The street protests across Iraq cities that began at the start of the month have been strengthening and spreading. Not aligned to any factional agenda, they seem to spring entirely from a deep sense of frustration and anger at the country's harsh economic situation. Young Iraqis in particular feel despair at their prospects. Unemployment is stubbornly high. Public services are patchy, and such basic amenities as a consistent electricity supply continue to be lacking, even sixteen years after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Of course for some of that time parts of Iraq were ravaged by jihadist war and occupation in the form of Isis. The effort it took to dislodge it absorbed the country's energies for three years, recovering Mosul in July 2017 after a ferocious battle that left the great city almost totally destroyed. The hardship facing the rest of the country meanwhile worsened.
A year ago the veteran politician Adel Abdul Mehdi was chosen as Prime Minister, marking a new start after his predecessor, Haider Al-Abadi, in power since 2014, had failed to deliver on his anti-corruption promises. The change was precipitated by large and chaotic popular demonstrations in Basra over a health crisis caused by polluted water, and by the abysmal supply of electricity to what is Iraq's most important oil-producing province. Now Prime Minister Mehdi is facing similar protests, in Baghdad and elsewhere. By 5 October over 100 dead had been reported in street clashes, as security forces used what many have described as excessive force. The civil unrest is worse than anything seen since the arrival of Isis in 2014.
The protestors' frustrations are completely understandable. On top of the difficult economic situation comes a demographic avalanche: almost 60 percent of Iraq's population of 40 million is aged less than 24. There are few jobs for them, and around a fifth of the 15-24 age group, according to the World Bank, are in neither employment nor education nor training. The parts of the country devastated by Isis are in dire need of help. Work on rebuilding Mosul has barely begun, with a crucial UN-backed programme for removing mines, booby-traps and unexploded ordnance not signed off by the government. In the confused power-struggle in government and the parliament, countless rivalries have paralysed policy-making and the implementation of measures. Democratic Iraq suffers the same curse as Lebanon: a multi-confessional society is accommodated in a parliamentary system, but the result is deadlock. It does not have to be so, but the fight over the state's resources, in the form of patronage, rents and favoured contracts, pits powerful factions against each other, eliminating compromise or any clear notion of the public good.
The parallel goes further: just as Lebanon's politics are threatened and distorted by the intervention of its neighbour, Syria, so Iraq's are by Iran. This appears to be one of the grievances of the young protestors in Iraq. It is certainly true that not all the Shi'ite militias raised in Iraq and placed under the command of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, in the desperate scramble to defeat Isis, have been either disbanded or brought under the control of the Iraqi Army. A source of power in themselves, they are seen as partisan new players in Iraq's already fractured politics, as well as being beholden to Tehran.
Pity then Prime Minister Abdul Mehdi, chosen to lead a new government to tackle Iraq's deep-rooted problems of governance, public services and employment. For all his political experience he is simply denied the chance to forge consensus on policy solutions, and to implement them as urgently as the situation requires. A French-educated economist, he would be an effective technocrat if the system allowed it. Working with him would be any number of capable officials. But he is in danger of becoming another scapegoat, as the protestors shout for his resignation. That would solve nothing. It is not his performance, but the deep and almost intractable nature of Iraq's problems, above all its torturous, compromised and corrupted political structure, that are to blame. It would be a challenge for even the most enlightened and empowered government to solve them. Demographic pressures, environmental damage and the legacy of war cannot be wished away.
Iraqis can however take comfort from their government's success in keeping their country out of further regional conflicts. Iraq's chosen stand as a bridge and peace-builder between Iran, on one hand, and the United States and the Gulf Arab states on the other, is an enlightened choice that benefits itself and all concerned. In reality though Iraq remains to some degree a covert battleground in the struggle for regional influence. The young protestors are right to denounce Iran's continuing interference. Rolling it back will be part of the cure that allows Iraq's elected leaders to deliver the country's long-awaited recovery.
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