The situation in Iraq has been bad. The government in Baghdad has struggled to assert control over a long-divided country, but these efforts have been undermined by deep religious and social divides, and the desire by the ruling Shiites to exact revenge for injustices committed during the long period of Sunni minority rule. Sectarianism has fragmented the country. The Islamic State radicals have grabbed swaths of territory and imposed brutal rule. Corruption has been a cancer on the country.
There was hope that the replacement of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki by Haider al-Abadi in 2014 would put an end to the rot. Maliki was considered to have been especially corrupt and biased in favor of his fellow Shiites, both of which doomed attempts to forge a sense of national unity. Unfortunately, Abadi’s efforts to clean up government have been thwarted by the political quota system that protects the interests of politicians and their followers. The result has been political chaos in Baghdad that peaked last week with the occupation of the parliament and threats of worse. Iraq is at an inflection point.
The Green Zone is the heavily fortified 10-sq.-km international center of Baghdad, where foreign embassies as well as the parliament and other key government offices are located. It was the home of the invasion forces that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003 and has been sealed off to ordinary Iraqis ever since. It has, predictably, become the symbol of the distance between the Iraqi state and its citizens. While subject to regular rocket and mortar attacks, the Green Zone had never been overrun by protesters or attackers, until last Saturday.
Then, hundreds of supporters of Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a Shiite with mass support throughout Iraq, especially among the poor, overran security forces, occupied the parliament and denounced politicians who had been unable and unwilling to reform the political quota system. The protesters were peaceful, although they berated lawmakers who either fled in panic or hid in basement offices until they could be escorted out. Reportedly, some individuals were wounded when security forces fired tear gas in an attempt to stop more protesters from entering the Green Zone. After a 24-hour sit-in, the protesters left, but they vowed to return if their demands for reform were not met within a week.
It is revealing of the sad state of Iraqi politics that protesters are demanding less politics in their government and more technocrats. The quota system was installed by the occupation forces in 2003 to ensure that all Iraqi political groups would have a stake in the new government. In theory, this would help guarantee their commitment to the Baghdad government. Instead, the system created fiefdoms and institutionalized corruption.
Demonstrators have been protesting corruption for nearly a year, when they first took to the streets to demonstrate against the theft of the country’s oil supplies and the government’s failure to provide basic services. Complaints have intensified as the price of oil has fallen, further squeezing government revenues. Sadr, a militant Islamic cleric whose militias have at times controlled large swaths of the capital and helped roll back the Islamic State forces in 2014, took up the cause a few months ago. Hours before the Green Zone was overrun, Sadr served up an ultimatum, demanding reform or “the entire government will be brought down and no one will be exempted.”
Abadi has been trying to push through reform, but those efforts have been blocked by a recalcitrant parliament. He has been trying to shuffle his Cabinet since February, but resistance has blocked any progress. Several ministers were approved last week but the lack of a quorum on Saturday prevented any additional votes. The occupation followed.
Many legislators now blame Abadi for the chaos — not for his reform efforts, but for reportedly giving the occupiers a green light by telling security forces not to fire on the demonstrators. Although the prime minister denies the reports, opposition members now insist that he has lost legitimacy and has “ruined everything that has been built over the last 13 years,” reported one parliamentarian.
Chaos in Baghdad could not come at a worse time. The fight against the Islamic State appears to be making progress, but an Iraqi government that collapses under the weight of its own corruption will not be able to command the loyalty of its troops. Soldiers are more likely to rally to their particular political masters, and focus on those battles, rather than the war against the extremists.
Islamic State remains a potent threat. Its militants claimed responsibility for a suicide bomber who killed 19 Shiite pilgrims and wounded 48 others in a Baghdad suburb on Saturday. A united, focused and capable Iraqi military is the prerequisite for success against the group. Foreign forces can help defeat the group, but the primary burden must be born by the Iraqis themselves. If their government is in tumult and falling apart, the Islamic State radicals will rebound. Iraq’s future is in Iraqi hands, but the politicians of that troubled country must put national interests before the lining of their pockets. The record is not good.
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