October has been a month of protests around the world, from Hong Kong to Chile. Nowhere have they been as bloody as in Iraq. Tens of thousands of demonstrators have tried to swarm the Green Zone, the area in central Baghdad where Iraq’s governing class lives, enclosed by massive concrete walls built by U.S. troops. They have been met by Iraqi security forces and Iran-backed militias firing tear gas and live ammunition. At least 240 people have been killed, and the protests have spread to the city of Karbala.
This is the severest crisis of Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi’s year-long tenure, and unless he can mollify the protesters, he may not survive in office.
A Crumbling Petrostate
Security has improved dramatically since the end of the war with the self-proclaimed Islamic State in 2017, but Iraq’s economy remains in bad shape. Roughly 90 percent of government revenue comes from oil, and the government spends nearly half of its budget to pay bureaucrats who do little work. The country has grown to roughly forty million people, and about eight hundred thousand people reach working age every year without the prospect of meaningful employment. The government stopped releasing unemployment statistics in 2017, when, according to the Wall Street Journal, “the jobless rate was 13% and youth unemployment nearly double that.” The economic situation has only gotten worse since then. Electricity, water, health-care, and education systems remain antiquated and ramshackle.
There is a widespread perception that the only people who profit from the current situation are political leaders who divide up oil revenues to pay off their followers, and to lead lavish lifestyles in the Green Zone. The nongovernmental organization Transparency International ranks Iraq as one of the world’s most corrupt countries.
The underpinning of Iraqi politics is a sectarian spoils system that was enshrined by the U.S. occupation. The president is a Kurd, the prime minister a Shiite, and the speaker of parliament a Sunni. Each sectarian bloc has its own factions, which divide government revenues among themselves. Both the United States and Iran tacitly support this system, but most Iraqis do not. And now they—particularly young Shiites who are no longer willing to be subservient to Iran-backed communal leaders now that the danger posed by the Islamic State has passed—are rebelling.
Security Forces in Turmoil
The heavy-handed response of security forces and Iran-backed militias has only fueled the protests. On October 22, the government announced that it would fire and even prosecute a dozen senior military and police commanders for using excessive force, but this has not appeased the protesters. They are now demanding the ouster of the prime minister. A moderate Shiite technocrat, Mahdi has done a better job than his predecessors of reaching out to Sunnis and Kurds, the country’s largest ethnic and religious minority groups, but the demonstrators don’t want a better power-sharing arrangement. They want to abolish it altogether.
Protester Demands: A Familiar Echo
The protesters in Iraq want the same things that so many around the world want: freedom and opportunity for themselves, and accountability and honesty from their leaders. And just as in other countries, the spread of social media and mobile telephones has allowed them to disseminate their grievances and organize protests.
The only way protesters will get what they want is if Iraq’s ruling elite perceives it to be more dangerous to ignore their demands or to make only cosmetic changes—as they have done so far—than to enact the dramatic and difficult reforms needed to galvanize the private sector economy. The latter would require paring back government spending, regulation, and corruption, as well as investing more of the country’s oil revenues in rebuilding crumbling infrastructure rather than lining the pockets of politicians.
Washington should support Baghdad on a path to reform while making clear that violence against protesters is unacceptable. Now that most U.S. troops have left Syria, the United States needs Iraq more than ever to be a strong and stable regional partner, to prevent a resurgence of the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, or other Sunni terrorist groups, and to serve as a check on Iranian ambitions.