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.