Iraqi political elites have time and again promised reforms but never delivered, all while violently attacking the protesters. The protesters learned and lost patience. A new Iraqi civil society is emerging alongside a new political culture that seeks to move beyond sectarian identities and is focused on the failures of the post-2003 governments to improve services and economic opportunities. The protesters have refused to accept calls for mere reform, vowing to remain on the streets until their demands to revamp the state and the electoral system have been met.
But the new space of possibility created by the Iraqi protesters was gravely damaged by reckless American attacks on Iranian interests in Iraq. On December 27, 2019 the United States, exceeding its stated mission of aiding Iraq to repel ISIS, bombed an Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) camp killing 25 Iraqis and injuring more than 50. On January 3, 2020 US forces assassinated Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the Commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force, four of his aides and five Iraqis including Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, one of the top commanders in the PMF.
The Iraqi Protest Movement Undermined
The US attacks have allowed Iraqi political elites to reclaim a semblance of credibility by appealing to nationalist sentiments, just as a crisis of legitimacy had all but engulfed them. The conversation in the United States has naturally fixated on US-Iran tensions and the resulting threats to Iraqi sovereignty. Inside Iraq, however, political parties now position themselves as defenders of Iraqi sovereignty who are standing up to American aggression, which grants them a rhetorical reprieve from the litany of criticism hurled at them by unemployed, insecure and politically excluded Iraqi citizens. Sami al-Askari, chief of staff for former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, is among those arguing that the attacks have united Iraqis against the United States: “I think the Iranians have now won most of the Iraqi Shias, even the voices against Iran have vanished.”
The assassination of al-Muhandis and the attacks against the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces have also forced a shift in Iraqi support for the PMF. Prior to the attacks, one of the main aims of the protesters was the disarming of the Popular Mobilization Forces and all paramilitary organizations in Iraq. The PMF specifically—and the role of armed groups connected to political parties more generally—have been a subject of great debate in Iraq and a key sticking point for the protesters. The Popular Mobilization Forces, made up of people volunteering to defend Iraqi territories, enjoyed widespread support during and immediately following their successful campaign against ISIS in 2014. Although there are PMF volunteers who joined the October uprisings, some PMF militias remained mobilized and became more politically entrenched as part of the security apparatus. Political parties started to form militias, and militias started to form political wings. This situation worsened the corruption and violence as state elites could now sidestep political accountability through brute force and coercion. The leaders of the uprisings demanded that the Iraqi armed forces be the sole entity responsible for the defense of the country and its people. As one of the more difficult goals to accomplish, it is also one of the reasons that the protests in Iraq were so violent from the beginning: Some elements within the PMF, as well as in the army, attacked the protesters who they saw as a direct threat to their privilege.
The United States characterizes the PMF as proxies and pawns of Iran and has attacked it both rhetorically and with the recent drone strikes against PMF bases and top commanders. As a result, the PMF has been cast as a victim of American aggression and has been pushed further into a corner. The protesters’ demands for its dissolution are now disparaged as being aligned with American interests in Iraq. The Iraqi protests for more equitable, inclusive and responsive politics have unfortunately been subordinated to the larger US conflict with Iran.
US Culpability for Iraqi State Failures
On January 5, 2020, the Iraqi parliament passed a landmark non-binding resolution calling on Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi to formally “end the presence of any foreign troops on Iraqi soil and prohibit them from using its land, airspace or water for any reason.” After 13 years of American occupation, anywhere between 100,000 and one million Iraqi deaths, a devastated civil infrastructure and a government in shambles, Iraq’s deliberative body (founded under American occupation), requested the withdrawal of all American troops. The US attacks in Iraq on December 27 and January 3 undoubtedly precipitated this decision. After the vote to expel US forces from Iraq, President Donald Trump threatened sanctions “like they’ve never seen before,” and insisted that Iraqis would pay for American installations left behind. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo followed by restating the US commitment to fighting ISIS in Iraq and declared the United States would therefore not be leaving. Those statements rang hollow because the attacks in December and January were aimed at ISIS’ most formidable opponents in Iraq. After the ISIS capture of Mosul in 2014 revealed serious issues within the Iraqi army, it was the Kurdish Peshmerga forces with the newly formed PMF and Iranian support that successfully fought ISIS on the ground.
