Analysis

As Iraqis Protest Corruption, Iran Pours Oil on the Flames

An Iraqi public used to empty promises is not an easy one to quell, and their frustration with their corrupt government – and Iran's hold on their country – might unseat it

Anti-government protesters set fires and close a street during a demonstration in Baghdad, Iraq, Sunday, Oct. 6, 2019.
Khalid Mohammed,AP

“You don’t oust a sitting prime minister elected in democratic elections through demonstrations,” Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi said in response to the thousands of protesters demanding that he resign and call new elections.

Iraq’s new government was appointed just a year ago, following lengthy negotiations. Now it’s facing a serious challenge. Spontaneous rallies erupted Tuesday, calling for jobs, an end to government corruption and improved services. The fledgling government might not survive if it can't appease the protesters.

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Only after more than 100 demonstrators were killed and 6,000 wounded – by gunfire, snipers, grenades and tear gas – did the government call an emergency session that ended with it presenting an economic plan to ease poverty. Inter alia, it promised to build 100,000 low-cost apartments, give the poor land on which to build their own homes, grant them interest-free loans, pay the unemployed $147 a month for three months, start companies that will provide jobs and establish a high court to handle corruption cases.

But so far, these promises haven’t calmed the public, which is well-versed in guarantees that never materialize. The demonstrations continue.

Sixteen years after the ousting of Saddam Hussein, the paradox of one of the world’s most oil-rich countries being unable to pay decent salaries or create a functioning electricity system is neither new nor surprising. An estimated $450 billion that should have entered the state’s coffers since 2003 have vanished into the pockets of cronies, ghost contractors, companies that failed to carry out government projects and army officers who reported nonexistent soldiers to collect their salaries.

Every part of the massive bureaucracy, which has made the government Iraq’s biggest employer, is riddled with corruption. The justice system is well-greased with bribes, and the government agencies established to monitor state expenditures are crooked themselves.

The World Bank predicts that Iraq’s economy will grow by more than eight percent in 2020, and the poverty rate will fall below 22 percent. American sanctions on Iran are helping Iraq boost its oil exports. The reopening of its border crossing with Syria, and the expected opening of one with Saudi Arabia, could further promote Iraqi exports. But Iraq’s public debt is massive, totaling more than 48 percent of its gross domestic product. It also has a 10 percent unemployment rate, and only about half of Iraqis participate in the labor force.

Like in Egypt, which also garners optimistic evaluations from international financial institutions, the money isn’t reaching the public, whose patience has run out. Rosy forecasts won’t buy anything in the new supermarkets that have opened in major cities, and economic protests are becoming political ones.

Iraq's previous mass protests were largely sectarian, like the Sunni demonstrations against former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose government systematically discriminated against them. But this time, the Shi’ite community is protesting against a largely Shi’ite government. The Sunnis who have taken to the streets have not done so as Sunnis, but as people who can’t find jobs and support their families. 

The Kurds, in contrast, haven’t joined in. Even though Iraq’s president is Kurdish, their protests are reserved for the government of their own autonomous region, further separating themselves from the goings-on in Iraq.

The current protest has two main political targets. One is the corrupt government, which is incapable of doing its most basic job: Providing services like electricity, water, health care and education. The other is Iraq’s growing dependence on Iran, which Iraqis on social media have blamed for demonstrators’ deaths and accused of economically burying Iraq.

This isn't a new complaint. In July 2018, demonstrators burned Iranian flags and pictures of Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, during violent protests in Basra and in Baghdad’s Sadr City neighborhood. They also torched the headquarters of the Badr Organization, a Shi’ite militia affiliated with Iran, and demanded that the country disconnect from Iran’s electricity and water systems. Prior to the Basra protests, Iran had decided to cut off Iraq’s electricity at the height of a scorching summer due to an unpaid debt, a move that made many protesters view it as an enemy country.

But Iraq can’t currently free itself from its dependence on Iran. Bilateral trade between the nations totals $12 billion, and Iraq currently has no alternative source for the electricity, gasoline, natural gas and water that it buys from Iran. Saudi Arabia has promised to either help Iraq develop its own electricity system or sell it electricity, but it will be a long time before any new system is built.

For Iran, Iraq’s economic dependence is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it gives the Islamic Republic great influence over Iraqi politics. But on the other, this makes Iraqis view it as the source of their problems – and not just economic ones.

When Shi’ite militia targets are attacked in Iraq (allegedly by Israel, foreign sources say), Iraqis feel threatened. And when those same militias are paid by the Iraqi government, Iraqis protest that their money is being spent on foreign forces that Iraq doesn’t need – even though they played an important role in the war against the Islamic State.

Ostensibly, the fact that both Iran and Iraq are majority Shi’ite should promote strategic cooperation. But many Iraqi Shi’ite parties accept neither Iran’s system of government nor its policies. One eminent Iraqi Shi’ite leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, whose party is currently the largest in parliament, ran on a joint ticket with secular groups and even communists. He also opposes Iranian involvement in Iraq, as does Iraq’s most senior ayatollah, Ali al-Sistani, who wields enormous political influence. Iraq’s decision to abide by American sanctions on Iran even though it opposes them shows how detached Westerners are from reality when they view all Shi’ite groups as agents of Iran.

The coming days will show whether the demonstrators are willing to give the government’s plan a chance as a positive step forward or decide to continue the protests. Despite their lack of faith in the government’s decisions, Iraqis presumably understand that toppling the prime minister and holding new elections wouldn’t guarantee a real change, and certainly not in the near future. But at the same time, they will want to exact a political price from officials responsible for the deaths of over 100 people.