Why is Iraq Bleeding Today?

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Iraq, as one of the world’s cradles of civilisation, saw the creation of the world’s first cities and empires, writing and literature, science and mathematics, magnificent art, and many more inventions. But the current situation in Iraq has shown the hardest reality of nature. Once a bastion of civilization, the area has been bleeding for decades, and its return to normalcy is far from certain. There has been a fresh political crisis in Iraq since the parliamentary election in October 2021, and the members of the Council of Representatives of Iraq have been unable to build a stable coalition government or elect a new President. The country’s government has been paralyzed by a political stalemate for the last 10 months. A new wave of violence, however, has been provoked by the departure of Shiite preacher Muqtada al-Sadr. Followers of his, who were already protesting the political climate in Iraq, burst into government buildings in the Green Zone as a result of this incident. Finally, on August 29th, skirmishes between followers of prominent Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and the country’s security officers became deadly, killing at least 24 people and injuring approximately 200. Crucially, this shift is occurring when the globe is experiencing a “triple strain” or ‘3C’ (covid, crisis, conflict). The world’s political systems have already begun to weaken as a result of the terrible COVID pandemic, Conflict in Ukraine and Crisis in the economy. After a prolonged civil war, significant civilian losses, and acts of terrorism, Iraq is now confronting another major catastrophe.

The crisis  

A build-up of political tension over the last several weeks culminated in the recent bloodshed. There have been no new elections in Iraq since October 2021. Most Iraqis have given up hope that their democratic system can improve their conditions, leading to a record low voter participation of roughly 44%. 73 of Iraq’s 329 parliamentary seats went to the Sadrists’ political branch, making them the clear winners (Figure 1: Iraq’s current political landscape). However, a coalition administration was necessary due to the lack of an absolute majority. It is customary in Iraqi politics to distribute high-ranking government jobs and ministries among the country’s three biggest ethnic groups. In this case, the Kurdish people and the two largest branches of Islam (Shia and Sunni) are included. Historically, these dissimilar peoples have often worked together. Specifically, Shiite politicians have backed fellow Shiite politicians when it comes to dividing up political power. However, significant disagreements have been increasing in recent years. The Shiites who back al-Sadr are at odds with the Shiites who are members of the Coordination Framework, a coalition of parties seen as sympathetic to Iran. Since the elections in October, Al-Sadr and the Coordination Framework have been at disagreement on who should form the next government. Maintaining power is the caretaker government. Large, armed militias are under the authority of both the Sadrists and the Coordination Framework. Anger and hostility have increased, creating a greater risk of violence. In June, al-Sadr requested that all the Sadrist-allied members resign from the Iraqi Parliament due to the prolonged political deadlock. Then, in the months of July and August, al-Sadr urged his supporters to hold nonviolent demonstrations. Tens of thousands of Iraqis prayed on the streets in the sweltering heat of July as a direct result of this, which also resulted in the first crack of the Green Zone.

Why this massive change?

A decade-long war’s legacy

The bulk of Shia politicians have benefited from the regime change that took place in Iraq in 2003, when the United States deposed Saddam Hussein from office and brought in a new government that was first supported by the Americans and later by Iran. Because of this, the majority of Iraq’s impoverished population were unhappy with the Shia leadership and their Western backers. The patriotic Al-Sadr movement has stepped in to fill the void that was left behind. Because they saw no other viable alternative, the vast majority of Iraqi population rallied behind the movement. The war in Iraq, which has been conducted by the United States for the decades has diverted attention away from the development of a democratic culture.

Social and political changes in Iraq in the last decade

Historically, these various populations have, for the most part, been consolidated within themselves. Specifically, Shiite politicians have backed fellow Shiite politicians when it comes to dividing up political power. However, significant disagreements have been increasing in recent years. The Shiites who back al-Sadr are at odds with the Shiites who are members of the Coordination Framework, a coalition of parties seen as sympathetic to Iran. Since the elections in October, Al-Sadr and the Coordination Framework have been at odds on who should form the next government. Maintaining power is the caretaker government. When it comes to fighting the terrorist organization Islamic State in Iraq, however, the coordinating structure is mostly made up of militias founded in 2014 by local volunteers. Many members of these militias now pledge loyalty to Iran rather than Iraq due to Iran’s financial, military, and even spiritual assistance for these groups.