The waves of Iraqi protests are a response to the despair that has pervaded the country since the US invasion in 2003, but this reality has actually characterized Iraqi life since the first Gulf War of 1991. That war devastated Iraq’s infrastructure while the ensuing 13 years of US-imposed siege (euphemistically called sanctions) prevented Iraq from recovering. “The shock and awe” of the 2003 US invasion destroyed what remained of Iraqi infrastructure, while the subsequent occupation decimated the Iraqi state and bureaucracy. American reconstruction of Iraq was an experiment in neoliberal state-building. Any state institutions not wiped out by the war were hollowed out by de-Ba’athification policies, which barred a generation of bureaucrats, civil servants and professionals from any role in post-2003 Iraq.
Rebuilding aimed at integrating Iraq into the global economy by summoning capital from across the world to flood the country. Reconstruction became a site of frenzied accumulation that benefited wealthy investors from surrounding countries like Iran as much as it did the United States, Great Britain and other countries that were involved in the invasion. The Iraqi economy was decimated yet again, this time not through bombs, but by a demagogic faith in free market fundamentalism that sacrificed what remained of Iraq’s private, not to mention public, sector to wealthy foreigners and their Iraqi allies. The occupation was quick to get rid of tariffs, experiment with a flat tax, allow greater foreign controls of businesses, facilitate the repatriation of profits made in Iraq and deregulate industries such as communication. The hurried, ad-hoc reconstruction of Iraq was largely designed around the domestic prerogatives of the American political and economic elite.
A prime example of the deep flaws in reconstruction was the American insistence on rushing the drafting and ratification of the Iraqi constitution in order to market it as progress to an American electorate. The resulting constitution was silent on key issues such as the role and power of the different levels of the judiciary, as well as the competing legislative roles of the president and prime minister. It also exacerbated nascent problems like that of sectarianism by leaving vague the relationship between provincial, regional and federal governments. This lack of clarity in how the government was to function increased calls for the creation of numerous autonomous regional governments and demands for exclusive control over natural resources. The juridical basis of the newly-minted Iraqi state was marred by overlapping jurisdictions. Beyond the American rhetorical flourishes of “checks and balances,” this structural confusion became a site of endless legal wrangling and led consecutive prime ministers to create parallel institutions within their offices to circumvent their own ministries. Finally, the United States, in the hope of assuaging a restive population, propped up a bevy of handpicked elites. This process was heavily influenced by America’s obsession with supposed Iraqi sectarianism and its desire to force a type of governance based on Lebanese-style confessionalism. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy: they built a political system that was itself sectarian.
Since the structural DNA of the Iraqi government was coded by the American occupation, most of the shortfalls of the Iraqi state are actually the failures of US policies and statecraft in Iraq, not something that can be merely blamed on the actions of corrupt Iraqi politicians or “ancient hatreds” as American accounts from across the US political spectrum often insist.
Gerrymandering Iraqi Politics from Within and Without
If anything can be generalized about the Iraqi political system it is that it is malleable and easily influenced by outside forces. The majority of the contemporary Iraqi political elite had been in exile before 2003 and were introduced into positions of political authority by the US occupation authorities. They have remained in power—despite weak popular support—by stoking the politics of identity in lieu of any substantive political vision and by looking to outside actors, all the while enriching themselves and their party apparatus by siphoning off resources from state coffers. In practice, this has meant vacillating between foreign patrons such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and others. Iran has proven itself the most adroit player in this game, harnessing its intricate cultural, social, religious and economic ties with Iraqis.
As the pressure from foreign backers, especially Iran and the United States, increases, there is decreased room for political actors to maneuver. Iranian support for the Iraqi political elite is in part a result of US regional policy that has moved in the past two decades from containment of Iran to rolling back its influence. The alliances cultivated by the Islamic Republic were intended to defend its position from Washington’s proxies in the region, be they states such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain or Egypt or non-state actors including militias in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere. The conflict between the United States and Iran, which is playing out in Iraq, is not a rivalry or a conflict between equals, but rather a strategic game set up by the Americans and played expertly by the Iranians.
