As violence spirals, Iraq is headed for real trouble

Renewed protests and a spate of kidnappings are undermining Prime Minister Al Kadhimi’s promises

An Iraqi protester wounded the previous night in confrontations with security forces sits on July 27, 2020 on the ground in Baghdad's Tahrir square, where several protest tents were burnt the previous night. Two demonstrators died in Baghdad overnight after being shot in clashes with security forces, the first victims of protest-related violence under a new Iraqi premier who had promised a dialogue with activists. The deaths threaten to reignite an unprecedented movement slamming government graft and incompetence, which erupted across Baghdad and the country's south in October but had waned in recent months. 
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At least two protesters were killed in Baghdad on Sunday as demonstrations flared in a number of Iraqi cities. While the Iraqi Human Rights Commission confirmed the two deaths, some reports indicate that at least four have been killed. Dozens have been injured since Sunday night and there are concerns about continued attacks. Yesterday, videos emerged of security guards beating unarmed protesters outside the Ministry of Education.

The scenes are similar to those that took place last October, when violence surrounding protests escalated to result in over 700 deaths as well as the resignation of former prime minister Adil Abdul Mahdi’s government. However, it would be wrong to draw the conclusion that the current Prime Minister, Mustafa Al Kadhimi, will act in the same way or meet the same fate. He does, however, need quick measures and expedient support.

Discontent in Iraq is not new, and neither is the suffering of Iraqis from unemployment, lack of security, corruption and a crippled health system trying to fight Covid-19. However, tensions are escalating. Rocket attacks on military bases or in the vicinity of the International Zone of Baghdad, commonly known as the Green Zone, are near-daily occurrences, and security incidents such as kidnappings and assassinations are on the rise.

Armed groups within the country, some with political parties backing them and others with Iranian backing, know that Mr Al Kadhimi has them within his sights and are lashing back. With temperatures exceeding 50 degrees, frequent electricity cuts and a general public malaise setting in, Mr Al Kadhimi is heading towards a crisis.

The Prime Minister's first foreign trip abroad since he came to office was slated earlier this month to be to Saudi Arabia. It was meant to bring news of economic opportunities and entering a new era in relations in the region. However, the trip was cancelled as King Salman bin Abdul Aziz was taken to hospital. Consequently, Mr Al Kadhimi's first foreign trip was to Iran. It became a staging ground for Iranian leaders to push their own anti-US agenda, at which point Mr Al Kadhimi had to push back defensively on the need for 'non-interference' in relations.

All this comes as the Iraqi government is facing an economic crisis that can only be resolved by external investment. Foreign direct investment or private sector investment at a time when the global economy is facing a recession and global pandemic will not be easy and will require hard work.

FILE PHOTO: Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi is pictured at the prime minister's office in Baghdad, Iraq, June 4, 2020.  Iraqi Prime Minister Media Office/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo  ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. To match Special Report IRAQ-IRAN/MOSUL

In an exclusive interview with The National, Dr Fatih Birol, the head of the International Energy Agency, spoke of the challenges facing Iraq's economy and energy sector. But he equally stressed the possibility of overcoming these challenges based on two key ingredients. One is reform, which Mr Al Kadhimi has started to undertake with his team, and with the removal of key corrupt figures from government entities like the Civil Aviation Authority and Pensions Authority.

The second and perhaps more important one is what Dr Birol referred to as “political resistance inside of Iraq”. “This is the main issue,” he said. While Dr Birol was speaking specifically about the energy sector, his point on political resistance is true throughout the country.

Iraq’s dysfunctional system means that those in government are not natural allies, but rather competitors angling for one another’s failure in order to score political points. The civil service has been impacted directly as the sectarian and ethnic divides, known as muhasasa, imposed upon the political system have meant that director generals and other key positions in the civil service are given to people based on political or sectarian lines, rather than expertise or experience. Thus, when deep structural reform is needed, committees are set up to stymy change. This has been an issue throughout the past 16 years, since the US handed sovereignty over to an Iraqi state that lacked an effective civil service because much of its leadership was removed through debaathification.

Without a parliamentary majority that supports his political programme, Mr Al Kadhimi is beholden to striking deals on the major issues of the day. He convened a “special meeting’ on the electricity crisis, demanding ‘all state resources are deployed to address the crisis, including expediting processes and cutting red tape’ according to statements published by the Iraqi Government Twitter handle.

However, statements alone will not suffice. Statements on the need to fix the electricity sector will not cool the stifling heat of Iraq's summers. Statements pledging find the killers of Husham Al Hashimi, a respected independent security researcher, have not led to any arrests or accountability. Statements to restore Iraq's sovereignty have not yet led to the reining in of militias. While two months – the length of time for which Mr Al Kadhimi has had his cabinet in place – is a short period in which to expect results on the ground in Iraq,  years of suffering mean that tangible improvements cannot come soon enough.

Mina Al-Oraibi is editor-in-chief of The National