The final days of 2019 were particularly traumatic for Iraq. On Dec. 29, the US launched airstrikes on three targets in Iraq and two in Syria linked with the Iran-affiliated militia Kataib Hezbollah, which is a part of the Shiite militia conglomerate, the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU). On Dec. 31, there were violent protests outside the US Embassy in Baghdad.
This followed a two-day blockade by youthful protesters — who have been demanding wide-ranging political reform since early October — at an oilfield in Nasiriya, the first time agitators have disrupted oil production.
The three-month-long demonstrations have been a forceful call to reject Iraq’s political “spoils’ system,” which brings together parties in short-term alliances to form governments based on ethnic and sectarian quotas. Ministerial positions, largesse and contracts are divided up among these allies, propagating — the demonstrators claim — a corrupt order that consumes national resources with impunity, without providing the security, services, employment and development the country desperately needs. The demand from those on the streets is to end this corrupt order and instead have direct, constituency-based elections.
The protests have already led to the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi on Nov. 29, but politicians have been unable to agree on his successor. The names proffered so far are all establishment figures, reflecting the order the youth are railing against.
Further complicating matters, President Barham Salih has announced that he will reject all nominees for prime minister who do not reflect the “characteristics” insisted on by the protesters — independence from existing parties, proximity to the people, a “clean record,” and removed from foreign influences, particularly Iran and the US.
Iraq’s current MPs — themselves products and beneficiaries of the existing order — have no interest in reform. And so, in an attempt to end the protests, they have resorted to intimidation and brute force: Over 450 demonstrators have been killed and several thousand injured in harsh crackdowns, not just by security forces but also by pro-Iranian militias.
The new year does not augur well for Iraq. The protesters have displayed staying power and consistency of both anger and idealism.
Abdul Mahdi was installed as prime minister following an agreement between the two principal Shiite parties in Parliament: Sairoon — led by the populist cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr — and Fatah, the political face of the PMU, backed by Iran. Amid the ongoing protests, Al-Sadr has distanced himself from Fatah and attempted to present himself as being aligned with the demonstrators, something they unceremoniously rejected. Fatah is now anxious to secure a pro-Iran prime minister.
Meanwhile, Iran is convinced that the US is the principal instigator of anti-Iran sentiment among Iraq’s Shiite demonstrators and is utilizing its political and military assets in Iraq to secure its position. It is using pro-Iran militias to confront the demonstrators and to launch rocket attacks on US bases and facilities. US sources said on Dec. 20 that, over the previous five weeks, there had been nine missile attacks on its forces.
These attacks by pro-Iran elements are also a reminder to the agitators on the street of Iran’s firm opposition to any US presence in the country, feeding into the anti-US sentiment that pervades the nation.
This US-Iran proxy conflict included an attack on US military facilities in Kirkuk on Dec. 27 in which a US contractor was killed. This led to the US attacks on Dec. 29 in which 25 militants were killed, which many in Iraq viewed as a violation of the country’s sovereignty.
This sparked an immediate retaliatory attack on the US base in Taji, before the mob attack on the US Embassy on Dec. 31. US President Donald Trump accused Iran of “orchestrating” those attacks, thus setting the stage for a further escalation that could endanger not just Iraq but the wider region.
So the new year does not augur well for Iraq. The protesters have displayed staying power and consistency of both anger and idealism. They have already brought down the prime minister. But they lack a committed cadre, a unifying ideology and any recognized leadership. So while they may overthrow the government, they cannot replace it with one from their own ranks.
In the short term, therefore, we are likely to see Iraq’s politicians effect some cosmetic changes to the order, while keeping the spoils’ system on which they thrive intact. There is talk of the politicians putting up as interim prime minister a popular military leader to instigate some reform in the transition period. If that fails, there are fears of a military coup, but — given the presence of strong militias and the commitment of the people to freedom and democracy — that outcome is very unlikely.
However, the aspirations of the protesters face a bigger challenge — a civil conflict between competing Shiite militia that could also involve a US-Iran military confrontation, something that both sides say they do not want, but appear to be making little effort to avoid.
Iraq will then be the field on which these battles are fought and — following the enduring destruction of two Gulf Wars — the country will be devastated once again.