Iraq faces a new political crisis and the risk of more violence after its prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, resigned under pressure from two months of mass demonstrations by youthful protesters. More than 400 people have been reported killed amid authorities’ forceful attempts to disperse the youthful protesters, who say a corrupt elite is failing to provide basic government services and share the country’s wealth with citizens. But Abdul Mahdi is stepping down only after Iraq’s most prominent Shia cleric withdrew his support. USIP’s Sarhang Hamasaeed and Elie Abouaoun discussed where the crisis could lead.

Iraqi protesters, mostly young men, fill streets around Baghdad’s Tahrir Square in late October. They demand effectively ‘a new social contract’ among Iraqis, USIP’s Elie Abouaoun says. (Ivor Prickett/The New York Times)
Iraqi protesters, mostly young men, fill streets around Baghdad’s Tahrir Square in late October. They demand effectively ‘a new social contract’ among Iraqis, USIP’s Elie Abouaoun says. (Ivor Prickett/The New York Times)

These are Iraq’s biggest protest demonstrations in the post-Saddam Hussein era. What are the stakes?

Abouaoun: Iraq’s domestic upheaval has moved to a more serious, dangerous stage. The protesters in Baghdad and other cities are proving resilient, and they are demanding far more than the removal of a prime minister. Iraq is now facing a multilayered conflict that involves economic and social elements in addition to a strong political one. The protesters’ demands are not only for a new prime minister, but for economic reforms, greater job opportunities for youth, and better government services. Responding to their demands would require a solution to the growth of Iranian proxy forces in Iraq, revisiting the roles of clerics and tribes in the political system, amending the constitution, setting up a truly inclusive and independent electoral process. In a nutshell, it means writing a new social contract among Iraqis. This moment has the potential to be a historic turning point for Iraq. Given those stakes, and the complexity of the situation, the international community, including the United States, should be looking for every opportunity to support a nonviolent shift toward real democracy. But right now, international engagement is not proportionate to the scope of this crisis. 

Given the sweeping changes sought by the protesters, can Abdul Mahdi’s resignation reduce tensions?

Hamasaeed: No, not by itself. And if you look carefully at his resignation letter, it includes a telling signal. His letter acknowledges only the call by Iraq’s powerful cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, for a change in leadership. Abdul Mahdi makes no mention of the demands of the protesters—and this signals that the political class continues to regard the protests’ message as an unrealistic, maximalist demand to which they will make only minimalist responses. That heightens the risk of a greater scale of violence.

Neither side in this conflict—those who seek change and those who seek to preserve as much of the status quo as possible—are willing to budge. And it has become a pattern that Iraq’s political class acts usually only after Sistani applies public pressure. Finally, there is no guarantee that a new government—transitional or permanent—will be able to provide what the protests are demanding: better services, jobs, an end to corruption and a reduction in the influence of external forces in Iraq. On the demonstrators’ side, they share a broad consensus on all of those demands, but they diverge when it comes to how much to insist on constitutional amendments and changing the political system of Iraq.

Forming governments in Iraq has become a months-long ordeal of negotiations among the parties. So what happens now, and can a new government can be formed soon?

Hamasaeed: Abdul Mahdi’s resignation has started the clock to appoint a transitional prime minister and cabinet who will be tasked with holding new elections. As you say, even under normal circumstances the negotiations would be extremely complex and difficult. The political class would wish to appoint someone from within, and names are already floating around. Because this is only a short-term, transitional government, not all parties may be interested in seeking a position in it—and that could permit a faster decision-making process. The complicating factor, again, is that the demonstrators are demanding deeper change. For one, they demand that the next government exclude current and prior prime ministers and ministers. Some go as far as rejecting any leaders from the current parties in the government and political class.

How will this impact the role of international actors in Iraq—namely, Iran and the United States?

Hamasaeed: Iran did not desire this outcome and made every effort to keep Abdul Mahdi as prime minister. They have already mobilized to ensure that they will have a primary role in appointing the new prime minister and government. They will spare no effort in protecting their interests and preserving as much as possible of their influence. The forming of a new government and early elections will give the United States and international community an opportunity to support reforms, including a more inclusive elections law, independent electoral commission, and election monitoring. It could also help reduce the tensions that built up as result of U.S. policymakers feeling frustrated that Abdul Mahdi of failed to push back against the strong influence of Iran. Their complaints include what they said was his failure to implement his own decree to reign in the Iranian-backed groups within and outside the Popular Mobilization Forces, as well as inadequate support to religious minorities, and insufficient steps to sustain the military victory over ISIS. This included stabilizing areas liberated from ISIS, and repatriating Iraqi families accused of affiliation with ISIS.

Abouaoun: The Iranian proxy forces in Iraq are certainly in a tough spot. Anti-Iranian sentiment is growing among Iraq’s Shia Muslims, and this is a major source of concern for Iran, a Shia state. It has spent years trying to coopt Iraq’s Shias, partly by claiming that the ISIS threat justified Iran’s protection of Shias in Iraq. That argument for an Iranian role in Iraq is now being dissipated. This is why we’re seeing such direct attacks on Iranian interests such as the burning of Iran’s consulate in Najaf last week. And it’s extremely important that now, Iraq’s most respected Shia cleric, Ayatollah Sistani, has pushed overtly for a change in government and parliament. He has so far avoided a public anti-Iranian discourse. Iran cannot but be cautious in how they deal with the crisis. They want not only to preserve their privileged place in political and economic realms, but also to sustain their control over the Iraqi Shias. This fine balance is not going to be easy to find, especially considering the differences that are appearing among the Iranian policy makers in Iraq. Some are pushing for an aggressive, “iron fist” approach, while others want a subtler, longer-term approach. So far, the latter seem to still have the upper hand. But this could change at some point when Iran realizes it has little to lose in Iraq. This dynamic between Iraqi and Iranian Shias is very interesting and may lead to either a “right-sizing” of Iran’s role in Iraq or a robust Iranian retaliation against its opponents.

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