Iraq unrest

October 07, 2019

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STABILITY has been a rare commodity in modern Iraq, with wars, foreign invasions and internal strife standing in the way of national progress.

In fact, in the post-Ottoman period, apart from brief patches of normalcy, the story of Iraq has largely been one of unstable governments, military coups and — especially in the recent past — foreign meddling and bungled nation-building efforts.

Indeed, in the aftermath of the American invasion of 2003, Iraq has failed to see good governance and an improved standard of living for its people, despite its considerable oil income.

It is these factors — bad governance, unemployment, corruption — that have apparently fuelled the ongoing protests in various Iraqi cities.

As per media reports, over 100 people have been killed over the past week in the disturbances, as security forces have taken on the protesters, reportedly firing live rounds at crowds.

Read: Protesters flood Iraq streets anew as death toll nears 100

There is a growing chorus for the resignation of Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi’s government, which has been in power for barely a year. Though the Iraqi premier has scrambled to respond to the protests, the next few days will show whether or not the government has taken enough measures to placate the demonstrators.

There is a dire need to end the violence and restore calm before the protests further destabilise what is already a fragile country.

Sectarian and ethnic troubles are never far from the surface in Iraq, and demonstrations can take on ugly communal colours if not handled with tact and statesmanship.

In fact, the perceived mistreatment of the Sunni community in Iraq was one of the reasons that led to the growth of the militant Islamic State group, while Kurdish-Arab relations have been lukewarm even in the best of times.

Moreover, many of the protesters have raised anti-Iran slogans, recalling the spectre of Arab-Persian rivalry.

Considering these fault lines, the Iraqi government, religious leaders and tribal elders must all play their part to restore calm and ensure the protesters’ genuine demands are not exploited by vested interests to create chaos.

Moreover, hundreds of thousands of people are headed for Karbala, including many foreigners, to observe Arbaeen in the days ahead. Therefore, the restoration of security must be a primary concern for the administration to ensure the event is marked peacefully.

In the long term, only good governance can bring stability to Iraq.

While it is true that Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime, the long war with Iran, America’s invasion, and IS atrocities have all taken their toll on Iraq, it is time for the country’s political class to rise up and deliver the goods to their people.

A corruption-free system that ensures fundamental rights for all regardless of communal background can improve matters. However, if more of the same cronyism and instability continues, the implosion of a nation that for centuries was the centre of Islamic and Arab civilisation is an unfortunate possibility.

Published in Dawn, October 7th, 2019