On December 9, 2017, the prime minister of Iraq, Haider al-Abadi, said: ‘We have accomplished a very difficult mission. Our heroes have reached the final strongholds of Daesh [Islamic State] and purified it.’
Many argued that this moment, following the defeat of the last remnants of Islamic State in Iraq, would usher in a rebuilding and ‘post-conflict’ stage for the country. Though the threat of Islamic State has receded, five years on Iraq is still mired in conflict, with no end in sight.
The deadly fallout from October 2021
The spasm of direct political violence at the end of August 2022 caught the attention of the world. But its roots lie in less apparent unresolved conflict dynamics in Iraq that are just as deadly to its citizens, and that current stabilization efforts will not improve.
In the most recent escalation, protesters and militia members linked to the populist Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr invaded Baghdad’s Green Zone – a fortified area which houses Iraq’s government buildings and international representations. The clashes with security officials led to more than 30 deaths. Their armed opponents, linked to the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), sent followers to stage a counter protest, leading some to warn that the country was again on the brink of civil war.
That episode was the latest in the fallout from the election of October 2021.Though the Sadrists emerged victorious in that ballot, they bucked the custom of forming a consensus government with the main Shia, Kurdish and Sunni parties. Instead, Sadr pushed to establish a ‘majority government’ that included the dominant Kurdish and Sunni parties but excluded his powerful Shia opponents, Nouri al-Maliki, the former prime minister, and parts of the Popular Mobilization Forces.
When the attempt by the Sadrists to form a government failed, they decided to pull out of parliament. Their Shia opponents saw an opportunity and with the Kurdish and Sunni parties moved to create a government without Sadr. Sensing his mistake, Sadr sent followers to invade Iraq’s parliament to prevent any political process without him, leading to clashes with government forces and his Shia rivals and dozens of casualties in Baghdad.
was lost to corruption in Iraq between 2006 and 2014.
Since 2003, a number of Iraqi and foreign leaders have declared military victories in the country. The first was pronounced by George W Bush, the US President, only six weeks after the invasion, on board the USS Abraham Lincoln in front of a banner reading ‘Mission accomplished’. Each subsequent US president has announced a victory and ushered in a ‘post-conflict’ phase.
Yet, almost two decades on, Iraq has never been free of conflict. Structural violence linked to corruption in key sectors harms Iraqis every day.
From 2006 to 2014, for instance, the country lost an estimated $551 billion to corruption. The ruling elite relies on politically sanctioned corruption through an ethno-sectarian power-sharing system – muhasasa – to benefit from Iraq’s wealth, with an annual budget that can reach $100 billion.
Corruption contributes to Iraq having one of the world’s lowest life expectancies
This revenue is meant to provide basic public services. But corruption means that Iraqis don’t have enough electricity, many don’t have clean water and most medicine is past its sell-by date. The result contributes to Iraq having one of the lowest life expectancies in the world.
As a result, most Iraqis remain disillusioned with the country’s elite and its political system. With one of the region’s largest youth bulges – two-thirds of Iraq’s 42 million population are under 25 – the system is less able to accommodate the million or so who are born each year. Hundreds of thousands of graduates struggle to find jobs. Many flee to Europe as migrants.
The elite’s patronage networks, largely established since 2003 and built from the country’s wealth, exclude this growing part of the population. Consequently, more Iraqis have given up on the system. Voter turnout has been plummeting with each subsequent election, hitting a mere 30 per cent in 2021.
The violent suppression of Thawrat Tishreen
Two years earlier, in October 2019, young Iraqis across central and southern Iraq took to the streets to protest. This movement, known as Thawrat Tishreen – Arabic for October Revolution – did not call for the removal of a specific leader or party but instead for revolution against the system. They chanted: ‘We will never back off. No way. Let all parties hear us.’
Since elections only reinforced the toxic political order, its followers refused to vote and instead insisted that protest was the only way to be heard. Iraq’s ruling elite struggled to respond to Thawrat Tishreen. They could no longer convince the electorate that they represented their ethnic, sectarian or other communities, or that they promoted democracy and reform. Nor could they provide economic benefits, namely public sector jobs.
Ideologically and economically bankrupt, Iraq’s elite and the political machinery turned to direct violence to suppress the movement, killing hundreds of protesters and wounding thousands more.
Since then, the system has continued to employ violence to minimize free speech and protest. Someone familiar with this is Ahmed al-Bashir, the prominent Iraqi political satirist. To continue producing his Albasheer Show on television and YouTube, which reaches millions of Iraqis, Bashir lives and works outside Iraq because of threats to his life. ‘In Iraq there is no longer free speech,’ he said at Chatham House’s annual Iraq Initiative conference last year.
Shrinking public authority has exacerbated fragmentation among the elite
Demographic realities and shrinking public authority have exacerbated intra-elite fragmentation. One speaker close to the Sadrist movement has stated that Sadr wants none of the former leaders to be able to participate in elections or government formation.
Sadr’s attempt to form a majority government after his 2021 electoral victory was his solution to the crisis and a bid to regain some ideological power with his base and the wider, disenfranchised population.
Following its failure and this summer’s violence, the Sadrists seem unwilling to play by the rules of the game and form another consensus government.
In response, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative to Iraq, has struggled to bring together the elite, including Sadr and Nouri al-Maliki, to reach a consensus government to combat the direct violence. Following the clashes in August, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq issued a statement that ‘Iraqis cannot be held hostage to an unpredictable and untenable situation.’
Corruption goes back to US-led coalition
However, Iraqis have not only been held hostage to the recent violent clashes, they have been hostages of the political order put in place after 2003, when the US-led coalition worked with returning exiled Iraqi political parties to establish muhasasa. Since then, this ruling elite has acquired its wealth and power through corruption.
Iraq’s political system has proved resistant to both grassroots revolutionary protest and attempts at manipulation by its elite. In their current efforts at stabilization, both Iraqi and international actors are again focusing on a short-term settlement within the elite. Their solution is to limit the direct violence that erupted this summer in the hope that this will lead to change.
But such a settlement will not address the everyday conflict consuming Iraqis. Instead, it will reinforce the status quo and once again ignore the dynamics of structural violence, which will continue to take the larger toll of lives.
This year’s Iraq Initiative conference will be held on November 14 at Chatham House.
(*) Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme; Project Director, Iraq Initiative
Source: Chatham House, 29 SEPTEMBER 2022