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.

Related Publications

ISIS Determined to Make a Comeback—How Can it Be Stopped?

ISIS Determined to Make a Comeback—How Can it Be Stopped?

Thursday, August 13, 2020

By: Ashish Kumar Sen

The Islamic State (ISIS), which was driven from its strongholds in Syria and Iraq over a year ago, is determined to regain territory in the region. It will take a combination of military and financial pressure, attention to public grievances, and the repatriation and rehabilitation of people who lived or fought with ISIS—as well as those who were subjugated by them—to foil the militant group’s ambitions, according to senior U.S. officials. This already tall ask has been made even more challenging by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Violent Extremism

The Current Situation in Iraq

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Iraq’s social and political landscape has changed drastically after an escalation of regional and global power competition, the COVID-19-induced health and economic crises, and the unprecedented uprising by peaceful demonstrators in October 2019 that led to formation of a new government. These developments have exacerbated long-standing ten-sions, feeding public distrust in the state and tribal violence in the south. They have also detrimentally affected minority communities, especially in ISIS-affected areas, creating openings for ISIS remnants to step up attacks and contributing to continued internal displacement of over one million persons.

Type: Fact Sheet

After ISIS Genocide, Yazidis Need More Than Remembrance

After ISIS Genocide, Yazidis Need More Than Remembrance

Monday, August 3, 2020

By: Knox Thames

It’s August 2014 in the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar. The police have fled; the army had crumbled. ISIS is rampaging and rolls into Sinjar that summer. The international community is asleep—and the Yazidis (Ezidis) are defenseless. ISIS perpetrates the unthinkable—men and boys are slaughtered, while women and girls enslaved and raped—all because they believe in something different. A genocide happened on our watch.

Type: Blog

Human Rights; Religion

Threat to Kakai Community Poses Broader Challenges for Iraq’s Democracy

Threat to Kakai Community Poses Broader Challenges for Iraq’s Democracy

Monday, July 27, 2020

By: Dr. Elie Abouaoun; Yousif Kalian

Amid the global pandemic, ISIS and the havoc it still wreaks have largely fallen out of the headlines. Nonetheless, the terrorist group’s genocidal march against Iraqi minorities has continued. In Iraq’s eastern Diyala province, ISIS has targeted the Kakai minority with multiple, vicious attacks. The plight of the Kakai community in Iraq is a microcosm of the larger existential challenges Iraq faces. Ethnic and sectarian divides have been a flashpoint for conflict and division for decades. For Iraq to move past the wreckage of ISIS, prevent the terrorist group’s resurgence, and advance its struggling democracy, the Kakai must not only be protected but woven more meaningfully into the diverse tapestry that is Iraq—and the United States has the opportunity to help.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Reconciliation; Human Rights

View All Publications