Analysis

‘Million-man’ Protests Threaten New Havoc in Iraq

Even if there are no new fatalities on Saturday, the protests will undoubtedly continue to exert a great influence over the plight of a country unable to form a widely accepted government

Smoke rises during clashes between security forces anti-government protesters in Baghdad.
Hadi Mizban/AP

“We’re a revolution, not nakedness,” “Women’s voices won’t be silenced,” hundreds of female demonstrators chanted on Thursday in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square. They were soon joined by thousands of young men shouting slogans and carrying signs assailing the newly appointed prime minister, Mohammed al-Allawi, and his plan to form a government that they fear will be no different than its predecessor.

On Saturday, two more huge demonstrations – predictably nicknamed “the million-man demonstrations” – are slated to take place. One is being organized by the protest movement, and the other by followers of the separatist Shi’ite leader Muqtada al-Sadr.

The Iraqi security services are readying for violent clashes between the two groups. But even if, miraculously, no new names are added to the list of some 500 people already killed in such clashes, the protests will undoubtedly continue to exert a great influence over the plight of a country unable to form a widely accepted government.

Allawi, who was given the job by President Barham Salih, promised to form a “government of experts,” with professionals as ministers. But like Lebanon’s prime minister, he already knows that in a sectarian country, “a government of experts” is an empty slogan.

Initially, he sought to form a cabinet with just 15 ministers. Within days, pressure from the parties forced him to expand it to 23, and even that isn’t the final count.

At the president’s behest, he visited Erbil, capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region, to seek support for his government from Kurdish leaders. But he was met with a series of demands that made the price of this support clear: three ministries, including the finance and justice ministries and another portfolio responsible for public services; restoring the Kurdish Peshmerga forces to the areas they left in 2017; and, above all, implementing the oil agreement that Kurdistan signed with Allawi’s predecessor, Adel Abdul-Mahdi.

The Kurds also want the dispute over the oil-rich city of Kirkuk resolved. They used to control it, but Iraqi forces ousted them in retaliation for Kurdistan’s referendum on independence.

Without Kurdish support, Allawi can’t form a government. But if he accedes to their demands, he’ll have to do the same for the Sunni minority, which is demanding six ministers, as well as for the Shi’ite parties, including those in the pro-Iranian bloc. This will destroy the idea of a government of experts.

So far, Allawi has won support from Al-Sadr, who commands an enormous public following. Until recently, Al-Sadr supported the protesters’ demands to fire the previous government, distance Iran from positions of influence and oust American forces from Iraq. But he was convinced to switch to Iran’s side by Qassem Soleimani, who won him over with promises of funding and military training for his militia. That happened shortly before Soleimani’s assassination in early January.

Ever since, Al-Sadr has turned his back on the protesters. He formed a unit nicknamed the “Blue Hats,” for the hats they wore when they took to the streets to forcibly disperse the demonstrations, and sought to tar the protests as violations of morality and religion because men and women mingle there.

Women take part in a protest in Tahrir Square, Baghdad.
Khalid Mohammed/AP

The violent clashes with the Blue Hats peaked in the holy city of Najaf, where the Shi’ites’ supreme religious leader, Ali Sistani, hurled insults at him and his forces and demanded that the government protect the demonstrators, who are exercising their legal rights.

Al-Sadr’s party, Saairun, won a large plurality of the votes in the 2018 election. He has since increased his power by joining forces with Hadi al-Amiri, head of the pro-Iranian Fatah party, which is the patron of Iraq’s Shi’ite militias. Now, Al-Sadr is Iraq’s kingmaker.

Earlier this week, he published a “Covenant of the Revolution,” whose 18 articles are meant to regulate the demonstrations. This covenant demands that the demonstrators leave city squares, not block roads and overpasses, remove “foreign elements” from the protests and remove women from the protest tents. There’s also one article about the need to enact reforms that will ensure Iraqis a decent living.

The demonstrators viewed this treaty as a declaration of war against them. Al-Sadr has been widely criticized, and not just by the protesters.

Ties with Iran

Thus he’s now trying to restore the popularity and legitimacy he lost through his renewed ties with Iran. But the protest movement, which was badly battered by Al-Sadr’s forces, doesn’t seem willing to grant him this legitimacy, which would increase Iran’s involvement in Iraqi politics.

