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Iraq: Protests, Iran’s Role and an End to U.S. Combat Operations
Iraq: Protests, Iran’s Role and an End to U.S. Combat Operations
Followers of Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr protested inside the Iraqi parliament building after storming into Baghdad’s Green Zone on 30 April 2016. REUTERS/Ahmed Saad

Iraq: On the Edge of Chaos

The recent storming of Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone by protesters led by Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr brought to the surface a long-standing dilemma.

The system which has governed the country since 2003 is in need of radical reform, but because the ruling political class has in many ways come to embody the system, it is highly resistant to genuine change. Street protests and recalcitrant politicians have created a combustible formula, paralysing state institutions and threatening to bring them down. Meanwhile, the security situation is dire, as evidenced by a series of attacks in Baghdad this week claimed by the Islamic State.

Three dynamics are at play. The first is the dysfunction of the post-2003 political system. Ostensibly designed to ensure fair ethnic-sectarian representation in state institutions, in practice it allows political parties defined by ethnic-sectarian identities to control them. Second is the mounting loss of popular trust in these parties and anger over their poor performance. Third is the fracturing of the political leadership, especially among and within the largest Shiite political forces — the Daawa Islamic Party, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), and Sadr’s own al-Ahrar — which has been accelerated by the popular discontent and the system’s shortfalls.

The latest crisis erupted when Sadr, a Shiite leader and cleric well-positioned to claim distance from the establishment, took control of mass protests in February. Sadr channelled popular anger into the political scene, effectively creating a double confrontation: between the street and the political elite, and between his own al-Ahrar bloc — which he positioned as the spearhead of the reform movement — and the other Shiite political parties.

The country’s institutions are now paralysed: under pressure from the street movement to reform but blocked from doing so by divided Shiite political parties. Parliament was the first victim of the stand-off. On 26 April, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi struck a deal to replace five ministers, a move that would have accommodated al-Ahrar’s demands and, by appointing technocrats, avoided damage to other parties’ interests. This temporary compromise backfired when al-Ahrar raised the stakes by demanding the replacement of the entire cabinet and the so-called three presidencies: the prime minister, president and speaker of parliament. (Of course, as elected leaders, the president and speaker of parliament cannot simply be replaced, but the Sadrists’ call for this has rhetorical power as an indictment of the entire system.)

The parties that had at first voted for the more modest overhaul proposed by Abadi now refused to approve the replacement of their respective ministers and blocked the quorum needed for parliament to convene. As the vote was postponed, the crisis shifted once again to the street when protesters, heeding Sadr’s call, entered the Green Zone, seat of many government institutions, and stormed the parliament building on 30 April. As the conflict between street activists and political leaders escalates and intra- and inter-party struggles reach their peak, parliament is becoming moribund.

The Street: A New and Dynamic Variable of Politics

Resentment against the political elite has assumed different forms of expression at different times. Its most recent manifestation is street protests.

For over a decade, connections with party figures based in the Green Zone have determined who gets access to education, employment, entrepreneurial opportunities and even to certain areas of the country. But these patronage networks were only the tip of an iceberg, perpetuating and exacerbating the corruption and favouritism which has long been rife throughout the public sector. This has left young people with no prospects unless they play by the rules set by the Green Zone elite. The new generation has been mobilised by a desire to challenge the status quo rather than by any specific political agenda.

Various actors, now led by Sadr, are channelling these anti-establishment feelings to implement their own agendas. A similar rage triggered protests in Sunni provinces in 2013 that likewise targeted the Green Zone political establishment. Because it overlapped with grievances of the Sunni community, the government’s violent repression transformed these protests into a Sunni-Shiite confrontation, paving the way first for Sunni insurgents and then for jihadist groups to influence their direction. This set the stage for the Islamic State’s surge in June 2014, when it overran a large portion of country’s Sunni provinces. A year later, in August 2015, Shiite youth took to the streets of Basra and other majority-Shiite towns due to similar resentments against the failure of Green Zone politicians.

Sadr has capitalized on these same sentiments, leading his supporters into the heart of the country’s political establishment, the Green Zone, triggering a direct confrontation between the street and the elites, turning street protests into a major variable in Iraqi politics.

