Iraq unrest

December 01, 2019

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AFTER two months of unrest and violent confrontations between protesters and law enforcers in Iraq, Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi has tendered his resignation, which the Iraqi parliament will most likely decide on today. The move came after Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani — one of the world’s leading Shia clerics — asked lawmakers in his Friday sermon to ‘reconsider’ their choice of supporting Mr Abdul-Mahdi, who had been in power for only a year, to prevent further bloodshed. The removal of the Iraqi prime minister has been one of the protesters’ central demands; however, demonstrations continued on Saturday, with people calling for an overhaul of the entire political system. Arguably, it is massive government corruption and a poor standard of living that have fuelled the protests. Despite Iraq being a major petrochemical producer, the proceeds of oil sales have failed to create a welfare state where citizens have access to basic services, health and education. Poor governance coupled with an equally precarious law and order situation — thanks largely to violence perpetrated by the Islamic State and other militant groups — have combined to put Iraq on the path of becoming a failed state. Demonstrators have also vented their anger at what they see as Iranian interference in Iraqi politics, torching Tehran’s consulates in Najaf and Karbala.

The fact is that after the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, Saddam Hussein’s brutal police state has been replaced by a corrupt system where cronyism and mismanagement are the order of the day. It can be argued that the US tried to create a ‘democracy’ in the Arab state in its own image, without understanding Iraq’s tribal, ethnic and religious complexities. True democracies are organic and evolve over time; experiments in statecraft implanted by external players often end up in a shambles, much as Iraq and Afghanistan have. As for Iran’s role, it is true that many of the Iraqi elite have deep ties with Tehran, while if it were not for Iran’s help, IS may have taken over Baghdad. Although Iraq’s demonstrators have every right to demand full sovereignty, care must be taken not to stoke the fires of Arab and Ajam, as such toxic ethno-nationalist rhetoric can easily spiral out of control. Iraq’s political system cannot be fixed in weeks, or even months. Nevertheless, urgent steps are needed to create a system that delivers in a just and democratic way.

Published in Dawn, December 1st, 2019