For over two months, youth in Iraq are protesting against corruption, unemployment and Iranian and American meddling in domestic politics. The anti-government demonstrations have taken shape of a broader civil disobedience movement with sit-ins being organised in all major cities including Najaf, Karbala, Basra and Baghdad. Reports suggest that over 400 people have lost their lives due to action taken by security forces and mercenaries aligned with the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) loyal to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
Last Friday, Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi resigned after influential Shi’ite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called on Parliament to consider withdrawal of support to his government. Two days later, the Parliament approved his resignation and asked the President to nominate a new Prime Minister. Nonetheless, the protests have continued unabated with the centre of the movement now shifting to Tahrir Square in Baghdad.
Economic hardship and corruption have emerged as the most important issues resonating among the Iraqi youth. Iraq has been suffering from sectarian turmoil and civil war since the US attack of 2003. Despite regular elections, political stability has been elusive. Economic woes have remained despite Iraq returning as a major oil exporter in the international oil market. People have attribute this to mismanagement of funds and corruption among the political class.
The turmoil that ensued after the Arab Spring further complicated Iraq’s ability to recover from its troubles. The rise of Dae’sh (ISIS) in 2013-14 brought Iraq back on the brink of collapse as the terrorist group made rapid gains and took control of vast territories, declaring foundation of a ‘Caliphate’ in June 2014. The fall of Mosul and defeat of Dae’sh in December 2017, however, did not lead to the end of the troubles of the people.
The parliamentary elections held in May 2018 were expected to herald a new era in Iraq and an end to the widespread corruption, unemployment, political apathy and sectarian tensions. However, the elections produced a highly fractured mandate leading to delay in government formation. It took the newly elected parliament over five months to form a government. Adel Abdul-Mahdi who took charge in October 2018 could not do much to gain confidence of the people.
Another issue that has resonated among the youth is Iranian meddling in Iraq’s domestic matters. Since the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003, Iran has emerged as a major player in Iraq with its strong political and military presence. The IRGC trained Shia militias that formed the PMF had played a significant role in defeating the Dae’sh. It has also been alleged that Tehran’s meddling was the reason for the delay in government formation after the May 2018 elections.
There is also significant American influence in Baghdad while the Arab Gulf monarchies, especially Saudi Arabia, too have been trying to enhance their say in Baghdad. In the eyes of Iraqis, the overpowering influence of the US and Iran has prevented any functional authority in Baghdad and hence the protestors’ ire has been directed against both.
Iraq has large oil reserves and is one of the largest global exporters of oil. India too has been importing oil from Iraq which is its top oil supplier since 2018 pushing Saudi Arabia to the second spot. In 2018-19, Indian imported US$ 22.3 billion worth of oil from Iraq contributing nearly 13 percent of India’s total oil imports. New Delhi needs to carefully watch the domestic situation in Iraq. India, has of course diversified her oil imports basket in view of the global situation.
The inability of the Iraqi authorities to peacefully deal with the protests and take collective responsibility have further complicated matters. Iraq today is at the crossroads and needs to decide on its’ future road-map. The volatile situation in Iraq would definitely have an impact on the larger Middle-East, which is already reeling with heightened tensions. India hopes that the Iraqi government would take steps to address the grievances of her people and peace and security would return to the ravaged country.
Script: Dr. Mohd. Muddassir Quamar, Strategic Analyst on West Asia