What are the ramifications of Iraq’s protest unrest? - analysis

Supporters of Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr protest against corruption, inside the parliament in Baghdad, Iraq July 30, 2022.

The problem with Iraq is not just sectarianism; it is also a purposeful attempt by the parties to keep the central government weak.

Iraqi protesters have taken over areas near the parliament and have caused the government to stop work as it waits to see where the protests will lead next.

This isn’t the first time Iraq has been rocked by huge protests. Over the years, supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr have often targeted the parliament and Green Zone. Large anti-corruption protests in 2019 also succeeded in unseating a prime minister.

Deeply unstable

Iraq is deeply unstable. It has economic problems; it is a weak state in the aftermath of the ISIS war, lacking international support. The West Asian country is occupied by Turkish forces in the north and pro-Iranian militias in many other areas. It is thus a scene of power struggles and intrigue. The environs lack basic investment and it suffers huge water shortages. Iraq has also been at war since 1980: first against Iran, then against the US and also internally.

This means that for many, the current protests are not some earth-shattering event. People know the country is divided between the autonomous Kurdistan region in the north; the mostly Shi’ite center and south; and the Sunni areas. Each sectarian group has its own political parties. Although he enjoys large amounts of support, Sadr refuses to take leadership and form a government.

Muqtada al-Sadr (credit: REUTERS)

The UN has urged Iraq’s parties to form a government but so far, the parties haven’t found a candidate they agree on. The massive protests were ostensibly set off because Sadr’s supporters object to a pro-Iranian candidate being put forward who is viewed as corrupt. “Sadr supporters stormed Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone and forced their way into the legislative chamber in protest of the pro-Iran Coordination Framework’s candidate for the Iraqi premiership,” Rudaw reported.

The UN has asked for protesters to “de-escalate.” But it also says that “freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are fundamental rights that must be respected at all times,” according to a statement by Farhan Haq, deputy spokesman for UN Secretary-General António Guterres.

THE STATEMENTS from the UN and also from other governments are not helpful. None of them have a solution for Iraq’s problems. They don’t invest in the country – and they also don’t help secure Iraqis.

For instance, the dozens of rockets fired by pro-Iran militias in recent months are rarely condemned. The missiles target energy infrastructure, northern Iraq’s Kurdistan region and Turkish and American forces. Turkey also bombards northern Iraq, which often harms civilian life. Ankara claims to be fighting “terrorists” there, but it has caused people to flee villages – and killed tourists.

The UN, US and others have no solution to this endless low-level war. Many of the countries that invested in the international coalition against ISIS, for instance, are unwilling to do much to provide infrastructure. There are still many thousands in internally displaced person camps in northern Iraq, people who fled ISIS in 2014. It is now the anniversary of the ISIS genocide against Yazidis, and little has been done to rebuild their areas. This shows that the talk about Iraq needing a government is more lip service than commitment.

The Iraqi parliamentary speaker on Saturday suspended the parliament’s work. “I call on the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces to take the necessary measures to protect the institutions and the demonstrators, whom I call upon to maintain their peace and preserve state property,” Mohammed al-Halbousi said in a statement.

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has also spoken out. “The political blocs must sit down, negotiate and reach an understanding for the sake of Iraq and the Iraqis,” he said in a televised speech. “The language of treason and exclusion must be avoided, and a high and inclusive patriotic spirit must be displayed.”

Meanwhile, Kurdistan Regional President Nechirvan Barzani has invited all Iraqi political leaders to hold dialogue in Erbil to resolve their outstanding political issues regarding the formation of an upcoming Iraqi government, according to a statement from the Kurdistan regional government’s office. At the same time, it is unclear whether Sadr is still in Iraq or is now in Iran – and whether Iran will help broker some kind of deal.

A purposeful push to keep Iraq's government week

THE PROBLEM with Iraq is not just sectarianism; it is also a purposeful attempt by the parties to keep the central government weak. After suffering under the centralized authoritarianism of Saddam Hussein, many do not want a strongman in Baghdad. Nouri al-Maliki, who was prime minister until 2014, was a kind of strongman and many think he harmed Iraq deeply.

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, the current leader, has tried to stand with the protesters and listen to them. He has also tried to broker meetings with Saudi Arabia and Iran so that Iraq is not the center of political struggles with Saudi Arabia and other countries.

As if to remind Iraqis of the tragedies of their past, the bodies of new victims of the Anfal genocide against Kurds were recently found in the Kurdistan region and re-interred in Barzan. It is a reminder of the genocide of the 1980s, but also the recent genocide that ISIS attempted to carry out.

Iraq has a hard time escaping from this tragic past. Many protesters want an end to corruption and have hope for the future. They were promised a kind of peace dividend when the war on ISIS largely ended in 2017, but it never came. Instead, The beleaguered country has suffered continued chaos. Much of this is due to the involvement of outside powers like its neighbors Iran, and even Turkey.

But it is also due to a divided political sectarian system and the sense that many do not want a strong Baghdad. The end result is a weak government and an Iraq that doesn’t control parts of its own territory. Where there is a vacuum – chaos will enter – especially when there are weak institutions.

The ramifications of this relate to the fact that Iran uses Iraq to transfer missiles and drones to Syria and Hezbollah. In addition, pro-Iran militias threaten the Gulf and also threaten Jordan because of their involvement in the drug trade of Captagon, the “poor man’s cocaine.”

Iraq’s Kurdistan region is a hinge of regional security. American forces have facilities in Erbil and the US uses this area to help secure eastern Syria. Turkey is threatening new invasions of eastern Syria, meaning that Erbil is even more important than in the past. But pro-Iran militias target this region, increasing rocket attacks on energy facilities. Erbil also has a dispute with Baghdad about energy exports.

In addition, Turkey’s conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in northern Iraq also harms civilian life. It appears that Ankara has expanded its war in northern Iraq, meaning that the stability of the Kurdistan region is threatened.

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