Iraq is on the boil again. Sixteen years after the US-led invasion of the country, lasting from 2003 to 2011, and five years following the occupation of a large chunk of its territory by the so-called Islamic State (IS), only to be defeated more than three years later, the Iraqis were finally availed an opportunity to engage in the necessary processes of re-composition and reconstruction. Yet, it seems that opportunity has so far been squandered, with the Iraqi people venting their frustrations through mass protests at the cost of dozens of them being killed, thousands injured and many properties destroyed over the last week.
The Iraqi people have endured a very rough roller-coaster ride since the consolidation of their country as a sovereign state under British tutelage in the 1920s. Iraq’s historical evolution has been marked by repeated internal bloody conflicts, coups and counter-coups, iron-fist rule, and foreign interventions. This was the case under a pro-British monarchy until 1958 and successive republican rule since then. Saddam Hussein’s leadership following his Ba’athist seizure of power in 1969 delivered a relatively long period of stability and progress, but at the cost of turning Iraq into a personalised state and an aggressive neighbour.
Saddam’s eight-year-long war with Iran (1980-1988) and his 1990 occupation of Kuwait sapped most of Iraq’s energy and resources. The occupation caused the United States and its regional Arab allies to liberate Kuwait. In the process Iraq was crippled and Saddam was politically wounded and resourcefully limited until his overthrow by the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. The invasion transformed Iraq from a strong one-man-centred state, with subordinated societies (that is the Shia majority, and Sunni and Kurdish minorities), into a weak state that unleashed competition among the societies to fill the vacuum generated by the demise of Saddam’s rule and the absence of a viable American plan for transition.
The result was a period of bloody power struggle, with the US struggling to bring order at very high human and material costs. This not only opened the door for Iran to enhance its sectarian-based geopolitical influence in the country, but it also enabled violent extremist groups, such as al-Qaeda and its subsidiary, Isis to emerge and sink Iraq into a long and drawn-out bloodbath. The US finally left behind a broken Iraq, with a very shaky electoral democracy that continues to date.
The Shia majority-dominated governments have not been able to put a fractured Iraq back together, as they have lacked the necessary internal cohesion and solid cooperation from disgruntled Sunnis and the Kurds. The Sunnis are bruised by the loss of power that they had under one of their own, Saddam Hussein. The Kurds have a sectarian affinity with the Sunnis, but no ethnic links with the predominantly Arab Sunnis and Shias. The Kurds, also closely tied to the US, have managed to build an extensively autonomous region in northern Iraq, and have voted for independence.
Although successive coalition governments have promised reforms of every social and economic sector to improve the living conditions for a majority of Iraq’s 40 million population, there has been little progress in this respect. Their efforts have seriously been hampered not only by internal governmental divisions and conflicts, but also by national disunity and pervasive insecurity. They are also undermined by high levels of corruption and patronage practices in governmental and non-governmental appointments through family, ethnic, sectarian and factional connections that have come to permeate the state and society.
Iraq is oil-rich and potentially a very wealthy country. It has the fourth largest oil reserves in the world, with a current daily production of some 4.5 million barrels a day, which yielded US$65 billion in revenue in 2018. Yet a majority of its population lives below the poverty line, with unemployment soaring to 25 percent, especially among the younger generation that forms more than half of the populace. The very slow rate of structural reforms and reconstruction, combined with a widespread sense of insecurity, have left the country in a dire state and have bewildered the Iraqi youth.
All of these factors have come together to generate the cross-sectarian mass protests that have swept Baghdad and southern cities in the last many days, with people demanding a clean and effective government. Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi has called for calm, as has Iraq’s most senior cleric, Ayatollah Ali Sistani. The Prime Minister, whose government is barely one year old, has once again committed to speeding up the pace of reforms to meet the demands of the protesters. But given the weaknesses of his government and the prevailing national conditions, the people’s dissatisfaction and protests are unlikely to die down any time soon.
Amin Saikal is Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University, and author of Zone of Crisis: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq (2014); Islam Beyond Borders: Umma in World Politics (2019)
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