The weakness of the Iraqi state manifests especially in the prime minister’s inability to control his cabinet. By holding the reigns over specific ministries, political parties can implement their own autonomous policies and siphon money and resources from the state. Any government reshuffling can dramatically alter parties’ access to state resources, incentivizing the parties to retain the status quo, even if it is not working. This is why protesters have taken to the streets to demand fundamental changes to the state, and why the elites do not want to give in to those demands. The increased instability in the country as a result of the most recent American attacks have meant greater anxiety for the elites and an increased wariness to any possibility of change. All of this means that there is less room for a political solution to the popular uprisings. The American attacks have ensured that foreign governments’ interests in interfering in Iraq—and the penchant to push their allies in Iraq to do their bidding—will only escalate.
The political gamesmanship of Iraqi elites is currently on full display. It is widely understood that interim Prime Minister Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi was elevated to his current position with the approval of Hadi al-Amiri and Muqtada al-Sadr. While al-Amiri is a close ally of Iran, Sadr has moved around between patrons, though has grown closer to the Islamic Republic. Sadr has emerged as a central player in the Iraqi debacle. The son of a popular cleric assassinated by Saddam Hussein, Sadr has enjoyed the largest following of any Iraqi politician since 2003 (although it has been waning in recent years). Since October, he has struggled to position himself within the context of the uprising. While carefully distancing himself from the corrupt political class, he nevertheless was not embraced by the protest movement.
The January 3, 2020 US attacks helped Sadr find his political footing when he began to once again push for the immediate departure of American troops from Iraq. Like a musician returning to his greatest hits, he has revived his open defiance of the American occupation, which made him a household name immediately following the 2003 invasion. Sadr’s nationalist slogans have enabled him to skirt around his position on the uprisings and push for a populist call for Iraqi sovereignty markedly ambivalent to Iranian influence. His call to protest the continued American presence in Iraq resulted in mass gatherings ranging from tens to hundreds of thousands of people marching across Baghdad on January 24. Sadr’s mobilization effectively split the uprising, as some joined the march while others remained in Tahrir square. The ensuing debate among those who heeded Sadr’s calls and those who criticized him have added yet another cleavage within the uprising. Sadr’s subsequent call for his followers to help security forces clear out protesters, lead to violent clashes between Sadrists and protesters. Their declining numbers have made protesters increasingly vulnerable to violent attacks by security forces, the PMF and militias aligned with Sadr’s movement as well. The tensions rose so quickly that the politically reclusive Ayatollah Sistani felt compelled to call on the Iraqi security forces to protect protesters: “It is the security forces that must take responsibility to keep the peace, protect the protest squares and the peaceful demonstrators and identify attackers and rabble-rousers.”
American Power and Permanent Crisis
These are only some of the major consequences of the American assassination of Soleimani for the precarious political calculus at work in Iraq. Some were easy to predict, others were not. But one thing is clear, the murder of Soleimani and al-Muhandis will have long lasting ripple effects that cannot be foreseen or predicted.
The exercise of American power uniquely incurs little cost to the United States. US vulnerability in Iraq does not come with a prohibitive material price tag. American warfare is designed to minimize the costs in terms of American lives; the lives of other nationals is another matter. The threats against targets within the United States do not substantively change, and economically, American war-making and post-conflict reconstruction have become premier spaces for capital accumulation. US vulnerability is often understood as the absence of a US military footprint, which only increases domestic calls to further bolster American military power, leading to more militarized accumulation. There are already reports of an additional 3,500 US military personnel being deployed to the region following the assassinations.
Permanent crisis management of American interests in the Middle East is not a threat to the United States’ regional strategy. In other words, even if Trump’s actions were ill-conceived and lacking in strategic coherence, the result is the same turmoil and instability that prolongs American intervention in the region. For the people of the Middle East, this means not only continued loss of life and widespread economic hardship. Most importantly, it means that the possibility for a better future—which a new generation of Iraqis are fighting for—will yet again be in jeopardy.
[Front page image: Iraqi protesters in Tahrir Square, Baghdad, October 2019. Photo by FPP, Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 4.0]