Looking at Iraq one year after seismic protests

Amid tensions with the United States, the COVID-19 pandemic and a lagging economy have contributed to the slow pace of change. Now what?
Friday 16/10/2020
An Iraqi demonstrator carries a portrait of a slain protester during a demonstration in Tahrir Square in Baghdad on October 1, 2020, commemorating the first anniversary of the protest movement. (AFP)
An Iraqi demonstrator carries a portrait of a slain protester during a demonstration in Tahrir Square in Baghdad on October 1, 2020, commemorating the first anniversary of the protest movement. (AFP)

Iraqis hit the streets in unprecedented numbers last October, calling for political and economic reforms, greater job opportunities for youth and better government services. In the year since, the country has been rocked by a number of developments, including growing US-Iran tensions playing out on Iraqi soil, the COVID pandemic and increasing citizen disenchantment with the country’s political system and its sectarian foundation. Sarhang Hamasaeed and Elie Abouaoun of United States Institute of Peace (USIP) look at where Iraq’s protest movement stands today, the economic impact of COVID-19, the prime minister’s call for early elections and US-Iraq relations.

Iraqi security forces deploy in the capital Baghdad’s Al-Firdous Square on October 1, 2020, as people demonstrate during the commemoration of the first anniversary of the anti-government protest movement against unemployment, poor public services, and endemic corruption. AFP
Iraqi security forces deploy in the capital Baghdad’s Al-Firdous Square on October 1, 2020, as people demonstrate during the commemoration of the first anniversary of the anti-government protest movement against unemployment, poor public services, and endemic corruption. (AFP)


Protests broke out in Iraq in October 2019. What is the state of the protest movement today and has it achieved any of its demands?
Hamasaeed: Many of the grievances propelling protesters into the streets last October have yet to be addressed and in some cases have become more complicated. While the movement has lost momentum in terms of number of protesters on the street and fragmented some, its spirit and key pressure factors remain. With considerable public support from Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the supreme Shia cleric, the protest movement managed to make important, but provisional gains:
  • The protests signified a deep societal desire for change, primarily represented by youth. The youth took their peaceful resistance to the religious space during Shia religious ceremonies and rituals like Arabaeen, which commemorates the 40th day of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein. These Iraqi youth are presenting themselves as representing Imam Hussein’s symbolism of standing up to oppression and injustice in an effort to supplant Islamic religious parties’ legitimacy.
  • The movement forced Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi to resign last November, paving the way for Mustafa al-Kadhimi to become the new premier. Despite many obstacles and exasperation with the slow pace of change, Kadhimi has shown he is serious in wanting to address the grievances of the people and the international community.
  • Last fall, the Council of Representatives voted on a new election law, which was meant to break the control of the traditional power-holders. A key component of that law remains to be finished, requiring an annex that would set the electoral districts — a contentious issue in its own right. How those districts will be set up will have significant implications for the balance of power within and among Iraq’s communities, political parties and beyond.
  • Judges have been appointed as commissioners in Iraq’s High Electoral Commission (IHEC) to replace the commission that was perceived as representing partisan and confessional interests. However, the IHEC’s bureaucracy has legacy issues and other concerns that are yet to be addressed.
  • Kadhimi has set June 6, 2021 as the date for early elections.

These changes have kept the international community engaged—even those who thought Iraq was a completely lost cause. Sistani met with the UN special representative in Iraq twice, and his most recent statement in September stressed, among other things, the importance of monitoring and supervision of the election in coordination with the UN.

The protest movement is gearing up for a strong showing on October 25, a key anniversary date. However, there is scepticism that they will be able to muster up the kind of crowds that they had last year. That’s because of several factors: continued violence against the protesters and assassination of civic leaders; coronavirus restrictions; fragmentation among the protesters, some wanting to give the Kadhimi government a chance while others are sceptical that protests will yield results; and concerns that political parties and armed groups have infiltrated or co-opted the movement or parts of it. Although there is a perception the movement has lost momentum, Iraq’s financial crises could once again ignite mass protests—and political parties may exploit them to undermine Kadhimi, if not fully aim to unseat him.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the attendant drop in global oil demand have decimated Iraq’s economy. What role does this play in unrest in the country and how can the economy be brought back from the brink?

Abouaoun: Iraqis have largely embraced a minimalist view of their future, hoping at this point to just slow down the deterioration of living standards. This priority is currently overshadowing many other equally important political and social issues that Iraq must fix. Iraq’s deep recession is not only caused by COVID and low oil prices; it is the result of years of excessive spending, an archaic economic model, widespread corruption, a bloated public sector, and the lasting impacts of the multiple political and security crises the country has gone through.

The implications for everyday Iraqis are profound: disrupted electricity and water services, defective infrastructure, poor education and health care, among other things. This has led to a decreasing faith in state institutions and their ability to perform effectively. Furthermore, the whole social contract is controverted. The visible triggers of the demonstrations are issues like inconsistent electricity or corruption, but the underlying reasons have more to do with this agnosticism about the idea of an Iraqi state. Accordingly, there is no doubt that a better economic outlook will contribute to changing this intense disenchantment.

