October marks the one-year anniversary of Iraq’s anti-government protests. These protests have shaken Iraq while it still recovers from the devastating war with ISIS. Iraqis are furious with the Iranian interference, ineffectual governance, violent militia impunity, and crippling corruption in their government. These issues must be addressed by an accountable, open government if Iraq is to be saved from sliding back into civil war and dictatorship. However, with a pandemic, a tense international environment, and powerful armed interests, even well-meaning reformers in the Iraqi government face a momentous challenge.
Like many protest movements, the catalyst was a small injustice. Lieutenant General Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi- a war hero revered by millions of Iraqis- was stripped of his command and kicked upstairs to a desk job. The reason was clear- as commander of Iraq’s counter-terrorism service, al-Saadi had formed a working relationship with the US military to fight ISIS. Now that ISIS was largely defeated, this relationship was unacceptable to the pro-Iran elites dominating Baghdad.
To many Iraqis, al-Saadi’s removal was a symbol of everything wrong with Iraq’s politics. It has become a system riddled with corruption, that values factional loyalty over merit, is beholden to foreign interests, and disregards the will of the average citizen. The economy has grown steadily since 2003, and yet public services are decaying, unemployment remains high, and security remains low, with a military kneecapped by its own government. The Iraqi government is consumed by politicking while neglecting the actual business of governing. It is not surprising, then, that al-Saadi’s dismissal served as a lighting rod for Iraqi anger at the state, with protests quickly boiling over into a public revolt.
Facing a clear condemnation of its performance, the notionally elected government in Baghdad responded as one might expect an unelected government to: with massive violence and a propaganda offensive. Hundreds of protestors have been killed and thousands wounded by security forces. The response by powerful pro-Iranian militias has been even more vicious, engaging in a campaign of assassination, kidnapping, and general terrorism against the protest movement. These militias spearheaded a propaganda drive to delegitimize the movement, portraying protests as an Israel/American/Saudi conspiracy. All these efforts failed, instead convincing protestors that the regime really had become a sham democracy.
Under siege, Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi agreed to resign pending a replacement. As has become so typical of Iraq’s factional politics, finding that replacement proved torturously drawn out. After two potential candidates were vetoed for being too pro-American or too pro-Iranian, intelligence Director Mustafa Al-Kadhimi was finally sworn in as Prime Minister in May 2020.
Al-Kadhimi seems genuinely interested in reform. He made immediate concessions, freeing imprisoned protestors, and restored Lt. Gen. al-Saadi’s position. Before working for Iraq’s intelligence service, Al-Khadimi had a long career in journalism and activism. He is not strictly beholden to Iraq’s myriad factions, and has a more secular, liberal outlook than the country’s previous leaders. In short, Al-Kadhimi is perhaps as much of a political outsider as the current ruling class in Baghdad can stomach.
Unfortunately, Al-Khadimi faces a difficult task in trying to shift Baghdad’s course. Iran and its powerful militia allies, skeptical of Al-Khadimi’s western outlook and contacts, nearly vetoed his appointment. The coronavirus pandemic has slammed Iraq’s already sickly economy, and the crisis between American and Iran has given Baghdad little room to maneuver in foreign affairs.
Nonetheless, it seems a window has now appeared for some change in Iraq. If the Al-Kadhimi government can polish the judiciary, protect civil rights, ensure a free election, and restrain the militia movement without provoking Iran, there may be a path to improving Iraq. That is a tall order, but is it impossible?
Iraq’s large, well-organized, and well-armed militias are perhaps the biggest obstacle any reformist government must face. These powerful groups have a vested interest in further corrupting Iraq’s political system and subjecting it to Iranian hegemony. They frequently engage in banditry against everyday citizens and terrorism against their comparatively unarmed political opponents. Formed in the darkest days of the war with ISIS, after the Iraqi army was overwhelmed, the militias have now long outlived any useful function to the Iraqi state and people. They serve only to leech off government corruption and enforce Iran’s will in the country. In short, the pro-Iran militias must be tamed if Iraqi democracy is to survive, and the protestors’ demands addressed.
Getting a foreign-backed army under control is, of course, no easy task. Al-Kadhimi can at least count on popular support, given how far the militias have fallen in the esteem of the Iraqi public. This is a minor factor, however, when reformists lack the strong political organization and infiltration of government that the militias enjoy. America, naturally hostile to Iran’s proxies, has been a mixed blessing at best. On one hand, the killing of militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani in January 2020 did weaken both the organization of the militias and Iran’s control over them. However, in pushing Al-Kadhimi to crack down, the United States risks forcing him into a confrontation with Iran too early; a confrontation Al-Kadhimi would likely lose.
A better policy would be to support the Al-Kadhimi government in gradually weakening the position of militias while strengthening the government. Rather than a massive purge of the government or an armed crackdown on militia groups, the Iraqi government could move to reassert state authority in areas like customs and border control, helping to limit illicit funding. Foreign actors should selectively engage with and aid only those institutions over which the government enjoys more control, such as the Counter Terrorism Service.
