Since Baghdad announced the defeat of ISIS three years ago, Iraqis have been forming a new nationalistic identity primarily motivated by their country’s increased hardships. This identity transformation was motivated by the political leadership’s continued failure to improve the economic and security situation even 17 years after Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. Further, citizens are dealing with collapsing state services as well as the negative impact of religious parties and foreign influence on the state and its institutions. This dissatisfaction with the existing political parties and status quo gave way to new sentiments of an identity inclusive of all sects and religions.
This desire to rid the Iraqi political system of corruption and decrease the level of foreign influence has pushed Iraqi citizens to demand fair representation based on an “Iraq first” concept. The formation of the new government and selection of the current prime minister can be attributed to the country’s changing landscape and increasing frustrations.
A Country Divided, An Identity United?
Following the 2003 removal of Saddam Hussein and the dismantling of the existing state structure, a new political system emerged, designed primarily by the U.S. and exiled Iraqi politicians. This new system pushed Iraqis into an ethno-sectarian structure of government, where identity politics — mainly Arab-Kurdish and Sunni-Shiite dynamics — dominated the state. This eventually contributed to the deterioration of a common national identity, and later instigated the ethnic and sectarian conflict.
The post-2003 political transition and the internal power struggles placed significant pressure on the preexisting Iraqi national identity where ethnicity and sect had less influence on society. The country was divided between how to deal with the new U.S.-formed Iraqi government, which has contributed to several divisions along the sectarian and ethnic lines in Iraq. The dissolution of the armed forces and the rise of ethnic and sectarian powers led to the rise of insurgencies, militias, and, in turn, armed conflict.
An insurgency engulfed the country from 2003 to 2011, but most of the sectarian violence occurred between 2006-2008, since, at that point, the common national identity had been nearly replaced with sectarian and ethnic identities. This division was mainly catalyzed by different political parties vying for power over the state.
For a majority of the time since the invasion, al-Dawa Party, a religious political party backed by Iran, has controlled the government in Baghdad, and its background and ideology have played a large role in framing the state’s identity. The post-2003 ruling class was met with discontent by many Iraqis, particularly the marginalized groups. Since 2018, many blame the new system – that made government appointments based on sect and ethnicity rather than qualifications – for corruption, high unemployment rates, and the Iranian influence in the state’s domestic politics.
Threat of Militias and Foreign Forces Influenced National Identity
The October Revolution of 2019-2020 was not a spontaneous event. Rather, it was the culmination of years of popular frustration with corruption and Iran’s heavy influence in its domestic politics. What started off as small regional demonstrations transformed into national unrest, uniting Iraqis for one main objective: creating a government free from corruption that works for Iraqis and is not influenced by foreign actors. From this protest emerged a new vision of the country’s future.
Protests began in Baghdad, in Shia-majority areas like Sadr City, and in the Southern provinces. This geographical diversity illustrates that protests were not constrained to religious ideologies or geographic identities, and as such they began combining forces to protest the government of Adil Abdul al-Mahdi and the rest of the political elite. The epicenter of the demonstrations, Tahrir Square in Baghdad, became a symbol of community challenging the entire political system and militias created post-2003. Unlike in previous demonstrations, protestors removed all leaders’ pictures and parties’ flags and only kept the national flag.
In line with the changing allegiance among Iraqis, this movement has also shaped an Iraqi cultural revolution in which Iraqis broke boundaries set by the political class to divide the country based on sect and region. After October 2019, Iraqis have experienced a rise of freedom of expression, intellectual discussion, and creativity, all of which have contributed to the re-emergence of a unifying Iraqi national identity centered around a collective hope for a better country and one that does not revolve around religious or ethnic lines.
These new national sentiments and the civil unrest had a clear objective: a stronger role of the state in curtailing the power of security forces and paramilitary groups. Militias felt that the increasing popular demand for change was threatening their power and finance channels, and thus took action against protestors through attacks, kidnapping, and assassinations of movement leaders. These threats further united the protestors who saw the militias as a common threat, strengthening the national unifying identity.
Kata’ib Hezbollah, an Iranian backed paramilitary group, has gained the status of being one of the most notorious Shia militia groups operating in Iraq. In early June of this year, Iraqi security forces raided a center for the paramilitary group and arrested 14 of its members. This was a significant move by the new PM Mustafa al-Kadhimi as it conveyed that the state is increasing their pushback to assert their power inline with the heightened calls to affirm national identity.
In November 2019, The Intercept and the New York Times published The Iran Cables, which included hundreds of secret intelligence reports from Iran. This leak proved to be a pivotal moment in understanding the Iranian influence on Baghdad, as it further established the depths of Iran’s involvement in Iraqi politics, paramilitary groups, and parties, and was linked to the violence against protestors. According to the War Documentation Center in Iraq, there have been more than 600 deaths and 25,000 civilian injuries since the demonstrations began. This violence has even strengthened a common consensus for the need of weapon restrictions in the hands of the state’s armed forces.
Militias Brutality Strengthens National Identity
Iranian-backed paramilitary groups began increasingly targeting vocal Iraqi figures and activists that are promoting a more unified Iraq that is in control of Iraqis without interference or corruption. This new era of an “Iraq first” idea of governance has been increasingly expressed since October 2019 and invoked fears among militias, who reacted with brutality.
As militias targeting activists and public figures increased, so did protests and popular demands to strip them of their power and weapons. The killings of protesters by government security forces and Iranian-backed militias furthered demands for immediate reform. Safaa al-Saray was one of many activists who were victims of the Iran-backed militias. Al-Saray was killed by a tear gas canister during the protests and became a national icon. His death sparked outrage across the country, internationally, and on social media, where the hashtag كلنا_صفاء_السراي# (“we are all Safaa al-Saray”) gained notoriety across social media platforms. This goes to show that Iraqis were banding together under an “Iraq first” concept of identity, rather than one based on ethnic or sectarian lines.
The most recent victim was one of Iraq’s most prominent counterterrorism experts, Hisham Al-Hashimi, who was assassinated in front of his house after receiving several threats from Iranian-backed militias. Al-Hashimi was vocal about the effect of these militias on the role of state and government sovereignty. The blatancy of the assassination pushed Iraq’s president and prime minister to make an official condemnation.
The emergence of a new non-sectarian collective identity among Iraqis showcases a promising future for the state, free of foreign intervention and sectarian intolerance. Driven by the “Iraq first” sentiment, Iraqis are demanding an end to all foreign intervention. As Iraq continues to be a stage for the United States and Iran’s proxy conflict, it is imperative to continue monitoring how the new government of Al-Khadmimi will address the grievances set forth by Iraqi citizens and what reforms will come of it.