Even as protests in Baghdad and the southern provinces appear to have subsided for now, the fact is that Iraq finds itself in the eye of a political storm that threatens to bring down the one-year-old government of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi. More than 100 people were killed and over 6,000 injured, according to security sources, in six days of sporadic and spontaneous anti-government protests, where riot police and the army are accused of using live ammunition against largely peaceful protesters. But there are indicators that infiltrators, including snipers, have targeted both protesters and the police.
The protests have rattled the government, which, after initially using force, announced that it was implementing steps to tackle unemployment, poor services and corruption. But it is anyone’s guess if such steps will pacify an angry public that is fed up with a skewed political system that has made Iraq — an oil-rich country — one of the most corrupt in the world. Iraq was ranked the 168th least corrupt nation out of 180, according to the 2018 Corruption Perceptions Index reported by Transparency International.
Since the US invasion in 2003, Iraq has been going through one crisis after another — the most recent was to battle ISIS, which at one point occupied almost a third of the country. The operation to wrestle territory back from ISIS came at a huge cost, with millions displaced and thousands losing their lives. The effort to rebuild is yet to begin.
Iraq’s ethno-sectarian system continues to plague a country of multiple ethnicities and faiths. Previous governments have deepened the sectarian divide and the current one has done little to heal the wounds. Corruption has become so institutionalized that it seems impossible to confront it when most lawmakers and politicians stand to benefit from the status quo. When it comes to lack of services, unemployment and poverty, both Sunnis and Shiites share the suffering. Last year it was the Shiite-majority southern provinces that erupted in mass protests, torching party offices and an Iranian consulate.
Aside from a broken political system, Iraqis find themselves caught in a fight between Iran and the US over influence and control. Iran’s presence in Iraq has been growing and Tehran now has thousands of armed loyalists in the form of sectarian militias under the banner of the Iran Militia in Iraq and Syria (IMIS).
These militias answer to Tehran and not to the Baghdad government, and efforts to put them under Ministry of Defense command have largely failed.
Iranian leaders make no secret of their blatant interference in Iraqi affairs. In fact, as US influence wanes across the region, Tehran appears to have increased its presence in Iraq. The geopolitical tussle between Iran and the US threatens to drag Iraq into becoming a battlefield. Tehran has made a number of threats that, if it is attacked by Washington, US troops in Iraq will become a target. IMIS bases have been hit by drone strikes over the past months — most likely by Israel. The Iraqi government has expressed its dissatisfaction with Iranian threats and underlined that Iraqi territory will not be used in a potential confrontation. But its protests change nothing on the ground.
While the recent protests centered on poor services, unemployment — which now averages 14 percent — and corruption, there were also chants denouncing Iran and its meddling in Iraqi affairs. But Iraq’s deepening crisis has to do with its largely corrupt political elite as well. No prime minister can muster the strength to uproot corrupt officials without facing dire consequences. Abdul Mahdi has failed to deliver on many of his promises from when he took office. It is unlikely that he will be able to wage a campaign against corruption under the present political system.
The supreme Shiite religious authority under Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani has sided with the protesters’ demands and called for dialogue. But influential players such as cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr and former Prime Minister Haider Abadi have called for early elections. However, without fundamental changes in the political system, which continues to rely on quotas, and an end to the foreign interference in Iraqi affairs, change is unlikely to happen. For now, Iraqis are hostage to a system that is genetically dysfunctional and will continue to be so.
Like other Arab countries that are going through transition and crises, it is the youth that are the main drivers of protests and change. A recent survey of youth in the region by the Arab Barometer found that less than half of Iraqi youths identify as religious and only 21 percent are interested in politics. Only 6 percent are satisfied with government efforts to improve employment opportunities. With the youth making up 20 percent of Iraq’s near-40 million population, no government can afford to ignore their demands. The protests may have died down for now, but they will be back again as long as meaningful change fails to materialize.