The government could also move to build a more diverse pro-reform political coalition and provide more protection to anti-militia dissidents, giving the government a stronger political base to fall back on. This will require economic negotiations and foreign aid to improve Iraqi livelihoods in the face of the pandemic. A broad media effort to counter the propaganda engine of Iran’s militias could also strengthen the political position of the Iraqi reformists and their allies.
Improving the state of civic rights is also vital to ensuring the success of Iraq’s reform movement. At least somewhat polishing Iraq’s tarnished judiciary would reduce graft and improve the functioning of government, including the delivery of services. Ensuring freedom of the press and protecting it from militia violence will help reformist political movements organize and put pressure on the government to fulfill its promises of transparency. Finally, ensuring a fair electoral commission will help stop upcoming elections from putting the same corrupt elites back in control of parliament. With a somewhat cleaner government elected, Iraq could finally begin the long, arduous process of fully addressing the protestors’ demands for a fairer system.
The stakes could scarcely be higher. The Iraqi democracy established after 2003, always heavily flawed, is now broken. Without reform to establish a new democratic system, Iraq risks falling back into civil war as groups fight to dominate a new autocracy. Iraq’s pro-democratic movement faces a mammoth task list and must accomplish it in the face of searing opposition. This effort will be exceedingly difficult, but if handled with tact and caution, it should not be impossible.
I find this article to be very engaging. After the attack near Baghdad and its International Airport in 2020, the Iraqi government condemned it as an act of aggression and a violation of the agreement on the presence of US forces in Iraq, and since then there have been calls for the removal of US troops. US influence has waned and citizens desire to reconstruct their country without the foreign policy agenda of Western powers. While I understand our interests sometimes align, there are concerns with Al-Khadimi and his responsiveness to citizens. Despite his promises of bringing security force personnel to justice for the deaths of nearly 600 protesters and activists, there has been almost no progress in arrests. Additionally, no one has been brought to justice for the murders of journalists and political activists. He has few allies in government and parliament has many pro-Iranian MPs.
While I agree that the rule of law, freedom of the press, and good fiscal policy is important, I do find it peculiar that there is no mention of American sway in the Iraqi government. I am rather curious to see how exactly Al-Kadhimi can reconcile with the public as he has extensive contact with western powers. Much of the demands of Iraqi citizens is self-determination without the political influence of a foreign power. The US has obviously steered the relationship to combat Iran through proxy conflicts. The goal is to make them independent and slowly loosen our grip, I find that hard for US officials who are more concerned in keeping Iraq as a partner for regional influence.
My question is therefore how can Iraqi citizens depend on and support Al-Khadimi if much of his agenda is geared towards his relations with the UK and US over counter-terrorism and security issues?
Hello Leonardo, thanks for your reply and your compliments!
In all countries, but especially one with politics as byzantine as Iraq’s it’s important to look below the immediate surface and get into the gritty details.
Certainly, America is not very popular in Iraq. There is still a lot of resentment from the 2003-2011 war. However, the energy of Iraq’s protest movement has very seldom been directed towards the United States. When it is, it is framed as general rejection of foreign interference, rather than specific anti-Americanism. Right now, Iranian influence and interference in Iraq is much greater than America’s. Iran is also hostile towards the protest movement, while America’s reaction has ranged from neutral to quietly supportive. The armed militias shooting and killing protestors are allies of, or even one and the same as, those lobbing rockets at US military postings.
To put it simply: the interests of the protestors and the interests of the United States, while far from identical, currently overlap. The interests of Iran are diametrically opposed to the protestors. Most Iraqis, I believe, recognize this reality. That’s why we’ve seen the anger of the protestors spill over and directly target Iran, rather than America.
As for the responsiveness of al-Kadhimi, we have to recognize political realities. Those who kill the protestors and attack civil society are backed by powerful political, paramilitary, and military actors. If al-Kadhimi moved as fast as the protestors wanted him to, a coup- be it armed or legislative- would depose him rather quickly. Iraq is a parliamentary democracy. Even though al-Kadhimi was able to squeeze his election through parliament, as mentioned above, his parliamentary support is limited. Moving to fast could quickly result in him losing a vote of confidence, and then it would be over. Alternatively, the pro-Iranian militias might try to assassinate him or even attempt an armed coup.
As for al-Kadhimi’s relations with the West, this is currently more a problem for political, rather than popular support. As mentioned above, many Iraqis (and certainly the protest movement) are more worried about Iranian militias shooting at them than al-Kadhimi being friendly with some Americans. Al-Kadhimi’s main worry is to avoid alienating too much of the government elites and parliament, many of whom are willing to use America as a red herring to redirect popular anger. Parliament asking the US to leave is an example of this- humorously, it was done with a deliberate loophole so that the US didn’t actually *have* to leave. Though it was in Iraq’s power to demand this, they didn’t do it. That’s because though America is a popular punching bag, many in the Iraqi government still value America’s support, which is vital to Iraq’s security and counter-terrorism efforts.
