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Iraq and its Multiple Crises: Is Baghdad at its Tipping Point?

Following the resignation of Abdul Mahdi’s government in November 2019, the Iraqi parliament voted in May to trust a new government led by the former head of the secret services, Mustafa al-Khadimi. Now, the Iraqi government faces a multitude of challenges, including the coronavirus pandemic, resurgence of ISIS, and the widespread discontent of the population and its related protests. The greater roadblock in tackling these challenges, let alone resolving them,  is government impotence – and, therefore, paralysis. This paralysis stems from conflicting narratives regarding the government’s responsibility to rebuild the country and manage the lasting consequences of the 2003 U.S. led war and occupation. Without strong sovereignty, no government will be able to devise and enact a strategy in Iraq’s national interests, which as of now continue to be defined – at both the formal and informal levels – according to the interests of Washington and Tehran. The question thus stands: Should Iraq demand the expulsion of all foreign troops (U.S., NATO, Iranian, and Turkish) troops from the country?

The withdrawal of U.S. troops would not in itself allow for a restoration of Iraqi sovereignty. The presence of American troops and related blowback phenomena, of which ISIS represents the most grotesque, and the effective debilitation of Sunni political forces, has prompted an unprecedented level of Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs. Not since the time of the Barmakids during the Abbasid Caliphate has Baghdad experienced such a strong Persian influence. Meanwhile, the antagonism between Tehran and Washington ensures that, from a strategic standpoint, neither side would entertain the prospect of leaving Iraq. Outgoing U.S. President Trump may yet try to withdraw a portion of American troops in Iraq (and Afghanistan), but he has little over a month to pull it off. The Iraqi parliament did pass a motion demanding the departure of foreign forces (excluding Iran’s) following last January’s killing of General Soleimani, the commander of the Quds forces and de-facto commander of the Iraqi Shiite People’s Mobilization Forces (PMFs). Yet, the phrase ‘be careful what you ask for’ remains relevant as many Iraqi parliamentarians have reason to worry about Trump’s decision.

Their Concerns are Dichotomous

A hasty retreat of U.S. troops could compromise Iraq’s security even further, as does the claim that ISIS has suffered a definitive blow. Meanwhile, in 2020, Iranian-affiliated militias have launched several attacks against U.S. military and diplomatic targets – also in retaliation for Soleimani’s assassination. Still, even at a formal level and away from the streets, U.S.-Iraq relations have further suffered because Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, leader of the PMFs, consistently challenges American military forces. In contrast, should President-elect Joe Biden decide to reverse Trump’s withdrawal plans – as is likely given the all but confirmed appointment of Anthony Blinken, an Iraq war hawk, for Secretary of State – Baghdad will have to endure the continued burden of being perceived as a U.S. puppet. Trump has expressed a willingness to withdraw his troops, and al-Khadimi – or anyone else who should occupy his position – has become aware that those demanding an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops can no longer be ignored. Such a withdrawal across confessional lines represents the most immediate way for the Iraqi government to illustrate their intent to restore Iraqi national sovereignty and territorial integrity. But, for this to happen, the Biden administration will have to stay clear of ambitions to ‘fight’ ISIS in Iraq, which locals would perceive as a pretext for more “occupation.”

This foreign presence stifles the development of the Iraqi political system, perpetuating the precarious confessionalism that generates tensions among the various communities while allowing for external manipulation. The phenomenon of ISIS serves as a reminder of the kind of volatility that the combination of these elements can produce. Al-Khadimi, the former chief of Iraqi intelligence, appears to be stronger on paper. Despite appearances, however, the overall circumstances that led to this appointment have not changed, indicating an unprecedented popular pressure for a PM out of the political class.

Confessionalism [muhasasa ta’ifiya] at the Heart of the Protests

The protests achieved what many Iraqi governments, including those of the Ba’ath decades, could not: unify the country. Sunnis and Shiites alike have decided that the system of muhasasa ta’ifiya (literally ‘sectarian quotas’, roughly translated as ‘confessionalism’: power is divided on religious and/or ethnic grounds) no longer works – not that there’s any evidence it has ever worked. On October 25, demonstrators occupied Tahrir Square in Baghdad to mark the first anniversary of the protests, which began there near the fortified Green Zone. The protests spread to various cities, including Babylon and Basra. As in 2019, security forces intervened to disperse the angry crowds, which claimed to be involved in a veritable revolution. The 2019 protests did succeed in forcing the government’s resignation, resulting in al-Khadimi’s appointment on May 6, but this was not enough. Indeed, the demonstrations have continued to spread at the national level. A year later, dissatisfied with the new government’s efforts to regain the popular trust, their demands have not changed: the overhaul of the entire political class, which has proven to be corrupt and more loyal to Iran or the United States than to Iraq.

