A year after Iraqis took to the street, USIP’s Sarhang Hamasaeed says, “The spirits of the protest remain strong,” but that reforms undertaken so far don’t match the scale of the crises facing Iraq: “Those things have not changed daily lives … so the frustration of the people continues.”

On Peace is a weekly podcast sponsored by USIP and Sirius XM POTUS Ch. 124. Each week, USIP experts tackle the latest foreign policy issues from around the world.


Tim Farley: It was a year ago when protesters took to the streets in Iraq. There was a problem; obviously, the coronavirus had hit there hard. There were also problems with the economy. There was violence against protesters, assassination of civic leaders. Where are we now, a year later? Let's talk about it with our guest, Sarhang Hamasaeed, director of Middle East programs at the United States Institute of Peace. The Twitter handle is at @sarhangsalar. Sarhang Hamasaeed, welcome back. Thanks for being on the show today.

Sarhang Hamasaeed: Thank you, Tim, good to be back with you.

Tim Farley: Obviously, in this country, during a presidential campaign, much of what happens internationally is overwhelmed by domestic issues and what's happening in the campaign, the horse race, etc. So it'd be good if you could give us an update of what's been happening, whether or not this is something that has been on the wane or if it is something that has increased, just give us a sense of the state of affairs right now in Iraq.

Sarhang Hamasaeed: Thank you. So yes, in Iraq, this month marks the one year anniversary of peaceful demonstrations where tens of thousands of youth under the age of 25 walked the streets in the middle and south of Iraq, demanding their government to perform better provide jobs, provide services, limit external malign influence, and one year into it, there has been slow progress but nevertheless, important progress. One is that the signal that we saw last year, that the protests signal deep societal change in Iraq. That proved to be true, even though the number of the protesters have dwindled over the months, because of COVID-19 and brutal assassination campaigns against the peaceful demonstrators and some fragmentation within themselves. But then nonetheless, the spirits of the protests remain strong and it has even expanded and taken groups in the religious space of Iraq, where in the recent month, there has been the key anniversary of Shia occasions, marking the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, which is an important occasion in Shia Islam, where the youth embrace chants and slogans, some taking the symbolism of Imam Hussein of standing up to injustice and oppression. So that's taking away from the legitimacy of religious political parties.

And second, they have their pressure with a great support from Grand Ayatollah Sistani, the grand Shia cleric. The pressure also helped, basically pushed Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi to resign. Now we have a new Prime Minister, Mr. Kadhimi. Third, they have been able to force a change in the election law that will increase the electoral districts in Iraq, setting the stage for a more accountable representation of the people, but also comes with the risks of changing the balance of power within communities, within political parties and a range of other actors. They have a new electoral commission that is comprised of judges, which helps, taking the Electoral Commission away from political parties towards more fair management, and a new election date has been set for June of next year. So overall, there has been some big changes. But for the daily life of the people, those things have not changed daily life.

So the frustration of the people continues, and we're coming up on the 25th, which will be a big anniversary date. There are signs of people wanting to pick things up. But also the factors that I mentioned, assassinations and violence used against protesters, and fragmentations, sort of bring skepticism if those protests will be as big. But the spirit of it continues, the international community continues to engage with it and the economic situation in Iraq may propel, may replenish the ranks of the protesters.

Tim Farley: Again, Sarhang Hamasaeed with the United States Institute of Peace with us. Speaking of the economy, obviously two key factors: the oil price has just bottomed out over the last year. It's not just in Iraq, but it is worldwide. That has been a problem. In addition to that, the coronavirus or COVID infection rates. I'm wondering, not much necessarily that the government can do about the global price of oil, but I wonder about how the perception of the people of Iraq of how the government in place has handled the coronavirus pandemic.

Sarhang Hamasaeed: The people of Iraq are very critical of the government, the current government and previous governments of how they handle both the pandemic and the financial crisis that has been induced in the immediate term by the drop in oil prices caused by COVID-19 and an economic recession that associated with it. But it's, the Iraq's facilities in terms of COVID, they do not have the ability to handle many cases, they don't have the capacity to provide the health care that Iraqis need. So the government in my assessment pretty much lost control over the pandemic. And people have lost faith in the health system so that many people don't even go to the hospital when they need help and they deal with it at home. So to put it in perspective, early June of this year, Iraq had about 10,000 registered cases, as of yesterday, they had 430,000 cases. So that's a significant increase. And about 10,000 deaths. In terms of the financial crisis, Iraq doesn't have enough revenue from the oil prices, too. So it has gotten to a stage where it has difficulty paying the public servants. So it's about 7 million of them.

So that could in itself become a source of instability, where protesters will go to the street, demand their government to for immediate payments, because of the high poverty rates, high unemployment rates, with all the economic conditions Iraq, heavily reliant on oil for more than 95% of its public budgets, reliance on oil, so that people are unhappy, and the situation is tough, so that your prime minister and his cabinet proposed a reform paper to Parliament. But it has been caught in between the politics of people, some politicians not wanting to give the Prime Minister when playing politics with this. And second, any solution that the Prime Minister proposes, he doesn't have the political backing in Parliament to pass it. And third, no matter what he proposes, nothing will immediately solve this cheap crisis. So it takes for an incremental process, and a lot of help from the international community, too.

Tim Farley: It was a few weeks ago that the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suggested that the U.S. might shut down its embassy in Baghdad. That has not happened. Still, that does seem to cast a shadow over us in Iraq relations. Where does that stand?

Sarhang Hamasaeed: So the news of a potential U.S. Embassy shutdown was received with a lot of surprise in Iraqi circles and also circles of Iraq experts, because in the past year, the beginning of 2020, that relationship was really at the low point. But with the new government under Kadhimi, the relationship has been reset, strategic dialogue has kicked off and looks were good, and the prime minister was warmly received at the White House by President Trump and his cabinet members had engagements with their counterparts in Washington. So, there were a lot of positive messages coming out from both governments. But I think the risk of the U.S. government shutdown, sorry, embassy, U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, a shutdown of that, the risk comes in the context of continued and increased attacks on the embassy itself by armed groups, many backed by Iran, and also attacks on facilities that host U.S. troops, attacks on U.S. military convoys, and also attacks on Erbil International Airport that has also used military facilities there. And more recently, an attack on a British diplomat's convoy.

All these raised the concern about the safety of U.S. personnel there. So with the Iraqi government being unable to provide the protection necessary, the U.S. is happy that the prime minister, unlike his predecessor, is more aggressively trying to prevent these kind of attacks and resolve matters, but in practical terms, the U.S. feels that it has to take some of its matters into its hands, especially as a precautionary measure during this election season so that it does not become an issue as the Benghazi issue in Libya became in the 2016 elections. And the Iraqi people, the Iraqi leaders have a lot on their hands to get their act together and prevent a few who are armed and dangerous and backed by external powers like Iran will not dominate the future of Iraq.

Tim Farley: Sarhang Hamasaeed, thank you for joining us on POTUS today a good and important update. Thanks for giving it to us.

Sarhang Hamasaeed: Thank you, Tim.

Tim Farley: Sarhang Hamasaeed, director of Middle East programs at the United States Institute of Peace. A year later, what is the situation in Iraq, noting, by the way, that the elections next year are a double edged sword, it's good that you're moving forward. It's more inclusive, it does bring positives, but it also means a change in power, possibly new conflicts, is always a danger to moving forward, but we'll see how it turns out. He is tweeting at @sarhangsalar.

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