Is cutting access to the Internet, imposing curfews and violently breaking up protests supposed to calm the anger felt by Iraqis in all corners of this traumatized nation? Clumsy, aggressive responses to the unrest appear calculated to exacerbate the anger.
Iraqi cities have erupted into war zones, with dozens of fatalities from pitched battles between demonstrators and paramilitaries. Messages circulated from Iraqis warning that Najaf and Karbala were in a state of war and urging Shiite pilgrims in the Gulf to stay away. With youth unemployment exceeding 25 percent, almost unlimited numbers of desperate young people are anxious to vent their anger.
There is a lot to be angry about: A country with among the world’s largest oil reserves is failing to provide reliable supplies of electricity and drinkable water. Iraq routinely tops lists of the most corrupt nations — its Board of Supreme Audit in 2015 estimated that about $40 billion of illicit funds were smuggled out of the country annually. One survey found that 89 percent of businesses in Karbala reported having to bribe public officials to “get things done” — it was 100 percent in Basra.
Clientelism and corruption are the norm. When an official extorts a substantial cut from a real estate deal, he is considered “shatir” (clever). The rare official who plays by the rules and fails to enrich his family and associates is “ahbal” (an idiot). Powerful factions compete to dominate government departments, which they flood with hundreds of their foot soldiers. Officials aren’t expected to be competent, qualified or even to show up for work, unless for lucrative remunerative opportunities.
Iraqis relate how children of ministers are awarded diplomatic status overseas, enjoying millionaire lifestyles — luxury cars, drugs, glitzy parties and copious spending — while not exercising diplomatic responsibilities. Iraq is carved up among mafia fiefdoms belonging to Iran-backed paramilitary factions, which devour profits from local businesses, take their cut from construction deals, extort money from locals, and syphon off oil supplies and other resources.
This is not Sunni against Shiite. The demonstrators are primarily Shiites, protesting about Shiite leaders who have failed to even favor their own immediate communities. The chants of “Iran get out” show that everybody knows who pulls the strings.
Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi’s warning that Iraqis have a choice between “a state or a non-state” misses the point that this state is a colossal parasite, sucking out the nation’s wealth and extinguishing fundamental rights. One can forgive Iraqis for believing they would be better off without shouldering the burden of this criminal, dysfunctional state. Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani was correct in holding all segments of this state accountable and demanding rigorous action against corruption; not just mid-ranking officials, but all the way to the top.
A new BBC investigation has revealed how Iraq’s glaring clash of desperate poverty and extreme wealth has fueled the phenomenon of temporary marriage. Underage girls are repeatedly sold into “marriages,” which may last as little as half an hour. Clerics allow clients to choose from large photo albums of potential “wives.” Although this religiously sanctioned prostitution is technically illegal, powerful Shiite leaders allow it to flourish.
It scarcely matters whether the ongoing eruption of public anger forces the resignation of Abdul Mahdi. He has achieved nothing for citizens and any successor would be equally ineffective. Iraq’s problems are deep and systemic. Decisions are the product of corrupt brinkmanship between allies of cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr and Iran-backed factions. For all Al-Sadr’s posturing about addressing citizens’ aspirations, what has he achieved? He called for the government to resign, yet his faction is the government. He must take ownership of this crisis. In the post-2005 phase, Sadrist politicians were among the most corrupt and abusive whenever they were put in charge of institutions, so why is Al-Sadr still portrayed as a national savior? His recent appearance in Iran sitting between Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Gen. Qassem Soleimani raised questions among Iraqis about where his affiliations lie.
Iran has always favored weak, malleable prime ministers, blocking the appointment of uncorrupted Iraqi nationalists to senior roles. Iraq’s political cancer is horribly familiar to Lebanese, who have seen their own nation increasingly fall under the stranglehold of Hezbollah and other corrupt factions. Wealthy and flourishing nations have been brought to their knees by powerful vested interests and, ultimately, the ayatollahs of Tehran. In recent days, Syrian demonstrators in Deir Ezzor were chanting for the “downfall of Iranian militias.” Having helped cause the Iraq protests, Iran’s immediate response was to close its own borders, fearing the contagion of unrest.
There was a time, under previous US administrations and a functioning EU and UN, when states like Iraq would have come under intense moral pressure to avoid excessive force. Today — whether in China, Russia, Egypt or Iran — protests can be ruthlessly suppressed with the world scarcely noticing. US President Donald Trump’s leaked conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping, in which he offered to ignore the unrest in Hong Kong in exchange for progress on trade, tells us exactly what kind of world we live in. Iraqi demonstrators facing down live ammunition are living the consequences of this age of impunity.
Thus, although many citizens are on the streets over prosaic issues like jobs, rubbish collection and clean water, these protests represent an existential battle for Iraq’s survival. Success cannot be measured in the token sackings of mid-ranking officials or more empty promises. Change will only be possible through the exclusion of Iran’s malign influence, a no-holds-barred war against corruption, and a fundamental recalibration of Iraq’s political system. Above all, Iraq needs to regain its independence and sovereignty under strong, uncorrupted and nationalist leaders who put their citizens first.