An Iraqi demonstrator takes part in a protest to mark the first anniversary of the anti-government street movement. (DPA)
An Iraqi demonstrator takes part in a protest to mark the first anniversary of the anti-government street movement. (DPA)

However, it will not be enough. Iraq needs a colossal effort to mend the social contract; rebuild trust in the capacity of state institutions to uphold people’s rights; address the loss of state exclusivity over the use of violence that is now decentralised among parties, militias, religious institutions and tribes; and to foster collaborative intra- and intercommunal relations. Fixing Iraq’s economic woes is just one treatment for a patient with multimorbidity.

Iraq’s prime minister has called for early elections to be held in 2021. Is Iraq prepared for any early election and what could cause delay?

Abouaoun: I see the question of the elections as a dilemma for the prime minister. On one hand, there is no chance to have any significant reform passed without a substantial pro-reform, non-corrupt bloc in parliament. On the other hand, rushing to elections in the current political and economic context will most likely lead to the reelection of almost the same parties (albeit with different candidates) and could open new flashpoints for conflict. Therefore, expectations for snap elections should be tempered: they will stir the pot a bit, but not radically change the landscape. It will be just one step in the long journey of political change in Iraq. I tend to believe that, despite the obstacles ahead, the best bet for Iraq now is nevertheless to go for early elections to disrupt the status quo.

Having relatively fair elections now will encourage some promising leader to consider running in the future. It will also trigger a new dynamic that will partially overrule the practices set by the current political forces. It may also inject a high dose of legitimacy with a government that is less influenced by the same political and religious actors. So, all in all, the benefits of early elections outweigh the potential downfalls.

US-Iraq relations have been rocky over the last year, with Washington recently threatening to shutter the Baghdad embassy. What issues have caused turmoil in the bilateral relationship and what can be done to strengthen ties?

Hamasaeed: The news about a possible shutdown of the US embassy in Baghdad surprised many Iraqis and Iraq watchers. The US-Iraq strategic dialogue, Kadhimi’s visit to Washington in August and meeting with President Trump, and positive messages from both governments suggested that relations were strengthening. Of course, there were those who were sceptical that these events alone would lead to better relations. Many see the news about the embassy as a precautionary move in advance of the US presidential elections, while others fear it may be preparation for United States to use force against Iran-backed armed groups.

US-Iraq bilateral relations hit a low point under Abdul-Mahdi over a number of issues, some which have deteriorated while others witnessed some progress under Kadhimi. The United States and others know that Kadhimi and members of his government value the US and international community and recognise the hurdles they face in making progress on key issues, but that will not be sufficient over the longer term without real change on the ground.

A key area of tension has been Iraq’s inability to reign in elements of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), who are not fully controlled by the state. Despite the Kadhimi government’s efforts, attacks by armed groups against US military personnel hosted on Iraqi bases and the US embassy in Baghdad have increased. Attacks have expanded to new targets too, including convoys carrying US military equipment, an IED-attack on a British embassy convoy, and rocket attack on Erbil International Airport, which houses US military facilities.

The risks attached to a US embassy closure and 25 ambassadors and charges d’affaires (from Australia, Egypt, Germany, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Kingdom, among others) communicating their concerns to Kadhimi and Iraq’s political leadership seems to have resulted in an announcement of a conditional suspension of attacks. This is occurring in the broader context of US-Iran tensions, especially after the US killed Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani and the deputy head of the PMF and Iranian military retaliation against US troops in Iraq.

Another area of grievance has been the Baghdad government not doing enough to protect and facilitate the return of ethnic and religious minorities, especially Christians and Yazidis displaced by the conflict against ISIS. Kadhimi has visited Nineveh Province, the ancestral land of these communities, and committed to help them, but also asked for their patience. On October 9, the government of Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) reached a long overdue agreement on governing Sinjar and providing security, which is necessary to open the door for stabilisation initiatives and facilitating the return of the displaced. Sinjar is home for many Yazidis, continues to suffer from significant physical destruction after ISIS and is entangled in a web of security actors and competing regional interests.

On Iraq not working enough to set itself free from reliance on energy imports from Iran, the Kadhimi government has indicated that it wants to initiate reforms and investments that could address this issue, but it will take a longer time to make progress here.

Washington also became increasingly vocal about Iraqi security forces’ and armed groups’ violent response to peaceful Iraqi demonstrators. The Kadhimi government has not been able yet to bring perpetrators of violence to justice, including in cases like Hisham al-Hashemi, whom he knew and received his advice on matters of security.

Iraqi leaders and political forces need to come together to apply political pressure and put in place security measures to counter armed groups and Iran’s influence that result in attacks against the diplomatic and security interests of Iraq’s allies. The Iraqis cannot do this alone and will not do it if they see if they see the United States already has a foot out of the door.

The article was originally published by usip.org. It is reprinted with permission.