IRAQ: Occupation, Governance, Protests

MAPA Newsletter Jul-Aug 2020

Iraqi protests

The 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq by U.S. and British forces was a momentous event for Iraq, the region, and the world.  Since then, Iraq has experienced political instability, corruption, deteriorating public services, economic decline, Da’esh (Islamic State/ISIS) terrorism, and several protest waves (e.g., 2011, 2019-2020). A new government was formed in May 2020 under Prime Minister Kadhimi, but instability, insecurity, and uncertainty continue, along with political factionalism.   

Parliamentary blocs take divergent positions on relations with the U.S., Iran, and Saudi Arabia. Iraq has a national army but also militia tied to the political factions, mostly sectarian/communal in nature. For example, about 6,000 U.S. soldiers remain in Iraq, and in the aftermath of the U.S. assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi commander Abu-Mahdi Muhandis (near Baghdad airport in early January 2020), a parliamentary vote called for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops. The vote was non-binding, however, and in any event was boycotted by Kurdish and Sunni members of parliament (MPs). The vote also met with the usual U.S. contempt: President Trump threatened economic sanctions if U.S. troops were compelled to withdraw; he threatened to end waivers that allow Iraq to buy Iranian gas to fuel generators that supply a large portion of the country’s power; and he warned that Iraq could lose access to its central bank account at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

In early June, the anti-Saudi bloc in parliament declared its intent to sue Saudi Arabia “for dispatching suicide bombers to Iraq.” They are seeking a law similar to that passed by the U.S. Congress in 2016 (the “Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act”) and are choosing this route in part because Saudi funds are deposited in U.S. banks. Others in Iraq’s political class feel that the proposal would antagonize both Saudi Arabia and the U.S., harming bilateral ties. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Kadhimi seeks to repair relations with Saudi Arabia.

Turkey’s government has taken an aggressive regional approach, not only striking at Kurdish positions in northern Syria but also advancing across the border with Iraq. Since late June, Turkey has carried out airstrikes targeting Kurds in northern Iraq, killing civilians and forcing the evacuation of several villages. 

October 2019 saw the outbreak of widespread protests across many Iraqi cities, including the Shia-dominated Karbala, suggesting the emergence of a protest movement that seemed to be transcending the sectarian/communal divides. The protests forced the resignation of then prime minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, but they also were met with brutality and repression. The outbreak of COVID-19 put a halt to protests but they resumed in May 2020. The new prime minister has promised to investigate charges of brutality against protesters. 

It should be noted that the Iraqi protests are part of a cluster of protests that have been taking place across the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) region since at least 2018, with protests in Iran, Algeria, Morocco, Lebanon, and Tunisia targeting one or another of these grievances: high unemployment, poor public services, privatization, government incompetence and dysfunctionality, the corruption of political and economic elites. Also useful to note is that MENA has been the target of external intervention for decades – and before that, most countries were subjected to Ottoman or European colonialism.  Many of the politicized border issues, as well as the different types of political and institutional arrangements, are the legacy of colonialism or 20th century external interventions. In the new century, 2003 stands out as especially disruptive.   

In this context, and as a member of Mass. Peace Action’s Middle East Working Group, I agreed to organize a webinar addressing key issues pertaining to current Iraqi politics, including U.S.-Iraq relations. What convened was a webinar that examined the structural and institutional defects that have generated citizen frustration and widespread protests, as well as Iraq’s many impressive civil society initiatives. The two guest speakers were political scientist Shamiran Mako and documentary filmmaker Terry Kay Rockefeller. (Details on the speakers are at the end of this article.)

