The wave of unrest that has swept through Iraq has gone from protest to violence, creating tension in the region. The demonstrations, which were initially motivated by discontent over the country’s economic stagnation and rampant government corruption, quickly devolved into chaos. Since their start in October, hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets, burning down several political party buildings.
The security forces and the militias backing the government, some linked to Iran, responded with sniper fire, tear gas and firing live ammunition at the protesters. To date, over 300 people have been killed and thousands more injured — a sign of the repressive turn the current regime has taken.
Though the smaller issues at the heart of the protests are local, the presence of the anti-government wave itself is important on the global stage due to Iraq’s regional positioning. Following the US invasion and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the government remains largely ineffective and rife with corruption. However, it is still an important strategic point for the US, which has an ongoing military presence in the country, and has become a key part of Iran’s regional aspirations.
Can Iraq’s New Foreign Policy Approach Succeed?
This divide also highlights the gamut of responses ranging from condemnation to quiet support, but it ignores the fact that while politicizing seems to be par for the course, there is more that should be said. Indeed, the world should turn its eye on Iraq and truly question, a decade and a half after Hussein’s overthrow, if the current political elite is equipped to lead the country back to stability.
Protecting Government Interests
The protesters are, first of all, fighting against endless corruption: Transparency International ranks Iraq 168 out of 180 countries. The people of Iraq are also frustrated with a lack of public services and inability to find jobs. According to the World Bank, the current unemployment rate is 9.9%, while youth unemployment is at 25%. A large portion of the population lives below the poverty line, spending less than $2.2 a day.
To add fuel to the fire, Iran’s influence in the country continues to provoke public anger. Iran’s aim is to keep Iraq aligned with Iranian interests and, by essentially having unrestricted access to key state institutions as well as playing a significant role in decision-making, Tehran has been successful so far. However, many believe that Iran’s presence is suffocating Iraq, and protesters are demanding that Iran leave Iraq alone and stop using violence to suppress the demonstrations.
The government struggled for days to quell the unrest, even going as far as suggesting sweeping changes, such as a reshuffling of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s cabinet, land distribution and expanding welfare programs. However, these were shot down by protesters due to the government’s inability to tackle the root cause of the problem — corruption — that distorts the development and economic prosperity of the country.
Although Abdul Mahdi did not directly order the militias to suppress protests — indeed, the militias are not technically affiliated with the government — they were acting to protect his position and that of the current Shia bloc in power, which is made up of two coalitions, Al-Islah, led by Muqtada al-Sadr’s Sairoon, and Binaa, led by Hadi al-Amiri’s Fatah. This coalition is problematic because while Sadr’s bloc is against Iran’s involvement in the country, the Fatah bloc is pro-Iran, making parliamentary decision-making difficult and often leading to deadlocks.
Because the Iraqi government has been heavily influenced by Iran and riddled with corruption for as long as memory can reach, the demands put forward by the protesters are difficult to implement. The ensuing bloodshed was described by Abdul Mahdi as a “bitter medicine” necessary to stop ongoing unrest, although he did not condemn the violence outright.
The World Reacts
The protests — and especially the violence that followed — have brought condemnation from some familiar actors. The UN was swift in its rebuke of the Iraqi government’s response, with the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq casting serious accusations. The mission claimed that Iraqi authorities committed severe human rights violations in their efforts to quell protests, including mass arrests and multiple reports of the use of excessive force. Amnesty International followed up with several calls for authorities to stop mass arrests and censorship, which included cutting off the nation’s access to the internet.
However, as the country’s government slides back into repressive tactics reminiscent of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the governments of the world must be more forceful in their response, albeit careful in their actions. Iraqis have reacted strongly against what they perceive to be political meddling from Iran.
The current Shia majority government, which has strong backing from Iran, must not be left blameless for the administration’s unnecessary and lethal reaction. Even Shia figures in Iraq have spoken out against the government, with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani urging authorities to give in to protesters’ demands or face escalating tensions. Shia opposition parties have called for the government to be dissolved and for elections to be called.
So far, the US expressed concern over the situation, urging restraint from the Iraqi government. However, if Washington wants to maintain presence in the region, it is important that it takes appropriate actions to preserve its interests.
Lack of a broader response from world powers shows an unwillingness to enter the quagmire created by constant interventions by foreign powers in Iraq over the past decade. The European Union released a statement in early October that called for restraint while at the same time praising Abdul Mahdi’s actions at that point, which included proclaiming his support for freedom of expression, but remained noncommittal.
If the US and its allies wish to see Iraq remain a point of strategic relevance, their responses must be more forceful while being respectful of Iraq’s sovereignty. The current regime inherited a complex combination of politics and instability, but has done little to improve it, pushing protesters to call for the formation of a new government. The violent and repressive response hints at the potential future for Iraq should attacks on democracy continue in the face of silence from world leaders.
The governing coalition has proven that it is either unwilling or unable to fix the situation — either case raises serious questions about the future. By not responding to the brutal quelling of protests, the US and its allies are giving a green light to Iran and silently sealing Iraq’s fate.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.