Iraq protests are symptomatic of wider issues

Demonstrations rooted in economic woes now speak to the country's struggles for sovereignty

Protesters hold bullets belonging to Iraqi police during a protest in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019. Iraqi security forces clashed with anti-government protesters in the capital and other provinces Tuesday, killing and injuring civilians, according to officials. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)
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When Barham Salih was elected as president and Adel Abdul Mahdi chosen as prime minister of Iraq one year ago, there was genuine hope that the government set to take shape in Baghdad would usher in reforms while restoring the peace and stability the country so desperately needed. Both made campaign pledges to root out corruption, unify the country and work as independents, rather than politicians beholden to political parties.

However, as this week's protests in Baghdad and elsewhere in the country have demonstrated, Iraq continues to face manifold challenges, both internal and external, and there is a very real danger of the country once again tipping into violence and instability. The protests, which have claimed at least three lives and left hundreds more injured, have also served as a reminder of the difficulties of recovering from decades of dictatorship, war, terrorism, sectarian strife, institutional corruption and constant threats to Iraq's sovereignty.

What started out as peaceful demonstrations involving university graduates demanding jobs and better living standards quickly descended into some of the worst violence seen this year, forcing Mr Salih to call for restraint and for security services to respect the law. It marked a sharp contrast with the tone and substance of his messages on his inauguration 12 months ago, which were laced with hope and optimism rather than today's sense of urgency and fear. Within just two hours of his election victory, seen as a triumph of his trademark unity politics, Mr Salih made Mr Abdul Mahdi the prime minister designate. The breakneck speed of his announcement was unusual for Iraqi politics and so was his choice: Mr Abdul Mahdi became the first premier in over a decade not to hail from the influential Shiite Islamist Dawa party. Yet the struggle to wean Iraq away from Iran's influence has been amply demonstrated by Mr Abdul Mahdi's inability to rein in the Shiite militias, known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces, who maintain ties with Tehran even though they have nominally been under the command of the Iraqi government and its security forces for the past three years.

This kind of interference has become a source of anguish for Iraqi citizens, as was demonstrated in their protests earlier in the week following the removal of war hero Abdulwahab Al Saadi from his role as the country's counter-terrorism commander. Lt Gen Al Saadi is a US-trained soldier who contributed to the defeat of ISIS three years ago, especially in Mosul, despite being injured four times in his fight against the extremist group. His removal, ostensibly for being non-partisan – something Tehran disapproved of, despite the fact he is Shiite – comes shortly after another high-ranking official, health minister Ala Al Alwan, protested political pressure and corruption in his ministry by quitting for the second time. The protests have effectively become a call to protect Iraqi sovereignty and strengthen its government and legal institutions.

Key to restoring that sovereignty will be tackling high-level corruption. But doing so has been an uphill battle for the government, with Transparency International ranking Iraq 168 out of 180 countries on its Corruption Perception Index. The problem with systemic corruption is that it inevitably weakens governance. For instance, former parliamentarian Hamid Al Mutlaq told The National that entire budgets allocated to building hospitals this year had been lost, leaving little behind for actual construction and forcing Mr Al Alwan to quit his post, citing excessive pressure, blackmail and corruption that made it impossible for him to do his job.

It is just one example of the many challenges Iraq faces, from the lawlessness and lack of control over a number of armed factions to economic woes. Large swathes of the country need rebuilding after ISIS was driven out while the provision of basic services like electricity and water have been inadequate, across the country. Increasing frustration with their lack of agency has driven people onto the streets. Iraqis are in grave need of a functioning government that puts their needs first and protects the nation’s sovereignty against the incursions of foreign powers.