Iraqi Dis-connect: People and Power

September 17, 2018
Iraqi Dis-connect: People and Power
Scott Englund
Scott Englund Non-Resident Fellow, Counter-terrorism

To explain the troubles facing Iraq, whether violence, political stalemate, mass demonstrations, or other, a favorite explanatory variable is the various ethnic and religious cleavages found among the Iraqi population.  Recent crises belie that standard analytical paradigm.  An alternate analysis is that absent other overwhelming factors, Iraqi dysfunction and persistent troubles should not be ascribed to ethnic and religious differences in the Iraqi people, but rather, structural inefficiencies and systemic corruption at all levels of government are the more likely culprits.

The challenges faced by the Iraqi government are indeed supremely high: demobilize after fifteen years of almost constant insurgency, reconstruct devastated urban areas and a national infrastructure, and repatriate or return refugees and internally displaced peoples to their homes and businesses they were forced to flee.  The government’s capacity to accomplish this is doubted, and the Iraqi people, though at present apparently united in their demands for greater accountability and efficiency, are likely to be disappointed.

The ethnic and sectarian rivalry model

Iraq is a diverse country made up primarily of Arabs (seventy-five percent) and Kurds (fifteen-twenty percent), with small populations (around five percent) of Turkmen, Yzidi and others.  Religiously, nearly all Iraqis profess to be Muslims, sixty-five to seventy percent Shia and the rest Sunni.  Politically, the population is divided into three representative groups: Shia Muslims, Sunni Muslims, and Kurds.  Dysfunction and crises in Iraq are typically ascribed to rivalries and enmity between and among these three principle divisions.  There are two post-Saddam crises (spanning many years) that fit the sectarian model: the Sunni insurgency that followed the invasion and occupation by the United States and coalition, and the rise of Daesh (Islamic State, ISIS/ISIL).  These two crises magnified and exacerbated sectarian and ethnic divisions, but they were borne of such catastrophic conditions, that they must be viewed as exceptions, rather than typical.

The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the subsequent Sunni insurgency at its crest in 2007 was claiming the lives of 1,000 Iraqi civilians each day, according to some estimates.  The history of the U.S. occupation and its tragic consequences have been thoroughly described elsewhere and need not be repeated here.  It may be helpful to note that the sectarian violence, which came to dominate the period of 2004-2008 was the product of a foreigner with an extremist worldview.  Al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musa’ab al-Zarqawi believed Shia Muslims in Iraq to be a greater threat to his plans to establish an Islamic state than even the occupying Americans.  Writing in 2004, Zarqawi assessed, “the Crusader forces will disappear from sight tomorrow or the day after,” but the Shia will remain, “the proximate, dangerous enemy of the Sunnis…The danger from the Shi’a…is greater and their damage worse and more destructive to the [Islamic] nation and the Americans.”  In 2006, al-Qaeda in Iraq destroyed the golden domed al-Askari shrine in Samarra, a prominent Shia religious site, which drew pilgrims from around the world.  Though religious leaders interceded and pleaded for calm, and admonished their followers to eschew reprisal, this brazen attack on a much-revered shrine accelerated an already spiraling pattern of attack and reprisal among sectarian groups.

After U.S. and coalition combat forces left Iraq in 2011, the Iraqi government under Prime Minister Maliki began to consolidate power, selecting military leaders based on loyalty rather than ability and harassing prominent Sunni members of government, notably charging (and convicting in abstentia) Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi of terrorism charges, as well as charging former Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi with similar crimes.  Large protests began in Sunni majority Anbar towns of Ramadi and Fallujah, which were met with violent government suppression.  Not long after, the black flags of Daesh (Islamic State, ISIS/ISIL) were spotted in protesting crowds, and soon became more prominent.  The rest, as they say, is history.  Daesh captured almost a third of the territory of Iraq by 2015, but was thankfully not long-lived, being eradicated by 2018.

The post Saddam sectarian crises were brought by a huge exogenous shock, followed by errors in management by an occupying power, which led to a widespread insurgency.  A hyper-violent group, led by a foreigner, guided by a cruel puritanical worldview grew to prominence in that insurgency, which led to a pattern of violence and reprisal.  Prime Minister Maliki’s political instincts were formed by years of repression under Saddam Hussein, and sharpened fighting by a long, violent insurgency against his government.  It would be difficult to imagine that under these conditions a normal, effective, and fully representative government could develop and thrive.  It can hardly be said that the heightened sectarian tensions and violence during that time could be considered normal or reflecting a “typical” Iraqi perspective on religious or ethnic relations.

Challenges remain to remove Daesh’s residue, ensuring it cannot reinvent itself or reassert its role as the savior of the Sunni minority against the predation of the majority—true or imagined.  Indeed, positions were hardened during the fifteen years of crisis, and the social divisions exacerbated by those repeated crises may prove easy to exploit for political gain.  The government must be vigilant to not repeat past errors and feed the narrative of an oppressive majority dismissing or undervaluing the sacrifices made by all Iraqis over the past decade and half.  Finally, though quiet for now, the reality of an autonomous Kurdish region, made permanent by years of foreign intervention, will test Baghdad’s economic and political leverage in the north.

Problems with the ethnic-religious model

Recent events in Iraq have drawn attention to some weaknesses of ethnic-religious explanations for Iraqi government dysfunction and popular protests.  Wide-spread protests against government corruption and incompetence, and dissatisfaction among the Iraqi people in their political system, evidenced by lack of electoral participation, suggest that a different explanatory model is needed.  A few illuminating examples deserve attention.

