Although Iraq is one of the most oil-wealthy countries in the world, it struggles to provide a livelihood for all of its population. Participants in ongoing anti-government protests are demanding that the Iraqi government solve this persistent inequality and stand up to neighbors, especially Iran, that try to influence its decisions.
On Dec. 1, the Iraqi parliament accepted Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi's resignation, bringing his tenure to an end just over a year after he took office. The premier had announced his intention to resign two days earlier, saying his offer to step down was intended to help de-escalate the caustic environment that has developed between the Iraqi government and the country's protest movement. Confrontations between protesters and security forces over the past two months have left 400 Iraqis dead — including 50 killed Nov. 28 in the southern city of Nasiriyah after security forces used live fire to control demonstrations following the burning of the Iranian consulate in Najaf. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the top Shiite religious leader in Iraq, withdrew his backing for Abdul-Mahdi's government a day later in a crippling loss of clerical support for the administration.
Why It Matters
Replacing Abdul-Mahdi with a candidate acceptable to both protesters and the political elite alike will prove difficult, meaning that the country's political stagnation is likely to deepen. Currently, the two largest blocs in parliament — those of independent nationalist Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr and Iran-aligned militia leader and politician Hadi al-Amiri — have refused to work together to find a successor. In a further split with al-Amiri's bloc and the rest of parliament, al-Sadr's Sairoon parliamentary bloc has floated the idea that instead of parliament naming the premier directly, as the constitution dictates, the country should hold a referendum allowing voters at large to choose the next prime minister from among a list of five candidates put forth by parliament. The plan is unlikely to gain traction among Iraq's political elite, who will want to maintain their political and economic leverage in a system built on a complicated web of confessional quotas.
As demonstrators' tactics begin to affect critical industries, the government will be increasingly willing to authorize whatever means it must to discourage protest.
Abdul-Mahdi's departure won't end popular unrest, meaning business disruptions are guaranteed to increase. Disruptive protests, some targeting Iraq's transportation networks, have taken their toll on commerce as demonstrators purposefully cut off roads and access to critical infrastructure like the Umm Qasr port. Iraq's oil minister insists protesters' actions have not slowed oil production. But if protests continue at the same pace and intensity, it will only be a matter of time before the economically critical oil industry feels the effects. While it remains in the government's best interests to manage protest activity without the violent tactics that create ill will and stoke even more unrest, the government will be increasingly willing to authorize whatever means it must to discourage protest as demonstrators' tactics begin to affect critical industries. Crackdowns by mostly Shiite militia groups that often operate outside the government security framework could add to the volatile environment.
What Happens Next
The Iraqi Constitution is not crystal clear on what happens after a resignation. Abdul-Mahdi's departure likely leaves the Iraqi government in caretaker mode until the parliament names a replacement (technically, the president has 15 days after the resignation to ask parliament to find a successor). The debate over finding an optimal replacement will be fierce, with the body's feuding factions most likely to settle on a compromise candidate they can at least temporarily support. The next prime minister will be instrumental in shaping the level of U.S. and Iranian influence in Iraq, a key proxy battleground in the region where Iran has sunk a substantial amount of political capital.
While some protesters will be satisfied with seeing Abdul-Mahdi leave office, it will fall short of the substantial electoral reforms and new elections that many more have pushed for. Indeed, even after parliament accepted Abdul-Mahdi's resignation, protesters in Najaf set fire to what was left of the arson-damaged Iranian consulate. Although there is pressure on parliament to quickly name his replacement to circumvent further unrest, there is a good chance that the public will reject any candidate from the political elite that it names. In the meantime, the government hopes that prosecuting some government officials will help absorb public anger and calm the protest environment. In that vein, authorities have issued an arrest warrant against Lt. Gen. Jamil al-Shammari, who led the deadly Nov. 28 security response in Nasiriyah. While holding him responsible for the massacre might temporarily cool tempers, it, too, falls short of addressing the larger issues driving the protests.