The hardline pro-Iran parties and Sadrists both want America out now, but they haven’t been able to do so. This is a good sign- it means that Iran’s stranglehold over Iraq isn’t complete. Iraq can still become a sovereign and democratic country, dominated by neither America or Iran and free to forge its own path.
I hope this answers some of your questions!
I really enjoyed reading this piece, Iraq certainly faces a lot of challenges and I think you did a great job assessing them in a cohesive manner. It seems like the biggest challenges facing Iraq are ones of effectiveness and legitimacy. Lipset argues that these two things are crucial for democratic stability. The fact that the Council of Representatives has still not ratified the early election date that Kadhimi proposed and the weakening of the CTS (i.e. their letting go of Kataib Hezbollah fighters and their inability to hold tribes in Nasriyah accountable for a kidnapped civil activist) make me worried that this crisis of effectiveness and legitimacy is far from over. Let me know what you think about these events!
Hey Maggie Habib, thanks for replying!
I agree, both these events are worrying. The release of Kataib Hezbollah members by the CTS shows that Al-Kadhimi is still to weak for the fight the Trump administration has been trying to push him into.
With Trump departing in January, Al-Kadhimi will likely feel relief from this pressure, but if it is replaced with sheer disinterest from the Biden administration, that would also be concerning.
Al-Kadhimi and other potential reformers need external support to strengthen their position. After all, supporters of the militias and the clientalist system enjoy external support of their own (primarily from Iran). If Iraq’s reformers can only count on themselves, then they will face in absurdly imbalanced playing field. As such, the United States and other sympathetic foreign powers should support Al-Kadhimi with financial, diplomatic, and security aid.
This aid could also give Al-Kadhimi more leverage over the Council of Representatives, pushing reluctant members to ratify early elections. Al-Kadhimi will also likely have to make painful compromises with different parties to get ensure these elections not only occur, but are reasonably fair.
The current Council, filled with a mix of pro-Iranian militants and clientelist politicians, has no reason to change the status quo. A newly elected Council, with a more pro-reform composition, is an absolute necessity to pass any of the substantive reforms demanded by the protest movement. This is necessary to really begin improving government effectiveness and legitimacy.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading your post. I read this piece and learned quite a lot more than I expected to based on just the length. It is very clear that Iraq faces many challenges and they were ordered and laid out in a very effective blog post. I was very interested to learn more about the country of Iraq and how it has been falling victim to more democratic erosion. This crisis of legitimacy and effectiveness is very interesting to me because, as you pointed out in your blog post and as Maggie also commented it seems as if this crisis is far from being over. There is more and more reason to be worried about this region. To be honest I do not know that much about the conflicts here within Iraq. I do think that this provided me with enough information to get by. I really enjoyed reading it. I would like to know what you think may happen if there is no settling of this conflict? What will that look like comparatively? As Maggie said earlier it is very frightening that the council has not yet ratified the early election date. What could compel them to do so? Might it just never happen?
First off- great title! I thought it made the overall post very eye catching and interesting! I never really knew a lot of the details of the Iraqi government and its politics, so I found your post to be very informative. The part that I found most interesting was how impacted Iraq is by foreign aid and influence. For example, you talk about how the United States and Iran both have hands in influencing and impacting the Iraqi government. I am sure that this only makes things more difficult for Al- Kadhimi, who is “genuinely interested in reform,” as you said.
I also like your policy suggestion about supporting the Al-Kadhimi government in weakening the militias. I agree with you and think that you make a very good point at this part by stating that foreign actors must be very picky in their selections of where, when, and how to give aid, especially in Iraq’s delicate case.
I have one brief clarification question: Why do Iraq’s “large, well-organized and well-armed militias” have such an interest in subjecting it to “Iranian hegemony”? In other words, what is motivating these militias to “enforce Iran’s will” in Iraq? Is this because Iran is compensating them for their fighting? For me, I think it is fascinating that someone would risk their lives to receive compensation from Iran or to push an Iranian agenda in Iraq.
A few final questions about which I am very curious: what kind of an impact is the COVID-19 pandemic on the Iraqi citizens given the militia attacks? How are people able to quarantine in areas that are not exactly safe from the pandemic or these attacks? Also, how has the government handled the pandemic? Has the Iraqi government made things better or worse?
Overall, excellent post!
This was a great post and a topic that I’ve been really interested in as of late. Iran has faced a lot of issues in the recent past and a divided government is heavily to blame. After Saddam Hussein was overthrown in 2003, Iraq transitioned to more of a republic. While Iraq is governed more secularly, the blocs and groups in place in the Iraqi government have led to corrupt systems that have caused unrest in Iraq. It is very unfortunate, however, that this oppressive government system has such a powerful militia in place that reform seems like an impossibility. With change so difficult, maybe impossible, it begs the question for me what kind of options Iraqi’s have to see real reform in their country.
My initial thought is a change of staffing in the current council because of the unhealthy mix of pro-Iranian militants and clientelist politicians. The issue is their current situation does not give them much reason to want to change this, so reform doesn’t seem likely internally. A newly elected council is key to fixing some of these issues Iraq is facing.