loses his post and the government collapses, instability will almost certainly grow. The challenge would then be to form a new government with a prime minister sufficiently neutral to be acceptable to both pro-U.S. and pro-Iranian political forces.

Iran may prefer a weak and dependable government in Baghdad, but it has no interest in Iraq descending into chaos.

Neither the U.S. nor Iran would like to see the situation spin out of control. Iran may prefer a weak and dependable government in Baghdad, but it has no interest in Iraq descending into chaos. Iraq’s stability is key for Tehran to continue trading with its neighbour, a lifeline in the face of U.S. economic sanctions. Tehran has invested in forging relations with all Iraqi political forces represented in parliament, and strategically resorts to these allies (al-Fatah in particular) to exert pressure on the U.S. in order to remove or reduce the influence of U.S. troops in Iraq. Street protests introduce an element of uncertainty that worries Tehran. This may explain why its affiliated paramilitaries have taken repressive steps to contain this risk and reportedly participated in the crackdown. The fact that some protesters may be motivated by anti-Iranian animus – several have chanted anti-Iranian slogans – is of further concern to Tehran, whose influence in Iraq could be at stake. Many Iraqi Shiites look at the paramilitaries, the Shiite political parties and Iran as complicit in the country’s governance failure and corruption.

That said, the protests could also turn in Iran’s favour. If the Sadrists carry out their threat to boycott parliament or stage a no-confidence vote, the prime minister will be increasingly dependent on Iran’s ally al-Fatah, which has stood by his side during the crisis.

Pushing for a change in government could be like opening a Pandora’s box, given a stagnating political system, mounting popular frustrations and the perennial difficulty of forming a government.

As for the U.S., it has every reason to want Iraq to remain stable. Its military presence helps prevent the resurgence of ISIS, whose fighters for now are lying low. It also counts on political forces in the country to stand as a counterweight to Iranian influence. But herein lies risk as well. Some in the Trump administration see protesters’ anti-Iran slogans, together with popular expressions of support for General al-Saadi, as an expression of mounting anti-Iranian sentiments. U.S. officials who deem Abdul Mahdi indecisive and powerless may push to replace him with someone more dedicated to reforms and, just as importantly, to signing contracts with U.S. companies that would decrease Iraq’s energy dependency on Iran. Yet pushing for a change in government could be like opening a Pandora’s box, given a stagnating political system, mounting popular frustrations and the perennial difficulty of forming a government.

Ultimately, any attempt by either Iran or the U.S. to manipulate the protest movement could further destabilise an extremely fragile situation and make Iraq’s teetering leadership less able to sustain the delicate balancing act between the country’s two powerful backers.

The Way Forward

Past attempts to change Iraqi governance from within have foundered on the resistance of a political class that has high stakes in its continuation. As things stand, it is unlikely that the prime minister will be able to deliver reforms, especially now that his already limited parliamentary support may crumble under the protests’ weight. Likewise, calls for change from outside the realm of formal politics, such as through street protests, have failed to compel the government to commit to concrete remedial action beyond applying band-aids. More dangerously, they are now leading to violent clashes with the security forces. The government and countries that have supported Iraq in the fight against ISIS (the U.S., EU member states and Iran) and care about its stability have reason for concern that this situation will lead to recurrent flare-ups and crises.

The present crisis once again has illustrated that Iraq’s leadership cannot continue to buy social peace with a mix of oil-generated income distribution and repression.

To address the current crisis, the government should order the security forces to exercise maximum restraint in confronting the protests, ban paramilitary groups from policing the protests and launch an investigation into the excessive use of force, focusing in particular on snipers who reportedly targeted both protesters and members of the security forces. The larger parliamentary blocs also should shoulder their responsibility in defusing the crisis. Instead of calling on the prime minister to resign, Sairoun and Fatah should jointly press the government to prepare reform bills aimed at making the bureaucracy more agile in Baghdad and the provinces, bolstering accountability mechanisms to combat corruption, and encouraging government cooperation with the private sector and civic organisations.

Finding a long-term fix will be more difficult. The present crisis once again has illustrated that Iraq’s leadership cannot continue to buy social peace with a mix of oil-generated income distribution and repression. To break the crisis cycle, the government and the protest movement need to develop channels for dialogue and cooperation. Civic organisations, some of which are organised under the umbrella of the Iraqi Civil Society Solidarity Initiative, as well as private-sector figures, should better organise the protest movement and operate as intermediaries to formulate a set of coherent proposals as a basis for discussions with the government. The government should take such an initiative seriously as a way to reach out to the protesters and prevent another (possibly violent) cycle of mass mobilisation. And Iraq’s international donors should help facilitate a dialogue to arrive at a common vision for the country’s future and then provide the necessary capacity and funding to carry it out.