September 18, 2022

The Detritus of the War on Iraq

Vijay Prashad

A WAVE of protests swept Iraq in 2019. The sit-downs and marches took place for reasons familiar to people who were protesting at that time in far-off Colombia and Indonesia. The people were frustrated by what appeared to be a permanent economic catastrophe for their budgets, the absolute failure of the administration to meet their needs, and the political sectarianism that blocked any progress out of the gridlock set in place due to the US invasion and occupation of 2003. The government used terrible force against the protestors, including the assassination of several movement leaders. On the last day of the year, a march attempted to break into the US-controlled compound known as the Green Zone of Baghdad, with their target as the US embassy. The protests slowed down but did not end. They, in fact, continue till this day.

As a result of this wave of protests – largely ignored by the international media – the political class has been in a situation of permanent turmoil. In ten weeks of early 2020, Iraq had three prime ministers, ending that instability when the President Barham Salih placed Mustafa al-Kadhimi as the interim head of government. Al-Kadhimi has been in that post since then with a mandate given to him by the State authorities (and the United States) but not by the people. As an independent, al-Kadhimi simply does not have the authority of a parliamentary majority. The 2018 parliamentary elections ended in a stalemate, with the largest bloc (54 seats) being held by Muqtada al-Sadr of the Saairun (Alliance Towards Reform) party; no party was close to the 165 seats needed to form a government by itself. As is now familiar in Iraq, Adil Abdul-Mahdi – a former communist and now an independent – was appointed by the president to run the country. Abdul-Mahdi resigned during the 2019 protests, leaving a vacuum that was eventually filled by al-Kadhimi.

During this period of political instability, al-Sadr – whose party won the largest bloc (73 seats) again in the 2021 parliamentary elections – has frequently announced his ‘retirement’ (four in eight years) to galvanise his supporters onto the streets and demonstrate his power. In August 2022, as the economic conditions in Iraq deteriorated because of the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, the inefficiency of the government, al-Sadr announced his ‘final retirement’. His supporters took to the streets as well as attacked some government buildings. Over 30 people died and over 600 people were injured in these clashes. Prime Minister al-Kadhimi, a former intelligence official, declared a dawn-to-dusk curfew. The situation in August remained tense with little legitimacy in the prime minister’s office and attempts by various foreign powers (including the United States) to bring the situation into order.

Al-Sadr’s ‘final retirement’ announcement came after Grand Ayatollah Kadhim al-Haeri resigned as Marja and said in August 2022 that his heir would not be al-Sadr. Al-Haeri had followed al-Sadr’s father Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr as the Marja, but now said that his followers must obey Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and not al-Sadr. This was seen by al-Sadr as a power game by the Coordination Framework, the political bloc closely aligned with Iran (led by former prime minister Nuri al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition). Indeed, without the religious authority that he carries, al-Sadr – who has not put forward a coherent political and policy message – appears as empty as al-Kadhimi. The Coordination Framework has blocked al-Sadr’s attempts to form a government, using the courts that are largely pliant to them. In June 2022, al-Sadr, frustrated by the Coordination Framework, told his Saairun to resign from parliament. He has called for early elections to provide a government with a real mandate. A mandate is not possible given the custom in the Iraqi system, set in place by the US-delivered constitution and with Iran’s assent, to prevent a majority government (which would be strong) and keep Iraq weak with a national unity formula of alliances.

Due to this ‘national unity’ formula, Iraq’s government has not been able to drive a coherent agenda to deal with the endemic problems that beset the country: some of these problems are an outgrowth of the US occupation, such as health concerns of people whose lives were devastated by the depleted uranium weapons used by the United States, and others are problems of the capitalist structure set in place by the US-imposed constitution, such as unemployment, lack of public services, and a devastated educational system. Despite a rise in oil prices, the government of al-Kadhimi has not been able to use that revenue to reform any of the major institutions that have failed to meet the people’s expectations.

Al-Kadhimi’s government failed to pass a budget in 2020 but put forward a 2021 budget that increases the government’s outlay, financed largely by the increase in oil prices. However, budget data from the ministry of finance shows that only 58 per cent of the total planned spending has been allocated to various departments. This situation is a result of poor management of the State institutions. In November 2020, the council of ministers adopted a white paper that set out a roadmap to reform the State and the economy, dealing with issues of corruption, lack of planning, and mismanagement. Little has been done based on this document because there is simply no political will to move an agenda. Add to this the failure to provide the vaccine to Covid-19 and the chaotic political situation, and you have a lack of confidence from private investors and a lack of determination from the State. It does not help the International Monetary Fund has returned with its insistence on austerity policies for a country that is drowning in problems that are inherited from the illegal US invasion in 2003.

Sadr’s Saairun bloc has now reached out to the Tishreen Movement, the grouping created out of the October 2019 protests. Due to the narrowness of the political options, many of those in the Tishreen movement refused to participate in electoral politics, with a large section boycotting the October 2021 parliamentary elections (voter turnout was a low 41 per cent). Nonetheless, sections of the Tishreen movement – mostly from southern Iraq – did form political parties. Alaa al-Rikabi formed the Emtidad Movement, for instance, and won 9 seats in the parliament. If the Saairun and the Tishreen movements are able to form an alliance and build public support on the streets around a political agenda to reform the State and control the economy, then Iraq might have a future for its people. Otherwise the chaos and instability will remain, the detritus of a war that continues to shape Iraqi society.