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Ninety percent of Iraq’s oil wealth – the fifth largest proven oil reserves in the world – lies under the three southern governorates of Iraq. The proceeds of the sale of this vast petroleum ocean underwrite the entire state of Iraq, from the Fao Peninsula on the Gulf to Zakho on the Turkish border. Despite this oil wealth, 2018 marks the 16th summer that the oil-rich port city of Basra has had no reliable electricity and no reliable supply of water (no electricity means the pumps do not work). In this hapless city, the average daytime high temperature in July was 118 degrees Fahrenheit. Like much of the rest of Iraq, other basic services are also absent – no decent hospitals, schools, roads, sanitation services – all the things that modern states are expected to provide in what should be Iraq’s commercial hub and wealthiest city.
Demanding better governance and basic services, Iraqis in the country’s “Shia heartland” have taken to the streets. The demonstrations began in Basra on July 8, but soon spread to other southern cities, including Baghdad. While demonstrations have recurred each summer over most of the last decade, these demonstrations feel very different. To begin with, they have been sustained now for six weeks and show no sign of abating or losing steam. Quite the contrary, they have spread from city to city. Perhaps more significantly, they began less than two months after parliamentary elections that had the lowest voter turnout since 2003. Official numbers for the turnout are around 45 percent, but many civil society organizations put the number much lower. The demonstrations this year thus speak to deep dissatisfaction with the political elite, if not the system itself.
The demonstrators are mostly poor and disaffected, with heavy youth participation. The demonstrations are not ideological, and cut across party affiliation. Demonstrators want to know how successive governments have spent nearly $1 trillion over the past eight years, since basic services have not improved over that time. They are rejecting the current political class, which they see as corrupt and venal. The demonstrators, who have otherwise been largely peaceful, attacked the offices of several of the political parties, including the Dawa Party of incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, which has given the country its three elected prime ministers since 2005.
Faced with their constituents’ anger, the reaction of many Iraqi politicians has been to shift the blame. Their first reaction was to suggest that these demonstrations were organized by Baathists. While remnants of the old Baath Party can rely on obtaining a few seats in parliamentary elections, Baathist influence in southern Iraq is negligible at best. In the city of Najaf, to which the demonstrations have spread, it is nonexistent.
Other politicians have accused Iraq’s neighbors, though to date there is no evidence in support of the charge and ordinary Iraqis give it no credence. Some have accused either Saudi Arabia or Turkey – or both, acting in concert – of seeking to destabilize the Shia-led government. Again, beyond merely making the bald assertion, no proof has been provided that either of these two neighboring states wield the type of influence in Basra and the southern governorates to be able to mount and sustain a popular movement. Even less credible are accusations that the United States or Israel have been behind the demonstrations.
Other observers, always ready to see Iran’s malign hand behind any movement in Iraq, have accused Tehran of orchestrating the demonstrations. This theory has at least the benefit of the subtle realization that a certain amount of chaos in Iraq will always be in Iran’s interests. This is true notwithstanding how close Iran may be to some Iraqi political parties, whether they sit in the federal capital, Baghdad, or the regional capital, Erbil. Still, it is far-fetched that Iran – or any other power – has influence enough to engender and sustain a popular movement over the course of weeks, with no sign of it abating. Indeed, in some of the protests, pictures of Iran’s supreme leader have been burned, and among the political headquarters attacked were those of the Badr Organization, which is very close to Iran.
Thus, the most logical explanation for these demonstrations is that they are a popular expression of legitimate anger against a political class that has betrayed the hopes and aspirations of the people of Iraq. Fifteen years after Iraqis celebrated the overthrow of a heinous dictator, political elites know nothing of the suffering of the majority of the people. Many politicians live in luxurious surroundings provided for them by the state. Their families generally live in nearby capitals in the region – Amman, Abu Dhabi – or in Europe or the United States, and attend schools there. They also have access to health care outside the country, often paid for by the state. This, of course, is to say nothing of the outright corruption that has plagued Iraq from the post-U.S. invasion days. Hundreds of billions of dollars simply cannot be accounted for.
A measure of the venality of the current political class can be demonstrated by one of the last laws enacted by the outgoing Parliament, which confers retirement benefits on members of parliament who lost re-election (some 200 of them), even if they had not served in their positions the requisite number of years under Iraqi law to qualify for such benefits. To his credit, the prime minister referred the law to the Supreme Federal Court, which has suspended it pending a final determination of its validity under the constitution.
Perhaps sensing that the Shia political dispensation that he largely created was being threatened by the protesters, Iraq’s senior Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, issued a strongly worded statement in favor of the demonstrators. He urged that a new government be formed quickly, and that it tackle the issue of corruption, including through criminal prosecutions. The statement had the feel of the clerical establishment “getting out in front of the parade” – adopting the demands of those on the streets as its own, rather than merely responding to popular anger.
Meanwhile, it is highly unlikely that the politicians in Baghdad will be able to form a government quickly. The largest single bloc in the 329-member incoming Parliament is the Sairoon bloc, which will control 54 seats. Its leader, though he was not on the ballot, is Muqtada al-Sadr. He has gone in the opposite direction as Sistani, calling for delaying government formation until protester demands are met, and issuing a list of some 40 qualifications that the new prime minister must meet (including, having no citizenship other than Iraqi, something the constitution already mandates). His demands are unrealistic – it would take years to meet them –and government formation must go forward. It typically takes six months or more to form a government in Iraq, and it is highly unlikely that it will take any less this time.
In the meantime, these demonstrations have had an impact. The first, and by far the most important, is that the federal government in Baghdad has lost much of its legitimacy in southern Iraq. A nascent movement to create a federated region has started in Basra, this time seemingly enjoying wider popular support than a few years ago, when it failed badly. This movement is not motivated by any separatist sentiment but is a reaction against an incompetent and corrupt central authority. While it is hard to argue against that perception, local politicians are no less corrupt than their Baghdadi counterparts. Moreover, the scholarly literature is convincing that federalism or decentralization is typically accompanied by more, not less, corruption. This is in part because there is less monitoring away from the center, and very often even less competence. Services do not necessarily improve with decentralization. Equally significant, devolution of authority could potentially further weaken Iraq’s ability to stand up to stronger neighbors as a coherent state.
A second consequence of the demonstrations has been to lower Abadi’s chances of obtaining a second term as prime minister. His chances were long enough already, as his list came in third in the May 12 elections, but the demonstrations themselves, and his weak and uneven response to them, make him even less likely to be able to obtain Parliament’s confidence. Even the religious authority in Najaf, with its statement in support of the demonstrators, was seen as having distanced itself from Abadi. This will not be good news in Washington, where it was assumed that a victory over the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant would guarantee Abadi a second term, nor in Gulf capitals, as Abadi had succeeded in dramatically improving Baghdad’s relations with them.
Though not yet certified by the Supreme Federal Court, the manual vote recount has just been concluded, and has resulted in essentially confirming the initial election results. The work of serious coalition forming has not really begun, though some preliminary agreements have been announced (in the Iraqi polity, nothing is final, however, until everything is final). Names are being floated of potential replacements for Abadi, including an idea of reaching beyond elected parliamentarians for the next prime minister, though that is rather unlikely. Whoever he is, the next prime minister will lead a weak and fractious coalition, with many waiting for him to stumble so they might take his place. In the meantime, Abadi, hoping to secure a second term, has made promises of improving services quickly, fired the electricity minister, promised to add 10,000 civil-service jobs in Basra, and referred several former ministers to investigators for corruption. But for an exasperated and suffering population, this may be far too little, far too late.
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