Catching up: Iraq

After a much-needed break, I’m going to try to get back to some regular blogging. But in order to do that, I’ve got to make some sense of what’s been going on while I’ve been away–for my own sake far more than for yours. This is part of a series of pieces over the next several days in which I’ll try to do that.

So, that was the scene on Saturday, as hundreds of Iraqis marched into Baghdad’s “Green Zone” and took over the Iraqi parliament building in protest of government dysfunction. They were apparently roused to action by a speech given by Shiʿa militia leader-turned Good Government activist Muqtada al-Sadr, in which Sadr echoed his recent calls for increased transparency and the wholesale replacement of the political cronies who populate Iraq’s cabinet agencies with a government comprised of technocrats. Thousands of people, mostly Sadr’s supporters, had been protesting in Baghdad since mid-week, and this was only the latest round in a string of public demonstrations that have been going on for a few months now. The Iraqi capital was placed in a state of emergency due to the protests, with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi calling for arrests (I’m not sure how many there were).

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi (l) and Muqtada al-Sadr meeting last fall in Najaf–and no, they’re not about to kiss, though if they did it would probably solve a lot of problems

(Let’s, at least for these purposes, go along with the argument implicit in Sadr’s rhetoric, that a government full of as yet unnamed “technocrats” would be inherently transparent, effective, and apolitical. That’s a hell of an assumption, but in Sadr’s defense it would be very hard to put together any new Iraqi government that could be less transparent, effective, or apolitical than the current one. Let’s also accept, for now, that Sadr is genuinely pushing for real government reform, doesn’t just want to see the government stacked with his own political cronies, and isn’t leading this protest movement for his own personal advancement. This is another huge assumption, and it’s probably wrong, but many of Sadr’s followers, at least, are genuinely angry about the state of the Iraqi government, and I think we should try to understand why.)

What’s new and exciting (or terrifying, depending on your viewpoint) about these protests is that it’s Iraq’s Shiʿa who are protesting. Iraqi Sunnis, both Kurds (most, though not all, Iraqi Kurds are Sunni) and Arabs, have been dissatisfied with Baghdad for several years owing to the fact that Iraq’s Shiʿa-dominated government showed clear favoritism toward the Shiʿa. Sunni Arab anger at Baghdad was arguably the most important factor in enabling the nearly defunct Al-Qaeda in Iraq to renew and reinvent itself as ISIS. But now many of those Shiʿa have also turned on Baghdad, because whatever favoritism the government has shown them has been lost in an ocean of corruption, incompetence, and above all failure–failure to provide basic services, failure to grow the country’s economy in the years since Saddam Hussein was ousted from power, failure to manage basic governmental functions, and failure to defeat ISIS (let alone to tackle the much bigger problems that allowed ISIS to regain its footing in the first place).

Abadi has become the focus of the outrage over all these failures, and in truth some of that is unfair. Abadi took over as PM in September 2014 after the previous PM, Nouri al-Maliki, had been such a nightmare on the job that he managed to lose the support of both America and Iran. Talk about threading a needle. Maliki was the one whose governance deliberately alienated Arab Sunnis and Kurds, it was Maliki who allowed cabinet ministries and high military commands to turn into tax and bribe farms, and it was on Maliki’s watch that ISIS captured a third of Iraq while barely breaking a sweat. But Maliki didn’t create the problem so much as he allowed it to metastasize, in part because he benefited from it personally.

What’s happening in Iraq right now also has a lot to do with how the country was set up to operate following the Iraq War and Saddam’s ouster, a spoils system in which particular offices/ministries were set aside for particular interest groups (Kurds, Shiʿa Arabs, Sunni Arabs, etc.) who could then treat them as fiefs, selling or otherwise doling out jobs as they saw fit. The Bush administration’s post-war Coalition Provisional Authority, in its zeal to purge the Iraqi government of anyone associated with the Baʿathist Party, oversaw (wittingly or not) the formation of this spoils system while trying to transition Iraq to a parliamentary government. Some of this was well-intentioned: setting aside particular roles for particular interest groups was a way to protect the interests of those groups and keep everybody happy in the new Iraq, one whose government would inevitably be dominated by the Shiʿa, who are the majority of the Iraqi population. And it’s worth pointing out that this “ethno-sectarian” system that replaced Saddam was envisioned by the would-be government-in-exile Iraqi National Congress in the 1990s, so what happened after the war wasn’t just the Bush administration’s fault.