Barriers to Reform

Meaningful reform of the post-2003 political system faces serious structural obstacles, as political parties and state institutions have become interdependent and help each other to survive. The system cannot generate renewal of the political class ­­– whether through elections or legislative changes – nor will the political class genuinely try to reform that system.

Political parties brought together in power-sharing governments were the means by which the U.S. tried to ensure broad ethnic and sectarian representation within state institutions during the period of military occupation (2003-2011). This gave party figures appointed as ministers the power to fill top-level positions with their cronies and recruit party rank-and-file for other positions within their ministries. Not only did this place a constellation of party cadres in key decision-making roles across state institutions, it also allowed them to overcome their lack of public support by effectively using the state’s payroll to buy people’s loyalty. It is therefore not surprising that key party figures are resisting reforms that would jeopardize the patronage system that makes them powerful.

The way that political parties are embedded in state institutions has frozen Iraqi politics around the same familiar figures and has complicated efforts to rejuvenate the political class. Younger politicians often act just like their elders. Even when they want to challenge the old guard, they remain dependent on their predecessors’ patronage networks to gain influence or are compelled by the system’s logic to build their own networks within state institutions.

While dissociating such party figures from state institutions is in principle the right thing to do, in practice it would paralyse those institutions and potentially encourage political figures to reinvest their own power in challenging them. For instance, after Maliki was replaced as prime minister in 2014, he withdrew his financial and security network from the government, and has now partially reinvested it in challenging and weakening Abadi.

What complicates matters even further is that the demand for reform cloaks an unfolding power struggle within the Shiite political bloc, the National Alliance. Each of its constituent parties wants to weaken Abadi in order to strike a deal that would give them leverage over the choice of cabinet members or otherwise secure their interests.  In appealing to the street’s anti-establishment feelings Sadr hopes to strengthen his position precisely within that establishment. Meanwhile, his bloc, al-Ahrar, has raised the stakes by shifting from calls to reform the system to demands for its dismantlement. The strategy has been successful in allowing the bloc to keep the street on its side and giving it leverage to strike a deal with Abadi in the first cabinet overhaul. But it has created larger obstacles to finding an intra-Shiite agreement.

Confronted with the sudden empowerment of al-Ahrar, other Shiite political factions might not want any reforms to be achieved quickly, as this could further strengthen the Sadrists at their own expense. They have been partnering with Sunni factions and the Kurdish bloc — which also might not want to risk losing their quota of ministers within the cabinet — to prevent any parliamentary quorum from being achieved.

Power Shifts at the Top

Reforms might result from power shifts within parties’ leaderships more than from democratic mechanisms such as legislative changes or elections. A leadership renewal might progressively occur as political parties maneuver to survive pressure from the street, or from political interventions by the U.S. or Iran, which could favor some figures and disempower others.

Even though the cabinet overhaul would not break parties’ control over the state, it might be a first step to changing the power balance among and within Shiite parties. During the latest cabinet overhaul, the Sadrists replaced their three ministers with technocrats who will likely consolidate al-Ahrar’s power base through the appointments they can effect within their respective ministries. Moreover, the change of minister is less relevant than what will happen to the rank-and-file at each ministry, which is where the parties’ reservoirs of power lie. In the name of reforms, al-Ahrar could purge top officials and rank-and-file personnel affiliated with other parties, or it could reserve this power to use as a trump card in negotiations with other parties.

A power struggle within Abadi’s Daawa party is also escalating. Abadi has tried to use the cabinet overhaul to partner with other groups – as in the deal with al-Ahrar to replace five ministers – and erode the abiding power of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his allies. The more success Abadi has in replacing ministers, the more likely he is to erode Maliki’s power base. Maliki, now Daawa’s secretary-general, is meanwhile reaching out to parties that oppose a second cabinet overhaul to prevent a parliament vote, thereby further weakening the prime minister while keeping the party under his sway. If Abadi is skilful in navigating the crisis, he could leverage international and regional support to strike a series of temporary deals with Kurdish and Sunni factions, as he did with the Sadrists. This is not likely to reform the quota system for the short term but it will strengthen his position vis-a-vis other Shiite parties and, most importantly, within his own.

