In what is almost now an annual ritual, tempers are once again flaring in the sweltering end of summer heat in Iraq. Protesters have descended on the streets of major cities around the country, including the capital Baghdad, to demonstrate against government corruption, a lack of public utilities and services, and a completely shambolic economy that has led to high unemployment and youth disenfranchisement.
The fact that this happens almost every single year at near enough the exact same time is telling and diagnostically important. There is something very seriously and deeply flawed in Iraq that leads its citizens to take to the streets and to call for major reforms, and for those same citizens to then be exposed to death and violence by the security forces.
That flaw is the Iraqi political process itself.
A political circus like no other
It is one of life’s tragedies that Iraq makes a strong case for lovers of authoritarianism to point to the dangers of involving the public in how their country ought to be run. One can argue that Iraq is not really much of a functioning democracy at all but simply maintains the masquerade that it is one. But the fact that it is supported and propped up by the world’s preeminent democratic power, the United States, allows for anti-democratic propaganda to be bandied about with relative ease.
It is not uncommon to hear that Iraq was better off under the dictatorial rule of Saddam Hussein, and that is hardly an unfair argument to make. Even Iraqis, elated by the fall of Saddam’s brutal Baathist regime that had oppressed them for so long, yearned for the days of his authoritarian government simply because what has replaced him was infinitely worse.
Kadhim al Jibouri, the burly man who famously took a sledgehammer to Saddam’s statue in central Baghdad when American troops first occupied the city in 2003, has since remorsefully been quoted as saying that he is now filled with “pain and shame.” Jibouri said: “Saddam has gone, but in his place, we now have 1,000 Saddams.”
Jibouri’s quote is a poignant one. While the sectarian narrative of a Sunni-Shia divide has some merit, particularly when studying both Sunni and Shia militants and their links to foreign powers, it is becoming a tired and overly simplistic one.
Jibouri himself is a Shia Arab expressing his regret at having helped toppled a statue of a Sunni dictator. The protesters on the streets of Nasiriyah, Amara, and Hilla are predominantly Shia Iraqis demonstrating against a Shia-dominated government that they accuse of corruption and of bowing to foreign interference, particularly from Iran whose presence can be seen and felt across every sphere of influence.
While senior Shia clerics and political leaders like Moqtada al Sadr and Ammar al Hakim have expressed support for the protesters and called on Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi to initiate economic and social reforms, it is not hard to see how they are also part of the problem.
Sadr, Hakim, and many others like them have been involved in the political process in one way or another since its very inception. They have each formed and controlled their own militias, forged strong and close ties to Iran with some characters even occasionally flirting with the US, and have offered up candidates to take part in numerous governments. They, therefore, control various ministries along with competing factions and have a vested interest in the perpetuation of the corrupt system.
In other words—and while they are trying to appear to stand by protesters today to maintain their unearned image as defenders of the people—they belong to the same ruling class that has made people’s lives a living hell for almost 17 years.
Iraqis crushed between competing foreign agendas
Plainly put, Iraq does not have a functioning political process, and this is for a plainly obvious reason. When the United States first decided on regime change in Iraq under the Clinton administration, it introduced the Iraq Liberation Act in 1998. This legislation determined that it would be US policy to seek “regime change” in Iraq and to support a transition to democracy.
However, this appears to have just been a smokescreen to justify interventionism, as among the groups officially supported by Washington were organisations such as the pro-Iran Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, of which Hakim’s father was a founder and today’s prime minister was also a long-time member.
Obviously, Shia parties who follow the theocratic ideology of the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, have very little to do with democracy.
After all, their ideology calls for the establishment of a religious theocracy where an unelected cleric, a “guardian jurist”, has ultimate say over the foreign and domestic policy of the country. This means that the supreme leader, a position currently occupied by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, can overrule the government’s elected officials.
In other words, it does not matter at all what the people want, as an ayatollah apparently knows far better, and can, therefore, impose his will on the people while claiming his decisions are divinely ordained.
Meanwhile, the United States continues to see the country as a battleground to limit Iranian ambitions in the region despite being the country to facilitate Iran’s influence in the first place. Washington has rightly identified Iraq as Tehran’s most coveted strategic lynchpin and has sought to enhance the standing of people it deems to be closer to its interests, such as the recently sacked counterterrorism deputy chief Abdulwahab al Saadi whose dismissal has been identified one of many reasons why the latest unrest kicked off.
While Saadi was closer to Washington, his adversaries in the pro-Iran Popular Mobilisation Forces are closer to Tehran and wield enough political influence to see men like Saadi get the boot.
Amidst all of this chaos and politicking between the various factions are the hopes, dreams and rights of the Iraqi people that are left to be scattered to the four winds rather than be taken seriously by those appointed to represent and govern them.
Youth unemployment is at 25 percent, Iraq is ranked 168 out of 180 countries worldwide in how corrupt it is, and state-sanctioned violence against largely peaceful protesters that has led to the killing of even children has meant that people cannot even express their anguish.
Inevitably, this will lead to ever-increasing pressure that may eventually cause a popular eruption that will not be quelled until Iraq’s political process is either reformed entirely or turned on its head.
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