Mapping the Iraq’s Unrests

Mapping the Iraq’s Unrests
A group of Iraqi protesters are standing in Tahrir Square, Baghdad. Photo Credit, activist from Baghdad
:: PM:09:08:29/10/2019 ‌
On October 25th, another wave of anti-corruption protests has started in major Iraq’s central and southern cities and towns. Major urban areas like Baghdad, Najaf, Basrah, Nasiriya, Samawah, Amara, and Karbala have seen unprecedented number of protests, which are the extension of the previews protests against dysfunctional governance, poor public services, and lack of job opportunities in the same Shiite majority populated areas earlier this month. Iraq’s eights activists and media reported that 124 protesters have been killed and more than 5,600 were injured as violent confrontations and unrests broke out. As a result Iraq is on the edge of various scenarios. Some of them might push the country towards more devastating conflicts, while others might force the ruling class to launch a credible reform plan that will ultimately save Iraq and terminate the ongoing unrests. 

Author

Mohammed Hussein
is policy director and political-economy analyst at ICPAR. He holds a master's degree in specialized economic analysis: Economics of Public Policy, from the Barcelona Graduate School of Economics.
In the first wave of the protests, earlier in October, 158 people were killed and more than 6,000 wounded in clashes between protesters and security forces. Some of the protesters were shot in the head by snipers. The identities’ of the shooters have not been revealed yet, but some local and international media outlets reported that they were members of the armed groups that have closed ties to Iran. Reuters reported from two unnamed Iraqi security officials that the members of the armed groups, advised by Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, directed snipers to shoot at the protesters. This revealed the extent that some national players and Iran ready to go to keep the current situation, and if the protest continue, the whole country would be divided between two sides and both sides are ready to use all the available resources to get to their aims.
There are also various armed political groups competing to impose certain political agenda and gaining more leverage in the aftermath of the unrests. In one hand, there is Muqtada Sadr’s Saraya Salam’s militia that voluntarily took arms to protect Iraqi protesters from anyone who shoots them, similar to what happened in the previews protests. The Sadrist followers and militants are highly charged with Iraqi nationalism and constantly pushing to hit Iranian influence in the country. On the other hand, there are various Iranian backed militias and political groups like Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) and Badr Organization that see the unrest as a plan against them. Regardless of the elite’s pity politics, the protesters and the elite are drifting apart, and this can easily cause incurable gaps.  There are hundreds of thousands of unemployed youth protesting for job opportunity, and they perceive corruption and bad governance as the main reason to their sufferings. The youth, mostly Shiite, neither listen to Shiite clergies’ calls for peaceful protesting, nor do they trust politicians’ promises anymore. 
The Iraqi security forces have not been able to approach the protesters, and their solutions to keep the protesters safe or to meet their demands have been futile. Also, the nature of Iraqi armed forces as it is divided over political parties, allowed a great security mismanagement, and in many cases caused the protesters to respond with burning government and political parties’ offices or attack the security forces because they have used “excessive force.”
Also, the undisputed role of religious figures have been questioned more than anytime. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's highest Shiite religious clerk, used to have last saying in such a nationwide political issue. He helped the ruling class surpassing many difficult problems. However, he has lost his appeal to persuade the protesters to go home, and his calls for protecting the protesters by security forces seems to be unheard. The elite of Iraq are losing the mainstream and their approach to deal with protesters have been limited to keep the current status qua, and opened the possibility, that if the protests become successful, it will not just reshape the Iraqi politics but many other aspects of Iraqi society.  