Shamiran focused on Iraq’s political and institutional set-up since 2003 and challenges of the complex power-sharing arrangement. Elite ethnic capture – whether Sunni during the era of Saddam Hussein or Shia since 2003 (and Kurdish dominance in northern Iraq) – has characterized the Iraqi political set-up but today is especially entrenched, with marginalization and exclusion of several of Iraq’s ethnic and religious minorities, such as Assyrians and Yazidis. (Iraq’s Christian population has dwindled from 12% to just 1%.) In discussing aspects of Iraqi governance since 2002, she highlighted downward trends in most governance indicators. Most Iraqis identify “the economic situation” and “financial and administrative corruption” as the most pressing challenges, according to recent Arab Barometer survey data, and more than half of respondents said that bribery (or “tips”) are needed for both educational and healthcare services. As a result, confidence in democracy has declined in Iraq, as has interest in politics. Although 32% of respondents feel that external factors are important in “causing the lack of development”, 41% cite internal factors as most important. Her presentation showed why there has been such widespread dissatisfaction. 

Terry focused on the Iraqi protests as well as the civil society initiatives and organizations that she helps support through the Iraqi Civil Society Solidarity Initiative (ICSSI).  She discussed a 2009 meeting in Rome of Iraqi civil society activists who spoke of political, economic, and social problems in the context of six years of occupation. A conference in Erbil in 2011 sought to help build “another Iraq”; the Iraqi Social Forum (ISF) was launched in Baghdad in 2013; and by 2016 the ICCSI and ISF had launched campaigns around saving the Tigris and Iraqi marshes; “sports against violence” and the Baghdad marathon; women’s rights; freedom of expression and of media; workers’ rights and a just labor law; minority rights; saving Iraqi heritage; and responding to the violence of Da’esh. In 2019, UNESCO recognized the Tigris and marshes as a World Heritage Site – clearly a victory for the activists. But many challenges remain, not least climate change, pollution, and water shortages – subjects of a “virtual assembly” that took place in May 2020 and involved activists in Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Central Europe. Another virtual assembly was on “women and girls caught between domestic violence and [COVID-19] lockdown”.  The photos of the young activists that she showed were instructive and inspiring. But the photos of the military crackdown on the protesters were disturbing. 

If I were to distill the key points of the Iraq webinar, they would be the following:

  • Iraqi civil society is much richer than most of us knew, and more mobilized;
  • The Iraqi political system is highly dysfunctional; perceptions of corruption are very high, and fundamental institutional changes are needed;
  • Democracy must deliver socio-economic rights to citizens as well as political competence and integrity; 
  • Political factionalism and institutional legacies of communalism notwithstanding, ordinary Iraqis want intervening outside forces (U.S., Iran, Turkey) to remove themselves. 

Shamiran Mako is Assistant Professor of International Relations at Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies. Born in Iraq, she is co-editor of a book on Iraq and is working on another book tracing the institutional legacies of ethnic conflict in Iraq, with a focus on how ethnic domination and modes of inclusion and exclusion have shaped the mobilizing strategies of communal groups. She is also the co-author, with Prof. Val Moghadam of Northeastern University, of a forthcoming book explaining the divergent outcomes of the Arab Uprisings in seven countries of the region (After the Arab Uprisings: Progress and Stagnation in the Middle East and North Africa, Cambridge University Press, 2021).  

Terry Kay Rockefeller is a documentary film producer who worked on Eyes on the Prize, the famous documentary on the history of the American civil rights and black power movements. She also has worked on the NOVA science series and other productions for public television. Terry’s sister, Laura Rockefeller, was killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Since 2002, Terry has worked with September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, to honor her sister’s life and to ensure peaceful futures. Following the US-led invasion of Iraq, Peaceful Tomorrows began seeking ways to remain supportive of the Iraqi people, and today Terry works with the Iraqi Civil Society Solidarity Initiative, a collaboration between Iraqi and international NGOs to support human rights, democracy, and anti-corruption activists in Iraq.

—Val Moghadam, a Professor of International Affairs and Sociology at Northeastern University, is a member of the Mass. Peace Action Board and the National Peace Action Board of Directors. 

Watch the full video of the Iraq webinar here: