Iraq: Metastasizing Protests Threaten to Upend the Government

4 MINS READOct 4, 2019 | 21:10 GMT
The Big Picture

Despite possessing some of the world's most sizable oil reserves, Iraq has struggled to stabilize its security or provide its citizens with sufficient access to goods, services and job opportunities. An ongoing swell of protest demonstrates the extent of Iraqis' exasperation with ongoing government inefficiency and how ill-equipped Iraq is to answer protesters' grievances in the near term.

What Happened

If protests in Iraq, fueled over the past week by long-standing grievances over corruption and economic need, continue to increase in intensity and scope, they could bring down the government. Substantial unrest in major Iraqi cities over the past three days has occurred largely in Shiite areas in the central and southern parts of the country. Although they were triggered by a handful of disparate political and economic issues, the demonstrations have since coalesced into a broad movement and taken a violent turn. Clashes between protesters, who have chanted anti-government and anti-Iran slogans, and security forces on Oct. 4 have left more than 40 people dead and hundreds more injured.

    The resignation of the Abdul-Mahdi government could come sooner than later.

    In an address delivered early Oct. 4, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi told Iraqis there were "no magic solutions" to solving their grievances and pleaded for more time to solve the country's endemic issues of corruption and unemployment. In an effort to assuage public anger, the prime minister has announced a new stipend program for poor families and the firing of 1,000 government employees accused of corruption, among other measures. But those promises have done little to calm the situation — something that isn't surprising given that Iraq's underlying problems endure despite similar assurances during previous bouts of unrest. 

    Elsewhere on Oct. 4, the influential Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani condemned the security response to the protests and urged the prime minister to establish an anti-corruption committee. Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr also issued a call for the government to resign, saying his Sairoon bloc in parliament would stop participating in legislative activities until the government introduces real reform, echoing his long-standing call for anti-corruption measures.

    Why It Matters

    Unrest driven by economic and political concerns isn’t new in Iraq. But the current outburst features several unique facets that indicate the risk they pose to the continuity of the current government. They differ from previous years' economically motivated demonstrations, primarily in terms of scale and scope. In addition, these protests do not appear to have a centralized leader, making them harder to control, whether by the Iraqi government or foreign actors. Even though there are signs that pro-protest social media hashtags may be originating from Saudi Arabia, given the diversity of Iraq's social and political spectrums, it's unlikely that any single external actor will be able to take advantage of the current unrest.

    The protests come at a time of particular weakness in the Iraqi government. There is a wide divergence among its factions, especially the Shiite elite, over how to respond, especially since none of the near-term solutions under consideration will solve the long-term, endemic issues that have been festering for years.

    What To Watch

    • The resignation of the Abdul-Mahdi government could come sooner than later. Watch for a surge of unrest as the first anniversary of his Oct. 25 assumption of office approaches.

    • The headquarters of U.S. and other foreign companies, especially in the oil and gas sector, could become targets, especially if pro-Iran factions in the country's political and security forces want to take advantage of the unrest. While this has not occurred during the current round of protests, foreign businesses have been attacked during previous episodes of unrest. 

    • A meeting on Oct. 5 in parliament with representatives of the protesters will provide an important indicator of the direction of the unrest. Watch for any tangible promises as part of an effort to placate their demands, including the resignation of specific government officials and offers of economic concessions.

    • The mostly Shiite Popular Mobilization Units could play a key role in the eventual outcome. Given their grassroots origins, it’s unlikely that they'll be willing to put down protests. But their connections to Iran and their formal inclusion in the Iraqi security apparatus make it an open question as to how they will react moving forward.

    • The Islamic State and other jihadist groups could take advantage of the current unrest, especially if Iraqi security forces are focused on dispelling serious unrest.

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