Frustration in Iraq: Protests and Politics

Frustration in Iraq: Protests and Politics
Iraqi riot police prevent protesters from storming the provincial council building during a demonstration in Basra, Iraq, July 15, 2018 (AP photo).

As Iraqis grow disillusioned with the country’s political class, protests have grown more violent, but they may not lead to the real change so widely desired. Find out more when you subscribe to World Politics Review (WPR).

In what is becoming a yearly ritual in southern Iraq, protesters took to the streets to voice their grievances amid scorching summer heat in July. Their government’s inability to provide basic services, namely electricity and water, makes the harsh summer unbearable to many Iraqis. The high unemployment rate means that many cannot afford a basic standard of living.

Reflecting a heightened mood of desperation throughout Iraq, this summer’s protests turned more violent. In nine Iraqi provinces, protesters stormed government buildings and infrastructure as well as political party offices, at times setting them ablaze. No major leader or political party was spared.

While the latest demonstrations did not lead to immediate and significant change, they signaled a shifting reality of conflict in Iraq. For the first time, the protests in the south were explicitly targeted by the government in Baghdad, leading to an unprecedented number of deaths and injuries. At its core, this summer’s wave of discontent suggests that the next fault line in Iraq will not be between Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, but between the people and the ruling class, which has failed to govern for the past 15 years.

Across Iraq, this summer’s protests got larger – and bloodier. Learn more, in Protests Reveal Iraq’s New Fault Line: The People vs. the Ruling Class for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.

Deciphering The Iraq Elections’ Unexpected Results

The summer’s protests followed parliamentary elections in May whose biggest shock was the first-place finish by populist Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s political coalition—a nationalist, non-sectarian alliance between his political movement, secular activists and the Iraqi Communist Party, known as Sairoon. Trailing just a few seats behind were the pre-election favorite, the Nasr Alliance of then-incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, and the Fateh Alliance led by Hadi al-Ameri. Understanding the results and their implications, however, starts with voter turnout, which at 44.5 percent was the lowest of any elections since the United States invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. The 2005 elections saw 70 percent voter turnout; the most recent vote, in 2014, had 60 percent turnout. This year’s low turnout was no surprise: Before Iraqis went to the polls, the general mood in most major cities was disillusionment.

To understand the results of Iraq’s May elections, turnout is the place to begin. To learn more, read Why Iraq’s Elections Were an Indictment of the Elite for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.


An Inauspicious Start for Iraq’s New Prime Minister

After a long and drawn-out process that lasted from the May elections until October, leaders of the major political blocs finally filled the three so-called presidency posts in Baghdad: prime minister, president and parliamentary speaker. The selection of Adel Abdul-Mahdi, an economist who had previously served as vice president and oil minister, as prime minister seemed promising for those who hoped for a new era in Iraqi politics. But so far Abdul-Mahdi has had minimal influence in shaping his government, and the reality seems to be another weak prime minister who serves at the behest of strong political parties and lacks control over his Cabinet members. Abdul-Mahdi’s failures so far expose the challenges to government-formation and more generally to reform in Iraq.

Hopes for reform in Iraq under a new prime minister might be misplaced. Learn more, in Stalled Government Formation Shows That Parties Still Outweigh a Weak PM in Iraq for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.

Could Baghdad Be The Key To Easing Tensions In The Arab World?

Baghdad’s many challenges might make it seem like a liability when it comes to Washington’s regional agenda. But Iraq should still be at the center of any U.S. regional strategy to stabilize the Arab world. Iraq is now emerging from a period of acute crisis after the Islamic State’s territorial defeat, and the United States has a significant opportunity to assist in ameliorating its chronic ills. Much of Iraq’s political class is still eager to cultivate ties with the U.S. and understands the benefits of continued American engagement. Despite accumulated Iraqi resentments against the U.S., there is also an awareness among Iraqis of what the U.S. can productively offer in terms of security and intelligence cooperation, regional diplomacy, and even Iraq’s tangled domestic politics. Tensions still exist in bilateral ties, but they should not be seen as an insurmountable hurdle to productive and predictable U.S.-Iraqi relations.

Learn more about the potential for a new relationship between Iraq and the U.S., in Iraq Is Still the Key to U.S. Efforts to Stabilize the Arab World for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.

Learn more about political and social conditions in Iraq, protests against the political class, the key role Iraq plays in Washington’s Middle East strategy, and so much more in the searchable library of World Politics Review (WPR):


Editor’s Note: This article was first published in November 2018 and is regularly updated.

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