Political turmoil is nothing new in Iraq. The American invasion and occupation turned the country from a brutal dictatorship led by the late Saddam Hussein into a quasi-democracy that spends more time fighting against itself than providing for its citizens.
Iraqi politics is laced with sectarianism. When the US helped construct Iraq’s political system, dividing the spoils among Iraq’s three main groupings, the Sunnis, Shia and Kurds, it was thought to be the best way to ensure the system didn’t collapse. The more buy-in from Iraq’s major communities, the logic went, the more incentive they would have to make Iraqi democracy work.
Since then, the world has gotten used to factional disputes and violence between Iraq’s sectarian communities. From 2005 to 2007, Iraq was essentially a failed state, with the government in Baghdad led by men who answered to Shia death squads and al-Qaeda maniacs like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who deliberately killed as many Shia civilians as possible to incite a civil war.
The latest political crisis, however, isn’t between Sunni and Shia but rather within the Shia political elite itself — and this week, the political differences erupted into hours of shooting in and around Baghdad’s Green Zone, killing dozens of people.
The saga started in October 2021, when a political grouping led by cleric Muqtada al-Sadr (the same Muqtada al-Sadr who was once wanted by the US military for killing his rivals, launching an uprising, and being a so-called “outlaw”) won the most seats in the parliamentary elections. Sadr not only won, but won big, nearly doubling the second highest grouping. Sadr’s Shia rivals in the Fatah alliance, which represented much of Iraq’s Shia militia network, saw their share of seats plummet from 48 to 17.
Despite this impressive victory, Sadr’s people couldn’t form a majority government. Stung by defeat, the rival Shia electoral bloc boycotted the parliament, frustrating attempts to elect a president and bogging down the formation of a government. Sadr, who wanted to form a national unity government with Sunni and Kurdish representation, spent months trying to negotiate one, only to watch those efforts collapse in June. Sadr then decided to withdraw his deputies from the entire process. His followers stormed the Green Zone the next month in order to ensure his political adversaries couldn’t enter the parliamentary grounds and form a workable governing majority themselves.
This week, the crisis turned deadly. After Sadr announced his retirement from the scene, legions of his hardcore supporters entered the presidential palace and set up camp. Then the shooting began — and it wasn’t just the Iraqi security forces. Sadr’s militia also participated in the melee, with rocket propelled grenades, machine guns, and grenades ravaging the center of Iraqi political power in the middle of the night. The violence thrust Iraq back into the international spotlight: Iran, Kuwait, and the US all urged their nationals to avoid traveling to the country, and the Netherlands evacuated its embassy. The next day, Sadr demanded his followers vacate the area and apologized for the incident.
Iraqi political crises often drag out until the last possible moment. It’s not unheard of for the politicians to eschew compromise for months and let government services fritter away in the meantime. The Iraqi people have grown used to the incompetence, egoism, and self-centeredness; multiple prime ministers have entered government promising a brighter future, only to leave with controversy hanging over their heads. One of those prime ministers, Abel Abdul-Mahdi, had to resign in November 2019 after security forces, many of them militiamen formally incorporated into the state, killed 500 Iraqis who were protesting the lack of jobs and widespread corruption.
Iraq, one of the world’s top producers of crude oil, should be swimming in cash at a time when oil prices are still high. Instead, Iraq’s official unemployment rate (at least according to the World Bank) is over 14 percent, and unemployment for those between the ages of 15 and 24 is even higher at 27 percent. To call Iraq’s electricity system third-rate would be generous.
As far as Iraq’s democracy is concerned, it’s struggling to sustain itself due to apathy and foreign interference. The Iraqi people are so angered by their politicians that many of them don’t even bother to vote anymore. Only 43 percent of eligible Iraqis went to the polls in the October 2021 parliamentary elections. And while Iraqis do indeed get to vote, the actual process of establishing a government is riddled with foreign interests, with Iran often mediating friction between the competing Shia blocs (the US, of course, used to be the kingmaker of Iraqi politics, all but blocking potential Iraqi prime ministers whom Washington disapproved of). A key driver of Sadr’s support was his pledge to rid Iraq of such foreign interference, be it American, Iranian, or anyone in between.
Violence tends to focus minds on what’s truly important. One would hope the bloodshed in Baghdad would perform the same function for Iraq’s political elite. But for a group that elevates its parochial and personal interests above the Iraqi national interest, the Iraqi people aren’t counting on it.