Nevertheless, without the consent of Al-Sadr and his political partners, Allawi can’t form a government and pass the economic and administrative reforms Iraq needs.

As a “goodwill gesture,” Al-Sadr dismantled his Blue Hats and is leaving the battle against the protesters to the army and police. But he’ll also have to convince the Shi’ite militias to abandon that battle – and they take orders from Iran, not Iraq, despite being funded by Iraq’s Defense Ministry and treated as an inseparable part of its security forces.

Vehicle bearing a portrait of Iraq's Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, Tahrir Square, Baghdad, February 7, 2020
AFP

Given the rivalries among the Shi’ite parties and the lack of Sunni and Kurdish support (as long as their demands aren’t met), Allawi seems unlikely to win parliamentary approval for his government. Iraqi media pundits say that currently, he is backed by only 60 of Iraq’s 329 members of parliament. Even his own Dawa party no longer supports him, saying he’s unfit to be prime minister. Thus unless he manages to increase his support, he will likely resign, condemning Iraq to another long period without a government.

But even if he does form a government, it’s not clear how much power it will have. Will it be a transitional government with limited powers, or a regular government that will serve until the next election?

It would be logical to call early elections, but that would require passing a new election law that would meet the protesters’ demands. These include the demand for equal representation for all citizens rather than the current sectarian allocation of jobs.

The American presence

It’s not only Iraqis who are awaiting the outcome of the political battle roiling their streets. America’s status in Iraq also largely depends on what kind of government is formed.

After Iraq’s parliament voted to oust U.S. forces from the country – prompting the Trump administration to retort that it has no intention of leaving Iraq – America has become a key topic of both the protests and the governing elites’ political debates.

One media report said America had begun withdrawing from 15 bases and plans to concentrate its forces in Anbar Province, near the city of Ramadi, and in Erbil. But America hasn’t confirmed this report, and meanwhile, Iraqi officials have been negotiating with Washington to no avail over the manner and timetable of the withdrawal.

To ease tensions between the two countries, the U.S. administration this week extended Iraq’s exemption from sanctions on Iran, allowing it to continue buying natural gas and electricity from its neighbor for another 45 days. This exemption could be renewed if Iraq demonstrates a serious intention of weaning itself off Iranian energy and begins developing alternatives.

American soldiers clearing rubble at the Ain al-Asad military base in Iraq.
AFP

Baghdad did announce that it has signed six agreements on building power plants and drilling for gas. But it will take much longer than 45 days, or even three months, before they start producing anything.

America also has many other sticks with which it can threaten Iraq, including denying it loans from international financial institutions and banning oil imports from the country. But the administration understands that employing these sanctions would likely turn Iraq into Iran’s closest ally, thereby undermining the sanctions on Tehran.

Miltary cooperation with Russia

The tense relationship between Washington and Baghdad – which the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, Gen. Frank McKenzie, described as tumultuous – hasn’t escaped Moscow’s notice. This week, the chief of staff of the Iraqi army, Othman al-Ghanmi, met with Russia’s ambassador to Baghdad, Maksim Maksimov.

After this meeting, the Iraqi Defense Ministry announced that it plans to deepen military cooperation with Russia. At the same time, Russian oil companies announced that they plan to invest $20 million in developing Iraq’s oil and gas fields.

You shouldn’t hold your breath waiting for these promises to be kept. Nevertheless, the diplomatic message they send obligates Washington to reexamine its policy of disengaging from the Middle East. Russia already controls Syria, is a party to Libya’s military and political battles and is helping Egypt build a nuclear reactor. Thus it might well take America’s place in Iraq.

That thought can’t be reassuring to the Gulf States, whose militaries are umbilically connected to America and which have been its partners in the battle against Iran. They don’t view Russia as an enemy power, just as Israel doesn’t. But neither does Moscow have historical, cultural or strategic ties with Mideast countries in the pro-America camp.

That’s why they attribute great importance to the U.S. presence in Iraq. Iraq isn’t a mere tactical front like Syria, but a central axis to which many countries in the region have strategic ties.