The two main confessional groups and contenders of political power – now that Kurdistan enjoys de-facto autonomy from Baghdad – were united in their fatigue with the system. Despite the protests and the instability, negotiations have culminated in the formation of a government, but this has not stopped the people, fed up from having to absorb disappointments from lingering problems, from demanding an end to the system. Such problems include untenable unemployment and underemployment; inefficient public services; damaged infrastructure from decades of war and then neglect; and a perception of widespread injustice, given the government’s failure to prosecute those responsible for killing some 500 protestors in October 2019.

Mutually Reinforcing Crises of Health, Economy, and Justice

The coronavirus pandemic has not stopped the protests; rather, it has added to the litany of problems that Iraq must confront. Even the pandemic has affected the population along ta’ifiya fault lines. Most people fail to follow the (distrusted) government’s mandated precautions, and the country’s health system was not only unprepared but is still recovering from decades of war and haphazard management. As such, rural areas, where open markets and widespread religious gatherings tend to occur, have suffered far higher inflections than urban ones. Still, from a systemic point of view, COVID’s relative impact has generated an economic and a health emergency. Indeed, the pandemic has caused oil prices to collapse. Given that Iraq remains OPEC’s second most prolific oil producer, the economy has all but crashed.

The Iraqi government has minimal resources to help alleviate the financial difficulties caused by the closure of commercial services – not to mention the already chronic levels of unemployment – due to measures to confront the pandemic. The government’s failure to provide and protect its people in the face of the pandemic has only further intensified overall discontent. Basra, Iraq’s poorest city, exemplifies the crisis well. Not only does the (largely Shiite) city account for about a third of all Iraq’s oil production, but some 40% of the population already lives below the poverty line. Basra is but one example of a city that is likely to disproportionately suffer due to the COVID-19 outbreak, which has forced a considerable cut in production and, in turn, increasing unemployment levels.

The Prospects for Change are Not Optimistic

It was the vacuum from the American-induced collapse of the Ba’ath government that allowed the built-in sectarian frailties of Iraq to emerge (as yet another rotten fruit of the Sykes-Picot Accords) and the muhasasa (quota) to become all but officially adopted since 2003. The Iraqi muhasasa establishes governmental representation on an ethno-sectarian basis, allotting power proportionally and thus resulting in the political domination of Shiites and the marginalization of Sunnis. This system promotes a situation of patronage and corruption while also heightening Iraq’s ethnic and sectarian divisions. Both the U.S. and Iran favor this system as all ‘divide et impera’ (divide and rule) methods tend to benefit Tehran and Washington because it seemingly hinders the establishment of a genuine national identity. Such an identity might represent the essence of the protesters’ demands, which, while rooted in poverty and unemployment, are articulated in their popular cry: ‘nu-rid watan (we want a nation).

If Iraq continues to lack full sovereignty and the space to develop independently of Tehran and Washington, the aspirations of its people and its greater national interests cannot be fulfilled. Accordingly, in 2019 as in 2020, the protest movement has confirmed its national, as opposed to sectarian, nature. Indeed, the protesters represent the bulk of Iraqi society, which is composed largely by Shiites. The fact that protesters are expressing similar demands in the streets of all major Iraqi cities from North to South serves as further evidence that they are not motivated out of sectarianism. Rather, these are protests wherein Shiite-majority communities are challenging Shiite-led political parties and militias. More than at any other time since the fall of Saddam Hussein, the disadvantaged peoples of Iraq have adopted a genuine revolutionary logic in the Marxist sense, rooted in a logic of class struggle rather than a sectarianism. It is unlikely that any government rooted in the muhasasa will have the breadth and heterogeneity to implement the kinds of changes that adequately address the demands of the masses, which would require nothing short of a cultural shift. Given the way in which the Iraqi state has reacted, with its violent reaction serving as proof of its institutional weakness, Iraq appears to be approaching a revolution. The al-Khadimi government must address the causes of the revolts and seriously ensure that radical change occurs. Otherwise, the protests risk continuing or escalating.

While the demonstrations have succeeded in bringing down two successive prime ministers since 2018, the government has yet to adopt or even propose reforms to address the population’s legitimate grievances, which include economic development, provision of essential services and infrastructure that have been damaged by decades of war, and more employment opportunities. The government has drafted a new electoral law and revised the Constitution – another of the protesters’ demands – but Parliament has yet to approve it. Nonetheless, the protesters are unlikely to be satisfied by anything short of a radical reform of the political system, one that addresses the muhasasa and the corruption and clientelism it promotes, as well as justice for those killed in the process of government repression.


Alessandro Bruno (@TheAlessandrist) is an analyst at Gulf State Analytics (@GulfStateAnalyt), a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy. He is a frequent guest on BBC, CBC, and CTV. He holds an MA in International Relations from the University of Toronto – where he also started a Ph.D. Bruno has worked abroad as a United Nations officer in Libya. @TheAlessandrist.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

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Alessandro Bruno (@TheAlessandrist) is an analyst at Gulf State Analytics (@GulfStateAnalyt), a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy. He is a frequent guest on BBC, CBC, and CTV. He holds an MA in International Relations from the University of Toronto – where he also started a Ph.D. Bruno has worked abroad as a United Nations officer in Libya. @TheAlessandrist.

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