Iraq's kleptocratic government is threatened by a major intifada

The current government of Haider Al-Abadi is in the same predicament as its predecessors - it cannot impose total control and it has ruled by brute force. The massacre at Mosul, and description of the Iraqi army as de-facto occupiers in cities and towns across western and northern Iraq including the violent campaign between 2015-2017, which often descended into full-fledged ethnic cleansing (often matching ISIS’s brutality) demonstrates this conundrum. The result of a century of disastrous colonialism, sanctions, war and the unravelling of the Bush Doctrine are turning Iraq into the equivalent of Pakistan where government forces and intelligence struggle to impose themselves across an unstable landscape dominated by tribal and sect and nationality (while strong) is interpreted in radically different ways by each group and sub-groups. Stamping out the Sunni revolt between 2014 and 2017 was a symptom of misrule as much as the vicious ideology of Al-Qa’ida drove conflict in one of Iraq’s most violent moments in modern history.

In the wake of ISIS’s defeat, the economic and social issues which have long plagued Iraq remain unresolved. Bombs and bullets were never going to solve them. To the contrary, war including the devastating deployment of airpower by the American-led coalition levelled eastern Mosul, and reduced entire districts in Falluja, Ramadi and Tikrit to rubble and made things worse. Reconstruction has been slow and NGOs are underfunded, struggling to capture the attention of international donors as crises such as the Rohingya Crisis, Yemen and Syria (no less serious) have become the focus of international media and news outlets. Days, weeks and even months after the Siege of Mosul ended, corpses were still being recovered from the ruins. 

Iraq’s civil war never really ended when coalition forces departed the country in 2011 and the return of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) wedded to the repression of Nouri Al-Malaki’s government and the Syrian Civil War turned up the heat of the conflict in 2013 and 2014. Communities across Iraq have barely had time to recover from the conflict with ISIS, yet alone the enduring instability which has consumed the country which has included a war with Iran, three conflicts involving the United States (1990, 2003, 2014), the Sh’ia uprising,

Historically, central governments in the capital Baghdad have governed Iraq with difficulty from the Ottomans to Saddam. The challenge is that the Ottomans, the British, the Baathists and the Americans have not refuted the system of governance that does not work, namely amalgamating the power structures of the country to suit one group. As Said Aburish argued “short-sighted policies precluded the creation of democracy which contributed measurably to ethnic, religious and social divisions.”

Iraqi men, women and children (Iraq’s future generations) have been traumatised by incessant conflict. This, in-part, has nurtured a public health crisis across the country in the form of a surge in drug use including crystal meth, one man talking to The Guardian describing meth as Iraq’s new oil. Malnutrition and hunger which can lead to stunted growth is rife across Iraq and in Basra, where protests have turned into outright revolt in the Shia-dominated city, cholera has become a major concern in the past weeks as pollution, inadequate infrastructure and lack of access to clean drinking water have allowed disease to spread. Drought has further hampered the water crisis and with both shortages of water and electricity, the latter of which angered Iraqis considerably under Saddam and the American occupation wedded to soaring temperatures have turned up the heat on the Iraqi government. 

This has not been aided by the rampant corruption which seeps through the streets and the halls of power. Such practices were what led to the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Ben-Ali in Tunisia, the resignation of Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen. In the most serious cases, illicit practices and corruption, including the domination and plundering of national economic eventually escalated from protest to war in Libya, Syria and Iraq. 

The kleptocratic nature of the government encased with the Green Zone, a problem before the resurgence of Al-Qa’ida, remains so today. Out of 180 countries listed by Transparency International, Iraq was ranked 169th in the Corruption Perceptions Index in 2017. Only Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan and Libya rank lower in the Middle East. This is worse than in 2016, and two ranks higher than 2013 when the Sunni revolt began to escalate into full-fledged insurgency, one ISIS rapidly exploited as Syria collapsed. Corruption was at the core of the rout of the Iraqi military by ISIS in 2014. Unpaid soldiers slipped out of their uniforms and abandoned their posts following their commanders who fled to Kurdistan as ISIS seized the city which had exploded into an open uprising. In some cases, entire units existed on paper, but were ghost soldiers in reality.

The investment, training and weapons poured into units loyal to the government, but not necessarily the Sunnis and the Kurds, or the Kurdish peshmerga and the incorporation of Popular Mobilisation Units (militias loyal to Iran) into the military has created a situation where the Iraqi army and the Kurds have competing agendas. The atrocities committed against Sunni civilians and communities including a devastating bombing campaign by the coalition has alienated multiple provinces such as Anbar and Nineveh where some of the heaviest fighting took place.

Now with ISIS defeated, the post-civil war landscape remains turbulent as demonstrated by the disastrous Kurdish referendum in 2017 and the largely bloodless seizure of Kirkuk from the peshmerga by soldiers from Baghdad. Now, Basra, a largely Shi’a city in southern Iraq is in open revolt against the regime as the divisions between the poorer Shi’a communities and the political class widen and become more exaggerated. Conditions in Iraq are ripe for an intifada on the one of the world’s largest oil fields. With Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi struggling to form a government, the international community - which has ignored Iraq since the fall of Mosul in 2017 - must start paying attention to the crisis about to engulf the Persian Gulf lest Iraq slide once more into war.

Matthew C.K Williams