External pressure will be key in determining power shifts within party leaderships. The breakdown of the post-2003 order would pose a challenge for the Iranians as much as for the Americans. After the recent crisis, the U.S. and Iran have already moved in the same direction because both have an interest in preventing the complete unravelling of the country. Over the past decade, the U.S. has competed with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Iraq within a shared framework of parties and institutions. Now that this system is starting to collapse, the challenge for both powers is to find the right partners to help protect and project their influence. It is this external pressure that could induce new domestic agreements and power shifts among parties’ leaderships, and thereby perhaps dramatically reshape the post-2003 political system.

Spasms or Solutions

Domestically, the challenge ahead is how to manage the street’s expectations. Sadr has stirred up protesters’ expectations and left it to others to broker a deal that will satisfy them. If al-Ahrar continues to raise the stakes in order to gain more leverage, then there is little chance parliament will be able to reach a quorum and convene to vote on a change of government. The Sadrists will likely bolster their position as street leaders outside the Green Zone, and political parties will respond by obstructing change from within the Green Zone, practically disempowering the country’s institutional framework. The storming of parliament and calls for the dismissal of the three presidencies risk pushing the country into a void in which parties and their affiliated militias simply slug it out against one another.

The course of the U.S.-Iran relationship will also factor into the equation. At this stage, only pressure from Washington and Tehran on political parties could impose the constraints needed to keep the country together. Both sides have an interest in keeping the current framework alive, but this requires entering into day-to-day bargaining to change the power balance within Iraqi political parties. Both the U.S. and Iran might have to shift their approach away from supporting specific parties arrayed against each other towards managing the crisis through a division of labour, in which each would use its economic and military power to put limits on the various Iraqi players. In a volatile regional climate, the risk is that Iran could push Iraq toward the brink as a way of exerting pressure on the U.S. to make concessions there or on other regional frontlines. Such a dangerous political play might place an even greater strain on the country’s institutional framework.

The post-2003 system may no longer be working, but it will prove very difficult to reform. Any abrupt change could generate further instability caused by either excluded leadership or weakening state institutions. We cannot expect Abadi to be able to break the interdependence between political parties and state institutions. At best, the U.S. and Iran will coordinate to manage the crisis and the prime minister will leverage their relationship to institute stop-gap measures that will contain the street and prevent the intra-Shiite power balance – both within the Shiite bloc and within his own Daawa party – from turning against him. In other words, he will have to walk a fine line between managing the street, maintaining the current balance of forces, and preventing the entire institutional framework from collapsing.

Iraq: Protests, Iran’s Role and an End to U.S. Combat Operations

This week on Hold Your Fire!, Richard Atwood and Naz Modirzadeh talk to Crisis Group’s Lahib Higel about the Tishreen uprising that upended Iraqi politics and what President Biden’s announcement that U.S. forces will end their combat mission in Iraq means for the country.

After a meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi earlier this week, U.S. President Joe Biden announced that American forces would end their combat mission in Iraq by the end of 2021. Biden’s announcement comes after a turbulent few years for Iraq. Mass protests saw young people camp out in city and town squares across much of the country despite harsh crackdowns by security forces and Iran-backed paramilitaries. Although demonstrations forced one government to step down and have largely dissipated this year, few of the protesters’ grievances have been addressed, and it is far from clear whether elections in October this year offer a chance for political renewal. In this week’s episode, Richard Atwood and Naz Modirzadeh are joined by Lahib Higel, Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Iraq, to talk about Iraqi politics, Iran’s role, how much of a threat ISIS poses, and what an end to U.S. combat operations likely means for the country. 

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more information, explore Crisis Group’s analysis on our Iraq page.

This is the last episode of the first season of Hold Your Fire!. Please do get in touch with any feedback for the hosts or ideas for the next season at podcasts@crisisgroup.org.

Contributors

Interim President
atwoodr
Naz Modirzadeh
Board Member and Harvard Professor of International Law and Armed Conflicts
Senior Analyst, Iraq
LahibHigel