After recent episodes of violence, Iraq’s political stalemate continues. “Bottom line … this is a fight over power” and differing views on foreign influence, says USIP’s Sarhang Hamasaeed. “The Iraqi people are actually fighting for democracy. It is just the political class … that makes that a longer fight.”

U.S. Institute of Peace experts discuss the latest foreign policy issues from around the world in On Peace, a brief weekly collaboration with SiriusXM's POTUS Channel 124.


Julie Mason: Sarhang Hamasaeed is director for Middle East programs at the United States Institute of Peace. Here to discuss the latest in Iraq. Good morning, sir.

Sarhang Hamasaeed: Good morning, Julie. Good to be back with you.

Julie Mason: Good to have you back. So, I mean, I think, you know, we've all been so consumed with what was happening in Afghanistan and Ukraine and elsewhere, we really took our eye off Iraq, which is in a terrible situation politically. Can you get us up to speed?

Sarhang Hamasaeed: Sure, yes, [in] Iraq there's a continuing political gridlock, eleven months after national elections, which occurred in November, I'm sorry, October, of last year. Since then, the political class has not been able to form a government. There have been several attempts, but unsuccessful. So, the gridlock continues. The situation escalated to the brink of violence, actually several episodes of violence happened, but they were contained. So, there is now an international and Iraqi domestic effort to de-escalate and get the energy of the political class to dialogue and hoping that there is a way out.

Julie Mason: I mean, maybe this question isn't allowed. But, I mean, is there hope for democracy in Iraq?

Sarhang Hamasaeed: So, we can look at it in two ways. At the society level, I would say, yes. Nineteen and a half years since the fall of Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi society is trying to form their own version of the 'we the people,' holding their public officials accountable. And we've seen the most expression of that in October of 2019, that led to, public protests that led to [the] prime minister resigning in early elections. But at the political level, the political class probably has been sliding back in their attempts at democracy. In this round of elections, one could argue that we have seen probably the most Iraqi agency trying to push back on Iran, but still not being able to work its domestic issues out. And so, as I said, in short, at the public level, yes. At the political class [level] it is still a work in progress.

Julie Mason: What are some of the underpinnings of this conflict? Who's feuding here?

Sarhang Hamasaeed: So, there are two broad camps on the Shia [side] of Iraq, one led by Muqtada al-Sadr, who got 73 seats in the most recent elections, and he gave it up, actually decided to give it up a few months ago. And on the other side, there is a coalition called the Coordination Framework that has members that Iran supports and that's the biggest element. Then you have the Kurds, and then you have the Sunni Arabs. Both of them are kind of on the sideline in the sense that this is a mostly, right now, a Shia-Shia political tension that is threatening, and a Shia-Shia civil war that many actors are trying to prevent. And the bottom line is that this is a fight over power and different approaches to how much external influence is exerted. But the bottom line for the people [is the] lack of jobs, effects of climate change, the fight against ISIS, lack of services, and corruption continues to be daily challenges for the people.

Julie Mason: Yeah, I mean, I was going to ask you, what do the people need there? It sounds like a lot.

Sarhang Hamasaeed: Definitely. There's a lack of governance. Iraq is an oil-rich country, yet about half of the population lives under poverty or near [the] poverty line. Droughts have been hitting the country. Food security has come to be a challenge, both in the aftermath of Ukraine but because of the effects of climate change. So, these have started to become tensions in already complex situations, whether you're looking at the north of the country in areas like Sinjar or in the south of the country where the marshes have been drying up again.

Julie Mason: Yes, I've seen stories in Iraq about, you know, long hidden antiquities emerging because of the drought, which, I mean, I think they'd rather just have the water and not have the drought and you know, forget about the antiquities.

Sarhang Hamasaeed: Yeah, drought is a serious problem. It is already causing displacement in parts of Iraq. It has affected food security and [caused a] drop in agricultural products. And this is the thing: if you neutralize all external problems of Iraq, whether it's Iran or other external interventions, or even ISIS, the domestic issues are enough where there's lack of effective government. And that is a key issue for the political class to resolve. And this is something that the international community, including the United States, have been trying to help them out [with]. But Ukraine and other matters have been taking most of the attention recently.

Julie Mason: Yeah. I mean, how involved is the U.S. in trying to resolve this political impasse in Iraq?

Sarhang Hamasaeed: The U.S. is carefully involved in a limited way, calling for de-escalation, calling for dialogue, and expressing support to the government of Iraq. President Biden called the Prime Minister and expressed support; the Security Council expressed support. But the U.S. is trying to be really careful because a little bit more involvement from the U.S. [and] Iran and its allies could exploit this and turn their attention and focus it on the U.S. and the U.S. presence there, rather than the need of the Iraqi people and the need to reform.

Julie Mason: Of course. Yeah, I think back to something Jacques Chirac said, who was the French president during the war in Iraq and the aftermath, and he was very incensed about the idea that democracy is not a system that you can impose on a people. That it has to be organic. You know, that that the U.S. coming in, getting rid of Saddam in a country that had a strongman government for so long, and just saying well, “Isn't it wonderful now that people can vote.” It doesn't mean that everything is going to go swimmingly. And it turns out, he was right. I mean, I agree. And I think we agree that democracy is fantastic, and people should have the vote and the right and all that. But it's just been not great in Iraq. You know, democracy just doesn't seem to be working out there.

Sarhang Hamasaeed: Well, it depends how you look at it. I think it is true democracy takes time. I think the experience of the United States and other countries shows that it's a work in progress in the best of circumstances and Iraq did not have the ingredients for a successful democracy in 2003. There was a dictatorship and in the journey from there to now, I think some ingredients of democracy have been making progress. As I mentioned earlier, the Iraqi society is demanding better government and fighting for it and, actually paying the ultimate sacrifice. Hundreds of people have been killed and thousands have been injured, [which] shows that the Iraqi people are actually fighting for that democracy, [and] the involvement of civil society is a sign of those. It is just that the political class that has arms, that has external support, that has deep rooted corruption on this side, the hat makes that a longer fight then what would have normally been expected.

And if you compare Iraq to neighboring countries, like Syria, like Yemen, like Libya, Iraq is definitely in a better place where the change of the ruler actually is still … in other places led to a longer [conflict], and in the case of Syria, an international war of sorts. But in Iraq, with the Iraqi agency, I believe it is higher and I think the jury is still out. But if you look at the sum of the ingredients, it is more in the direction of Iraqi democracy growing. However, in performance, powerful actors like armed groups and external actors who do not see an interest in a democratic successful Iraq are setting Iraq back.

Julie Mason: Sarhang Hamasaeed, director for Middle East programs at the United States Institute of Peace, terrific insights. Thank you so much for joining me.

Sarhang Hamasaeed: Thanks for having me.

Julie Mason: Have a good day.

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