Muqtada wants to cut off ties with the West and Iran.

Muqtada al-Sadr, who everyone knows from the early 2000s as being the head of the Shia resistance to the U.S. occupation and, at the same time, the Iranian influence, is currently involved in the scenario that is taking place in Iraq at the moment. He has evolved into a political leader since the turn of the millennium. He attempted to establish a parliamentary majority for himself and his supporters, with everyone else serving as the opposition. In addition, Muqtada Al-Sadr has been a vocal opponent of the widespread corruption that has plagued the oil-rich nation, which has been ravaged by decades of US-led war and subsequent violence and is now characterized by a collapsing infrastructure, widespread poverty, and a dearth of essential public services. He has warned the Iranian theocracy that he would “not allow his nation slide into its control” and called for the withdrawal of all remaining American soldiers.

What happens next?

Potential for civil conflict

Both the al-Sadr and the al-Maliki camps have too much at stake to risk being excluded from the political process at this time. Both of the competing parties have civil employees working for them in Iraq’s institutions, ready to do their bidding whenever the situation calls for it by obstructing decision-making and stopping the flow of information through the bureaucracy. As the Sadrists’ opponents were obviously members of the armed paramilitary organizations linked with the Shia political party, this would swiftly deteriorate into a Shia/Shia civil war.

Economic and social collapse

Since the Ukraine conflict began, economies everywhere have been struggling. Inflationary pressures have been building in the global economy over the last several months, thanks to rising costs for food and energy. However, there were no major economic challenges for Iraq’s economy. It seems that the Iraqi economy is beginning to recover, as measured by both inflation and foreign currency reserves.

Table 1: Iraq’s promising economic growth

Sector 2021 value 2022 value
Inflation 8.2% August 2022 5.4% July 2022
Food inflation 10.3 % August 2021 6.4 % July 2022
Gold reserve 96.42 tonnes August 2021 130.39 tonnes in July 2022
Total reserve 64 billion 2021 90 billion August 2022

But the latest consolidation of political battles portends an impending economic disaster. And if this occurs, the future of the nation is doomed.

Possibility of oil price hike

Iraq exports between 3.30 and 3.40 million barrels of oil per day, or 3.4% of the world market. However, the power struggle between Shia groups in Iraq is far from settled, and civil upheaval in Iraq will remain a recurrent danger to oil markets. In a global oil market already stressed by low oil stockpiles and key OPEC countries failing to fulfil quota obligations, a drop in Iraqi oil output might have a major impact. Even modest drops in Iraqi oil production and exports have the potential to have a big and significant influence on the price of crude benchmarks throughout Asia and Europe, particularly in China and India (receiving an estimated 797,000 bpd and 817,000 bpd in August 2022).

Setting for a potential uprising

Members of the Sadrist Movement have held influential positions in the ministries of the interior, defence, and communications for decades. More than a dozen government officials and parliamentarians have confirmed that they have had their chosen individuals assigned to positions in state oil, power, and transportation authorities, as well as state-owned banks and Iraq’s central bank. This pivotal breakthrough paved the way for additional, huge, internal social upheaval and provided crucial backing for the Al-Sadr movement.

There is the potential for Al-Sadr to establish new contacts with Iran

Tehran views the current situation as a window of opportunity to begin conversations with Sadrists and to expedite the mediation process between Shia parties. Tehran may also scale up its soft participation by providing socioeconomic help as a potential long-term solution to the problem of weakening al-social Sadr’s base after the JCPOA was signed.

Unquestionably, in order for Iraq to get out of its present predicament, it needs significant changes and in-depth dialogue. The road of violence leads nowhere, as has been shown by conflicts that have lasted for decades. Only by dialogue and working together can we find solutions to the problems that plague our modern society. Furthermore, global political and economic shifts lent credence to the idea by providing further evidence. However, it is the Iraqi people who need to comprehend the realities of collaboration and behave intelligently since, in the end, it is always the majority of people outside of developed world who end up suffering.

– S. M. Saifee Islam is a Research Associate at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

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