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Iraq’s New Battlefront: The Struggle over Ninewa
Iraq’s New Battlefront: The Struggle over Ninewa
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
How to Cope with Iraq’s Summer Brushfire
How to Cope with Iraq’s Summer Brushfire
Report 90 / Middle East & North Africa

Iraq’s New Battlefront: The Struggle over Ninewa

Violence in much of Iraq is at lower levels than in years past but, in Ninewa, the carnage continues.

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Executive Summary

Violence in much of Iraq is at lower levels than in years past but, in Ninewa, the carnage continues. In August and September 2009, large-scale, horrific attacks targeting minority communities took scores of lives. Arabs and Kurds are locked in a political deadlock. The bloodshed and institutional paralysis are symptoms of the country’s shifting battle lines: from an essentially Sunni versus Shiite sectarian struggle, mainly centred in the capital, to a predominantly Arab against Kurdish ethnic fight playing out along an extended axis of friction. It will be near-impossible to resolve the crisis without tackling outstanding nationwide political issues. But Ninewa cannot wait. Urgent interim steps are needed to achieve equitable local power sharing and joint security patrols between Arabs and Kurds in disputed districts, as well as to ensure better minority protection. All this requires a continued and active U.S. role. Washington might be on its way out, but its hands will be full even as it heads for the exit.

For Arabs and Kurds, the real prize remains Kirkuk, where emotions run highest and oil reserves are richest. But, precisely because of these stakes, Kirkuk also is where much national and international attention has turned and efforts undertaken to, if not resolve the conflict, at least freeze it. Not so in Ninewa, where local factors have brought the dispute to a head and which has become the focal point of the ethnic battle.

Ethnic relations in Ninewa have a chequered history. The struggle between Arab and Kurdish nationalisms has been especially acute, notably in the capital, Mosul, home to deeply rooted Arabist feelings. The Kurds have paid a heavy price. The state has made aggressive attempts to contain or suppress their national aspirations. The Baathist regime in particular engaged in forced displacement and discriminatory resource distribution. Kurds saw a chance for redress in 2003 and seized it, launching an offensive to rewind the clock and undo the effect of past practices. This too had a cost. Operating largely in an ad hoc manner, without due process and by dint of force, they took control of several districts, including many towns and villages, seeking to incorporate them into the Kurdistan region and, largely thanks to the Sunni Arab boycott of the 2005 provincial elections, they established political dominance in the governorate.

At the same time, Ninewa proved fertile ground for a Sunni-based insurgency, fuelled by the governorate’s strong Arabist, military and (Sunni) religious tradition and propelled by growing anti-Kurdish and anti-Shiite resentment. Groups taking up arms against U.S. troops and Kurdish fighters exploited the long, often unguarded Syrian border and a history of cross-border trade, while finding ready recruits among former officers, Baathists and an increasingly destitute youth to impose their rule over predominantly Sunni Arab areas. From 2003 to 2008, Ninewa appeared caught between Kurdish dominance and Sunni insurgents.

Gradually, the political landscape shifted. Insurgents – especially the more Islamist – overplayed their hand; U.S. and Iraqi forces re-energised efforts to stabilise Ninewa; and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki sought to push back Kurdish territorial advances. Perhaps most importantly, Sunni Arab leaders entered the political fray, coalescing around a resolutely nationalist, anti-Kurdish platform.

The 31 January 2009 provincial elections brought the new phase in the Arab-Kurdish tug-of-war to a head. Four years earlier, Sunni Arabs had boycotted the polls, viewing the entire political process as illegitimate. They were not about to repeat the mistake. United around the al-Hadbaa National List (Qaemat al-Hadbaa al-Wata­niya), they triumphed, waging a campaign focused on two key points: Ninewa’s Arab identity and the inviolability of the Baathist-era de facto boundary line that has separated the governorate from Kurdistan since October 1991. The elections were a demographic corrective. Kurdish parties won roughly a third of council seats under the banner of the Ninewa Brotherhood List (Qaemat Ninewa al-Mutaakhiya); this was as they had anticipated given their population share. But though they accepted their significant electoral decline, they feared al-Hadbaa’s virulently anti-Kurdish rhetoric, resented its efforts to diminish Kurdish military, administrative and cultural influence and insisted on sharing power. When al-Hadbaa rejected this demand, they boycotted the provincial council.

The resulting local government paralysis, coupled with al-Hadbaa’s decision to reassert provincial government rule over disputed territories heretofore under Kurdish control, has led to an alarming rise in tensions. Conflict chiefly has occurred where Arabs and Kurds vie for administrative control and where Iraq’s army and Kurdish peshmergas face off across an increasingly tense divide. On several occasions, these forces have come perilously close to head-on collision. Further contributing to the governorate’s growing instability and tinderbox quality is the vast array of official and unofficial armed groups: the national army and police; the Kurdistan regional government’s (KRG) security forces (peshmerga) and security police (asaesh); what remains of Sunni Arab insurgent groups; and tribal militias.

Caught between Arabs and Kurds are ethnic and religious minorities in whom the central government has evinced little interest. While Ninewa is majority Arab with a strong Kurdish minority, it also counts a number of smaller groups – Christians, Yazidis, Turkomans and Shabaks – that may comprise a mere 10 per cent of the population but are concentrated in disputed borderlands between Kurdistan and Arab Iraq. They have suffered a disproportionate share of the hardship caused by war, occupation and intercommunal violence and fight today for survival. At times co-opted, at others threatened by one of the camps, they have become vulnerable pawns in a contest that often sees them as little more than fodder. In August and September 2009, four bombings took over 100 lives and left many hundreds more wounded. For minorities, these have been among the deadliest of months.

There have been signs of late that the federal government and its Kurdish counterparts, with U.S. help and pressure, are seeking to address the problem. But dangers remain high, especially as U.S. military disengagement has begun, with unpredictable consequences on various actors’ calculations and the overall balance of forces. Although significantly diminished, insurgent groups also remain active. They could decide to focus on anti-Kurdish attacks or step up violence against minority groups in disputed territories in hopes of prompting greater unrest and encouraging Arab-Kurdish recrimination.

Any successful effort to defuse the crisis needs to be two-tracked. As Crisis Group has repeatedly argued, Iraq’s fundamental and festering problem concerns the allocation of power, land and resources. With national elections approaching in early 2010, it is hard to imagine the federal government, KRG or any domestic party engaging in politically costly compromise, however urgent the need. At the governorate level, however, steps could be more realistic. Arabs and Kurds should agree on an interim arrangement that gives the latter a legitimate share of power while allowing the former to govern; Kurdish military and police forces should be formally incorporated into federal army units and Ninewa’s security police, respectively, under joint command and with joint patrolling. Minority groups should be given far greater protection and subjected to far fewer attempts at manipulation. The idea, floated by some U.S. officials, of temporarily inserting American soldiers in joint army-peshmerga patrols is interesting and not only because it might produce immediate benefits. It would also send a message about Washington’s longer-term commitment that would be no less indispensable.

Mosul/Washington/Brussels, 28 September 2009

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.