Some progress but also political deadlock in Iraq
LONDON - In December 2017, Iraq announced the defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS). While ISIS lost control of major population centres in Iraq, the country’s politics remain in gridlock.
In the victory declaration of December 9, 2017, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi praised the achievement of Iraq’s “heroic armed forces.” “Our enemy wanted to kill our civilisation but we have won through our unity and our determination,” he said.
By the end of 2017, a coalition of Iraqi and international forces had pushed ISIS out of all major population centres in Iraq. ISIS once controlled territory approximately the size of the United Kingdom, ruling over 8 million people in Iraq and Syria.
Addressing the nation on “victory day” this year, new Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi said: “This is a day that we are all proud of, when our courageous country defeated the enemies of peace.”
It was clear in December 2017 that ISIS was not fully defeated but had transformed into an insurgency. Nevertheless, after the military success, there were hopes that 2018 would bring reconstruction and political progress.
On May 12, 2018, Iraqis elected a new parliament. Most parties used the battle against ISIS and pledged to create jobs and fight corruption in their campaign platforms.
While the military campaign against ISIS served as a force of unity, the economic situation did the opposite. As mass protests organised by Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr showed, many Iraqis were fed up with the political status quo. Those taking to the streets demanded jobs, an end to corruption and the sectarian system that governed Iraqi politics since 2003. Al-Sadr called for key ministries to be led by technocrats instead of political actors.
However, the elections produced a stalemate that paralysed the political system. Iraq moved from security crisis to political crisis.
Sairoon, an alliance led by al-Sadr, won the most seats in parliament but fell far short of a majority. Abadi, Washington’s favourite for another term as prime minister, came in third, with Fatah, a coalition of Shia groups led by Hadi al-Amiri, the second strongest force.
After political wrangling and discussions behind closed doors, the two most powerful forces agreed on Abdul-Mahdi, a former vice-president and oil minister, to be prime minister. In October, Abdul-Mahdi managed to get 14 of his ministerial candidates through parliament, including several technocrats. Three more ministers were appointed in December.
However, key posts, including the sovereign ministries of interior and defence, remained vacant.
“Since 2003, Iraq has been trying with the help of the international community to create a new democratic system and it has not been easy,” said Muhanad Seloom, an Iraq expert at the University of Exeter, citing a lack of a deep-rooted democratic system and mistrust among political factions and different communities.
Abdul-Mahdi’s and parliament’s inability to fill the posts showed the enduring power of the political parties, Renad Mansour, a research fellow at Chatham House, said earlier this year. In December, Abdul-Mahdi said he was free to choose eight or nine ministers, “the rest are the results of political agreements,” including the defence and interior ministry positions.
“Adel Abdul-Mahdi is powerless because he doesn’t have any backing,” said Seloom. “Nobody is really behind him.”
The way the elections and the post-election power struggle have played out, however, presented a change in Iraq’s political system. More than ever before, the real competition played out in the same sects. The disagreements between al-Sadr, who has voiced criticism of Iran’s influence in Iraq, and Fatah, dominated by Iran-backed Shia groups, are a case in point.
How much is at stake was on stark display when another hot summer plagued Iraq in 2018. Fed up with a lack of services and jobs, people took to the streets, especially in oil-rich southern Iraq. Basra, the country’s main oil export hub, became a focal point of discontent. Months after mass protests erupted in the southern city in July, people went out to protest again in December, vowing to continue until their demands were met.
In northern and western Iraq, many areas liberated from ISIS are in dire need of reconstruction. The UN refugee agency said more than 2.8 million people remain displaced within the country, with approximately 1.9 million having been displaced since 2014.
In a threat to both civilians and security forces, ISIS militants have carried out attacks in various parts of Iraq. The Centre for Strategic and International Studies reported that overall attacks in Iraq had dropped in 2018 but attacks against government targets increased in comparison to 2017.
It was not all doom and gloom, however. Despite the threat posed by ISIS insurgent attacks, the United Nations in November reported the lowest monthly casualty figures in Iraq in six years, with 41 civilians killed.
In a sign of the improved security situation in Baghdad, the government opened parts of the Green Zone, a highly fortified area that is the seat of many government buildings and foreign embassies, to the public for the first time.
“I hope my daughter’s future will be open as the Green Zone,” a parliamentary adviser, who was watching the opening with his daughter in December, told Agence France-Presse.