So Abadi’s work was cut out for him from the start, and then he took office with only vague promises to reach out to the Kurds and Arab Sunnis but seemingly no plans to dismantle the core problem, the ethno-sectarian system fostering so much corruption. He was a product of that system, after all, having come from the same Islamic Dawa political party as Maliki. Last fall Abadi did start pushing for some changes, like abolishing Iraq’s ridiculous three-headed vice-presidency, which is nothing but a political sop to the three main Iraqi factions and serves no role other than to allow the leaders of those factions to hand out political gifts and rewards, but his efforts were stymied. Finally, in February, after Sadr had already started leading protests calling for reform, when Abadi agreed to can his cabinet and replace it with a non-partisan cabinet full of “technocrats” (again, we should probably ignore all the potential complications with a plan like this because otherwise we’ll be here all day, but if it were that easy to fill your government with highly effective technocrats who could make things work properly, everybody would be doing it and, well, they’re not). Abadi announced this new cabinet at the end of March, and everyone lived happily ever after it was more or less dead on arrival.

Oops! Yeah, it turns out that all the deeply entrenched interests that had empowered and/or enriched themselves on that ethno-sectarian spoils system weren’t just going to let Abadi take away all their perks without a fight. The PM’s grudging decision to form a new cabinet (which he inexplicably took without having any sense whether parliament would allow him to do it) had stuck a crowbar into the fault line between reformers and oligarchs and leveraged it into a gaping chasm, and saw Abadi lose most of whatever political support he still had. The new cabinet nominees started dropping out just days after he’d put their names forward, unwilling to be part of the looming circus, and in mid-April he was forced to attempt a compromise–the cabinet would still be dismissed, but it would be filled once again with candidates put forward by the major parties. Only this time the parties promised to find good candidates, not just more political cronies. Questions were raised about Abadi himself, such as whether he should, in good conscience, resign his party affiliation in order to lead this new, supposedly apolitical, cabinet, but it’s not clear that he wants to go down that road, nor is it clear that he could (the PM is supposed to be the leader of the largest political bloc in parliament, and if Abadi resigns from Dawa he’ll no longer be that, so he might not be able to continue on as PM).

This compromise also quickly collapsed, as a sizeable contingent of legislators–some Sadrists and others who were simply disconnected from the spoils system–rejected the new picks as tainted by the same corrupt system that had produced the original cabinet, the one nobody wanted anymore. On April 15, those legislators, somewhere between 170 and 180 in total, forcibly seized control of parliament and voted to oust speaker Salim al-Jabouri, a Sunni Arab with close ties to Abadi. There weren’t enough of them for a quota, so the vote to remove Jabouri wasn’t legal, but the vote itself discredited both Jabouri and Abadi (who was, let’s be honest, the real target). Last week another portion of the parliament met to reaffirm that Jabouri was still legally speaker, and to confirm a handful of new technocratic ministers. Clearly, that was too little, too late.

It’s almost superfluous to note that this political crisis comes at a horrible time for Iraq, because there have been almost nothing but horrible times for Iraq over the past 13 years. But terrorist violence in Iraq is high these days and the government is supposed to be planning an offensive that would drive ISIS out of Mosul and hopefully cripple its ability to conduct so many of those terrorist attacks. That offensive has now been put on ice, because the government needs to recruit and train significant numbers of new police and other internal security forces who can bring some order to areas as they’re liberated from ISIS, and to rebuild places that will inevitably be wrecked in the fighting to come. These are all critical problems–Ramadi, the last major city to be liberated from ISIS, is in total ruins, and even if the Iraqi government had the resources to rebuild it they’re currently stymied by all the booby traps ISIS left there on its way out. The composition of those new security forces is also crucial, because as the aftermath of the liberation of Tikrit showed, Baghdad can’t simply allow tribal paramilitaries to enter these places and enact their own notions of justice. These need to be vetted, trained police forces.

Saturday’s Green Zone protests have now dispersed. The protesters left on Sadr’s orders, to give Abadi time to act, but they left after making a demand for reform and issuing a promise that they’d be back if nothing changes. They also left in the wake of another pair of ISIS car bombings in the city of Samawah, as if to punctuate what’s at stake in all of this. It’s hard to see how things are going to get any better in a way that avoids an outright revolution. The forces that have prevented Abadi from making reforms are still there and still don’t seem inclined to abide any changes. But the push for reform has united the two most powerful Shiʿa leaders in the country, Sadr (whose aspirations may extend well into the political realm) and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani (who’s in his late 80s and I think would sincerely like to live at least one day under a reasonably honest, competent Iraqi government before he dies), behind a large popular movement. Abadi has been seriously weakened and now has to contend with a parliament whose security was just threatened by his failure to appease the protesters. That parliament is virtually leaderless–Jabouri is still speaker, but he’s got very little legitimacy at this point. Even the surprise arrival of Joe Biden to Baghdad last Thursday, where he was sent to urge everybody to stop all the fussin’ and the feudin’, couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

If you’re looking for a hopeful note on which to end things, then here’s a small one: Iraqi oil revenue was up in April, and that extra revenue might be good news if it doesn’t get fed to Baghdad’s corruption machine. But apart from that? I’m not sure there’s anything else I can offer you.

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