Protests in Iraq: International Actors versus Domestic Demands

Protests in Iraq: International Actors versus Domestic Demands

By Hala Mahdi

Introduction

Widespread protests in southern and central Iraqi provinces demanding a better supply of water and electricity services have spread throughout the country’s predominantly Shiite provinces, before hitting the capital city Baghdad (Foltyn, 2018)[1]. Protests on Iraqi streets have gradually surpassed basic demands for state services, developing a political dimension that challenges the entire political sphere in power since 2003 (D’Cruz, 2018)[2].

The eruption of violent protests in the southern and central region of Iraq, which many consider the main region benefitting from the post- 2003 political order, signals a national saturation from the political system in place. Importantly, if protesters continue to revolt against the elite, the Shiite political sphere in power since 2003, it may have severe ramifications that may overspill into the entire region[3]. This paper aims to explore the domestic factors driving the protests movement that may open the door to regional and international actors eager to ride the wave of protests, to execute external influences in the process.

Domestic Factors

Tehran’s decision to suspend Iraq’s electricity supplies amid summer temperatures in excess of fifty degrees coupled with increased water salinity of up to forty percent, have induced protests in Basra (Schweitzer, 2018).[4] Consequently, what started out as a targeting of energy facilities in the northern region of ‘Bahla,’ to demand the nation’s fair share of employment in energy facilities, has exploded civil mass movements further south, in the West Qurna and the Rumaila oil fields (D’Cruz, 2018).[5]

The proliferation of protests into the nearby city of Najaf, considered a sacred shrine city to Shia Muslims, was witness to the burning the images of Supreme Shiite cleric and leader, Ayatollah Ali Khomeini in the streets. Many observers contend it was a turning point against the political process that has hegemonized the political scene since 2003 (Mampuri, 2018)[6]. Protestors stormed into political party headquarters throughout southern provinces, including those of the highly popular Badr Organisation and the Dawa Party headquarters and proceeded to set them on fire (Mahdy, 2018)[7]. Protests spread within days to reach the capital city, Baghdad, where the public have attempted to obstruct the green zone, into the presidential palace and the parliament building; although have been stopped short by tear gas and water cannons fired against them (ibid.)[8]

The consensus amongst analysts is that the Iraqi public’s disdain was evident in last May’s elections that witnessed a record low turnout of 45% to vote, which was an earlier signal of the  ‘political disengagement’ (D’Cruz, 2018)[9] of Iraqi people. Southern provinces are considered the ‘Shiite heartland’. That contributed the majority of human capacities under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilisation Forces to fight against ISIS. Therefore, it is not surprising that observers of the scene perceive mass protests since 2015 as particularly ‘striking,’ as it is resembles the ‘Shi’a protests against the Shi’a political establishment’ (F. Abdul Jabbar, 2017).[10]

More critically, the southern Iraqi region suffers increased security concerns, which reinforces a sense of political disengagement from the Baghdad -based central government. A complex web of ‘powerful tribal organizations’ (Schweitzer, 2018)[11] with links to the current government have monopolized oil revenue and divided state employment opportunities through a series of ‘patronage networks,’ further exacerbating the youth into protesting within mass civil movements.

In response to the increased autonomy of the southern region, protests have taken an alarming divergence, as protesters demanded to elevate the status of Basra into a region independent of the central government in Baghdad, an independent flag has been raised and protesters are demanding the oil sector be placed under the administration of Basra and its local population, in a political model that mimics the Kurdistan Regional Government (Schweitzer, 2018)[12].

 

Regardless of the central government’s three emergency decisions that targeted youth unemployment, and the allocating of water and electricity budgets specifically for Basra; the administration of services lies in delivery between the federal government and southern provinces. Critics believe bureaucracy in the south is ‘chaotic,’ and lacks ‘accountability’ as to where service provisions lie (D’Cruz, 2018). [13]

 

Some believe the protests could  deliver fundamental political changes in the country towards re-establishing already agreed alliances, as announced by political blocs to form a new government; and which has been announced explicitly by the head of the Sairoon political block, Moqtada al-Sadr (al-Atrush, 2018)[14]. At present, it seems ensuing protests have been successful in establishing demands to reformulate the Iraqi political scene away from the demands set out by Qassem Soleimani of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, in his mediating talks with the champions of the parliamentary elections in Baghdad last month.