Unsustainable Statuesque

 Most of the Iraqis and especially the protesters see the post-2003 political regime and the current ruling elite as the main problem. They point to the non-merit way Iraqi governments appointments have been made based on sectarian and ethnic quotas (locally known as Muhasasa). The system has allowed the ruling class, (under banners of Shiite, Kurdish, Sunni identities) to abuse public funds; enrich themselves and their patronage networks in public offices. They managed to loot the country’s oil wealth while leaving normal citizens without any basic services and hope. As a result, the country’s poverty rate and unemployment are still high while the political linked companies and shady business people are accumulating more wealth, which has created a great wealth gap in the oil rich country.
Both the ruling elite and protesters have understood that the current political regime and poor governance can’t be sustained anymore. PM Adil Abdul-Mahdi has showed a new round of reforms, but he failed to persuade people not to demonstrate again due to the huge gap between what Iraqis are demanding and what the government can deliver in the short term. 
Most of the Abdul-Mahdi’s solutions, like announcing public jobs and introducing unemployment-benefits are clearly going to exacerbate the current crises. But he also promised to reduce the ranked government officials’ salaries as a redistribution measure. Such a step will be highly welcomed by protesters and the majority of Iraqi people. However, the roots of the country’s problem are much deeper and these steps can be described as painkillers.
Many prominent politicians and activists have asked from where the government would provide resources to meet all “unachievable” promises. In fact, the ruling class’s bad governance has accumulated too many problems that can’t be addressed in one government’s tenure. There can’t be such a quick solution for 3.6 million unemployed. This is why, the protesters are asking for radical changes including constitutional changes. 
Achieving the protesters demands is impossible within the current political arrangements. Fighting corruption and creating millions of jobs is not something that the current political elite is willing to work toward as they have institutionalized corruption across the country. They have carved the resources across the political parties, militias, regional powers, and parliamentarian blocs, and they will fiercely go against any reform attempts to defend their interests. 
As much as the public is pushing for a fast and radical solution, the political elite is using blame exchanges and foreign agenda for the current situation, and they want to use the anger from the streets to get more. Last week, when PM Adil Abdul-Mahdi sent five new ministerial candidate to the parliament in order to strength his counter corruption efforts, the parliament did not vote to approve the new candidates because some of the major blocks wanted to have some gains at exchange of the ratification. Also, when the government make decisions for reforms, and the parliament passed laws to reduce privileges of top government leaders and MPs as it happened on Oct 28th, the protesters did not care and the violence escalated. The main issue is not passing the laws and reforms in Iraq but rather implementing them. Also, the elite may have not understood that the aim of the protests is not laws and regulations but it is them that should leave the political arena. Most of the protesters come on the street because of lack of basic services and unemployment and whatever government promises does not affect them until their reality has not changed. 

Never-Ending Unrests or Window of Opportunity

The ongoing protests could lead the country to a devastating end, where the country enters a civil war and endless violence. They also could be a window of opportunity for PM Adil Abdul-Mahdi, or anyone who will replace him, to launch a meaningful reform plan and counter corruption measures.  How it will turn up and to which direction the protests will drag Iraq is going to depend on the evolving dynamics in Baghdad and Najaf.   
The popular protests are moving fast to topple the current regime and destroy all what have been built since 2003. If the regime survives this wave of protests, it does not mean it will survive the next one that would probably be more violent. Therefore, any missing opportunity to meet the protesters’ demands will cost Iraq and the whole region another devastating circle of violence and bloody unrests. 
Iraq and the whole region needs a quick but sustainable coherent alternative solution that can hold the country together and keep it stable; otherwise, not just Iraq, the whole region is going to face disastrous instability. It is time for the U.S. Administration and the Iranian leaders to see how their messes in Iraq are threatening the whole region’s stability. They need to help the current, or upcoming, Iraqi leaders to overcome the crisis. Otherwise, Iraq, as well as the whole region, will pay the price of missing the opportunity to set the directions of the events of a peaceful and sustainable path. The solution needs to come up with a viable alternative to the current dysfunctional government and parliament in a way that could hold the country together without taking back to the authoritarian regime.
The alternative solution, transition government or whatever solutions PM Adil Abdul-Mahdi and President Barham Ahmed Salih can afford might move Iraq out of the current deadlock, and ultimately it should lead the country towards a functional representative political regime. 
To make the alternative workable and productive, the following steps are required.

1- The Iraqi constitution allows for disbanding the parliament and calling for early elections. If implemented well, these steps could restore the Iraq’s stability and lead to more functional government and countable ruling elite.  
2- The current government and parliament should be disbanded, leaving opportunity to a small caretaker government (with or without PM Adil Abdul Mahdi) to organize early elections in which its members must not be allowed to participate. The government should not last more than one year. 
3- Except for Iraqi Army and formal security forces, no armed groups or militias should be allowed in the country. Government’s armed and security forces should strictly be under control of the caretaker government. The source of violence and street conflicts are the armed groups, not peaceful protesters. In any future Iraq, the militias will remain source of unrests and require a long-term solution.
4- UN and other relevant international organizations can help making a new election-law, based on which the next elections could be held. The current parliament is not reliable to come up with such a law. The existing election law is also not expected to bring anything new or different from the current ruling class. Free and fair elections can’t be held with the current election law, which is designed to keep the same political parties and militias (with regional support and funds) that have led Iraq for the past 16 years. Therefore, international supervision of the new elections is tremendously important.