In February 2016 protesters over-ran the “Green Zone” in Baghdad and briefly occupied parliament, led by Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. The protests decried the influence of the Iranian government, and called for technocrats to replace politically appointed ministers.  Protests in Baghdad against government corruption and dysfunction, mainly by Sadr supporters, continued through 2017 and 2018.  These protests were against a government that is at least nominally led by Shia political parties, with a majority of seats in the national assembly held and ministries being led by Shia parliamentarians.

The May 2018 elections for the national parliament were beset by extremely low voter turnout, estimated at approximate forty-four percent of registered voters, yet were perceived to be safe and peaceful.  Iraqis of all ethnic and religious groups chose to not participate, and charges of corruption and vote irregularities have followed from all quarters of the population.  Moqtada al-Sadr’s populist list won a plurality of the seats in the national assembly, but no voting bloc won a simple majority, requiring a coalition government to select a prime minister.  As of early September, while the results of the May election were finalized and a new parliament has been seated, a government has not been formed.  The election was subject to complaints of voting irregularities from all quarters, and the judiciary has ordered a manual re-count of ballots.  Charges of fraud, the manner by which these charges have been handled, recounts, combined with the historically low voter turn-out has reinforced a belief among Iraqis that their political system does not truly represent their interests.

As of the summer of 2018, protests have occurred in the southern Iraqi cities of Najaf, Karbala, and Basra.  Protesters have demanded the provision of basic government services, such as electricity, clean water, and waste removal.  Demonstrators were also protesting the failure of national authorities to seat a new government.  The offices of a wide variety of political parties were burned, suggesting a high degree of general dissatisfaction with the political status quo, which according to those protesting, is defined by incompetence, corruption, and foreign influence, namely from Iran.  The demonstrations in southern Iraq also seem to discredit ethnic-religious explanations for civil-political discord: they occurred in the Shia heartland of Iraq, in regions purportedly under the control of Shia political parties where the majority of Iraq’s oil wealth is derived, and yet were directed against a Shia-controlled government in Baghdad.

Just as Iraqis were able to unite against Daesh, they also appear united in their desire for better government, or least they appear to resist being divided against one another.  Potential barriers to an adequate resolution that bear close attention include whether and in what manner irregular militias (some under Iranian command) part of the fight against Daesh will be demobilized and reintegrated, or how soon areas devastated by the fight against Daesh can be made habitable, or whether and how internally displaced Iraqis will be allowed to return to homes and businesses they were forced to flee.  How the Iraqi government responds to these issues will determine in part whether or not the Iraqi people will become vulnerable to divisive forces like those who gave rise to Daesh or to Iranian influence.

Systemic inefficiencies

Iraq is a federal parliamentary government, with a separate head of state (a president) and head of government (the prime minister), and an independent judiciary.  It is also comprised of eighteen governorates below the national (federal) government.   Sectarian identity is imprinted on the political structure of Iraq.  Since the end of the transitional government, heads of state, heads of government, and the heads of the parliament (sometimes all three are referred to in English as the “presidencies” of their respective areas of government) have been tripartite condominiums.  The President of Iraq is a Kurd with two (and sometimes three) vice presidents, at least one Shia and one Sunni; the Prime Minister of Iraq has been Shia with two or three deputies, at least one Sunni and one Kurd.  With the exception of five months in 2010, a Sunni representative has held the speakership of the Council of Representatives; there also is a “First Deputy” and a “Deputy” speaker, one post reserved for a Shia and one reserved for a Kurdish member of parliament.  This arrangement serves to politically reify the three dominant Iraqi ethnic and religious identities, but also fix them in relative importance, the prime minister is more powerful than the president, who is in turn more powerful than the speaker.  These redundancies multiply gift-giving opportunities for those in power to purchase political cooperation.  Such negotiations encourage graft and corruption.

According to Transparency International, Iraq is one of the most corrupt states in the world, ranked number 169 out of 180 countries studied, scoring just eighteen out of a possible 100 points.  That same report indicates that the major sources of this corruption are the legacies of Saddam Hussein’s authoritarianism, the lack of political will or experience to confront corrupt behavior, clientelism and nepotism, and weak public accountability for foreign aid and management of indigenous industry (which is almost entirely limited to petroleum production).  This complex system has been recently questioned, and temporarily abandoned in 2015, but it has proven resilient.  Efforts in 2015 to reform government went beyond curtailing the redundant vice-presidencies and deputy premiers, but were  also widely panned as not addressing fundamental management problems, or street-level corruption, or unable to withstand the gamesmanship that is part of the political reality in Iraq.  The system has proven resilient—the 2015 act of parliament to alter the arrangement was declared unconstitutional by the Iraqi high court.  Where popular sectarianism arises, it appears to do so because of government choices: the treatment of paramilitary security forces, doling out lucrative government jobs, or distribution of aid.  Corrupt governance comes before the general populace turns inward to its own sect or ethnic enclave.

External threats vanquished, internal reform demanded

For more than fifteen years, Iraq has suffered occupation and insurgency, which made violence and depravation realities for almost all Iraqis.  From the crisis of the U.S. invasion, occupation, and mismanagement grew the original post-Saddam insurgency.  From the embers of that crisis, grew another: the rise of Daesh.  Long told to wait and sacrifice in the face of external threats, Iraqis appear to have set aside the sectarian fighting that defined the post-Saddam crisis years.  Now sweltering in unforgiving heat, without access to reliable electrical power or clean water, Iraqi citizens are demanding more from their government.  Beset by rampant corruption and structural inefficiencies, the government of Iraq seems incapable or unwilling to rise to the challenges it faces.  The challenges are great.  The Iraqi government must adjust to relative peace by demobilizing and reintegrating paramilitary units, rebuilding its devastated urban landscape and national infrastructure, and returning the millions of internally displaced Iraqis and accommodating refugees living abroad.  Current trends are not promising and will likely disappoint a beleaguered people.