 

Regional and international influences

Naturally, assessing the dynamics of Iraqi politics prompts a consideration into geopolitics actors influencing Iraq and the wider Middle East region as the country stands as a prominent frontline between Iran against the United States and its gulf allies. It is wishful thinking to predict that a nationalist uprising within Shiite communities, in addition to elite political parties and their affiliated military wings, would elevate the interests of Iraqi nationalism over external loyalties to Tehran.

Analysts predicts Iranian national interests play strongly within Iraq ahead of the United States imposed sanctions on Iran that are due to take effect in November; this would transform Iraq into one of the key frontlines between the United States and Iran to secure their national interests in the region through the formation of the upcoming Iraqi government.

Just three days prior to the outbreak of protests in Iraq, threats surfaced on behalf of Iran that it would not permit the sale of oil by any regional country should United States sanctions take effect on 4th November, following the United States retreat from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action last May (Koltrowitz, 2018)[15]. This had been followed by Mohammed Ali Jafari’s decision, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, to block the strait of Hormuz and halt the sale of oil, which provides 30% of global oil sales (Apps, 2018) [16]. Observers have commented on Iran’s ability to utilise its loyal paramilitary wings on Iraqi soil in taking charge of oil fields and preventing the extraction and sale of oil in response to the United States decision to pressure its allies in halting oil trade with Iran.

The decision to cut Iraq’s electricity supply ahead of the formation of the next Iraqi government may additionally compromise United States and its gulf allies push to renew Prime Minister Haider al -Abadi’s second term as Prime Minister (al Hamed, 2018)[17]. Qassem Soleimani’s has particularly spent efforts in mediating between Shiite factions, to guarantee the formation of a parliamentary bloc that remains loyal to Iranian national interests (al-Nuaimi, 2018)[18]. The sparking of violent mass protests movements over inadequate state services would undermine the image of Haider al -Abadi as a prime minister, and strengthen the chances of a more Iranian loyal figure, Namely Hady al -Amiry whom has been long groomed for this prospect.

It is equally unrealistic to bet on the steps that are likely to be adopted by Prime Minister, Haider al -Abadi, whose expired government has refused to pay the Iranian electricity bill in petrodollar currency, only to send forth a delegation that negotiates a joint Saudi energy deal that would salvage this crisis. The Saudi government has agreed to lend their support in exchange for the formation of a balanced Iraqi government that does not place Iranian national interests at the forefront. Already occupied in preserving its national security in the context of regional conflicts, Riyadh is occupied by the conflict in Yemen, and lacks political tools to maintain an influence over the political transition phase within Iraq. Riyadh’s inability to claim influence over Iraqi Sunni political factions, that suffer from lack of political organisation and the expulsion of the Iraqi Sunni minority in the north following their inadequate performance in the face of terrorism.

Ultimately, Riyadh leans towards supporting a stable, albeit fragile, Iraqi government; which would potentially involve leading negotiations into forming a coalition government  to contain the crisis and prevent violence over spilling into the wider Middle East.

Although the spokesman for the United States state department, Heather Nauert, has voiced the United States support for ‘peaceful protests,’ (Mylroie, 2018)[19] whilst establishing the Trump administration’s trust in Haider al -Abadi’s government in handling civil demands. Their lack indications pointing to United States intervention into Iraq militarily; which may be attributed to the U.S. lack of political tools, other than Haider al -Abadi, to salvage a balanced government that does not compromise its interests in the region in favour of Iran.

However should protests escalate, the United States would be prompted to intervene to collapse al -Abadi’s caretaker government in exchange for a national salvation government that de-escalates tension and maintains relative stability in the region.

The United States disdain at Iran has lately been evident through Turkey’s refusal to cut oil trade ties with Iran, in accordance with the termination of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action by the Trump administration, and which has been mostly in response to Iran’s sponsorship of state terrorism in countries such as Iraq. Observers have noted the presence of ‘Popular Mobilisation Forces’ as a fundamental element motivating the far-right, conservative Trump government into establishing regime change to curb Iran’s influence on the region (al- Hamed, 2018)[20]. Fundamentally, this would require toppling the current government to eliminating the limitations of the joint Obama-Maliki ‘strategic framework’ agreement signed in 2014. The agreement prevents Iraq from being a springboard for military aggression to other countries in the region; it consequently requires the deportation of United States troops and bases from the country, which the previous parliament had pushed towards legislating on various occasions.

 

 

Conclusion

  • Should the scale of protests movements accelerate any further, leading to violent clashes between involved military factions, or potentially be driven by external or domestic political agendas, the protest movement within Iraq is likely to escalate into a civil conflict. Particularly, as the country is at a critical time ahead of the formation of the next government, and lies as a frontrunner in bearing the influence of conflict between regional and international actors. Ultimately this may present Iraq as a battle ground of proxies of the region, as has been the case earlier in Syria.
  • Equally, policy analysis must not overlook the potential of civil resistance movements and mass uprisings in contributing towards political change born out the protest movements taking place on the streets. The grouping and convening of masses of civilians may cause societal clashes with a potential to elevate an effective nationalist figure to power that is capable of delivering much needed reform to salvage
  • Following Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s speech on Friday, which called on all political entities for the creation of an Iraqi government as soon as possible, the chances of accelerating the formation of an Iraqi government that provides the demands of Iraqi citizens, ultimately providing effective political representation for all those involved in the protest movement.

 

Bibliography

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[1] “So rich but so poor: Protests erupt in Iraq’s oil-rich south – France 24.” 27 Jul. 2018, http://www.france24.com/en/20180727-focus-iraq-protests-south-basra-province-unemployment-corruption-redistribution-wealth. Accessed 31 Jul. 2018.

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[13] “Protests are mounting in Iraq. Why? – The Washington Post.” 21 Jul. 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2018/07/21/protests-are-mounting-in-iraq-why/. Accessed 31 Jul. 2018.

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[15] “Iran’s Rouhani hints at threat to neighbors’ exports if oil sales halted ….” 3 Jul. 2018, https://uk.reuters.com/article/us-iran-nuclear-usa-oil/irans-rouhani-hints-at-threat-to-neighbors-exports-if-oil-sales-halted-idUKKBN1JT0NB. Accessed 31 Jul. 2018.

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[17] “حقيقة الدور الخارجي في احتجاجات العراق.” 18 Jul. 2018, https://www.aa.com.tr/ar/%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AA%D9%82%D8%A7%D8%B1%D9%8A%D8%B1/%D8%AD%D9%82%D9%8A%D9%82%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AF%D9%88%D8%B1-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AE%D8%A7%D8%B1%D8%AC%D9%8A-%D9%81%D9%8A-%D8%A7%D8%AD%D8%AA%D8%AC%D8%A7%D8%AC%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B9%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%82-%D8%AA%D8%AD%D9%84%D9%8A%D9%84/1207132. Accessed 31 Jul. 2018.

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[19] “US supports investigation into lethal response to Iraqi protests.” 25 Jul. 2018, http://www.kurdistan24.net/en/video/a020abd9-5c72-4e7f-9f22-0d579125a231. Accessed 31 Jul. 2018.

[20] “حقيقة الدور الخارجي في احتجاجات العراق.” 18 Jul. 2018, https://www.aa.com.tr/ar/%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AA%D9%82%D8%A7%D8%B1%D9%8A%D8%B1/%D8%AD%D9%82%D9%8A%D9%82%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AF%D9%88%D8%B1-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AE%D8%A7%D8%B1%D8%AC%D9%8A-%D9%81%D9%8A-%D8%A7%D8%AD%D8%AA%D8%AC%D8%A7%D8%AC%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B9%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%82-%D8%AA%D8%AD%D9%84%D9%8A%D9%84/1207132. Accessed 31 Jul. 2018.

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