Iraq is the Prize: A Warning About Iraq’s Future Stability, Iran, and the Role of the United States

The Burke Chair at CSIS is presenting a commentary by two Iraqi experts whose biographies are summarized below. This commentary joins many U.S. experts in waring about the degree of instability in Iraq, Iran’s role in that country, and the U.S. failure to develop a working strategy and role that goes beyond the past efforts to break up the ISIS “caliphate.”

It also highlights a critical aspect of U.S. policy. Iran, not extremism, is the critical challenge in the Gulf. Moreover, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen may be the worst problems in the region, but Iraq is the strategic prize.

The United States can live with a stalemate or failure in Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. If the United States fails in Iraq, it fails in the entire Gulf region. If it succeeds in building either a real strategic partner or in creating a strong and independent Iraq, it checkmates Iran and secures the region.

Commentary: Politics in Iraq are Completely Broken

Iraq is now facing an unprecedented set of political challenges. Huge protests across the country since October 2019 pressured the prime minister, Adel Abdel Mahdi, into announcing his resignation in December. This was seen as a major victory for the youthful protestors calling for wholesale political change. The person nominated to replace him as prime minister, Mohammed Allawi, largely rejected by the protestors, could not secure the support of Iraq’s various political powerbrokers and could not form a new cabinet. Seeing that he had neither support from the street or the political class, Allawi withdrew as prime minster designate and Iraq faces a very unclear and possibly treacherous path forward.

Not since the U.S.-led invasion of the country in 2003 has the stability of Iraq been more acutely threatened. While the rise and spread of Al Qaeda and then ISIS were formidable security threats to the country, they did not shake the country to its core foundations the way the constellation of political crises have come together recently to challenge the very existence of a coherent and functioning Iraqi state. The current political crises are the result of several long-term factors coming together to overwhelm the Iraqi political system. That system is now broken, and a replacement is nowhere to be found.

So, why call the Iraqi political system broken? First, it suffers from a profound legitimacy deficit with the Iraqi people. All three of Iraq’s major societal groups, at least at the street level, the Shia Arabs, the Sunni Arabs, and the Kurds, all have rejected the existing political status quo. Shia Arabs, the largest single component of Iraqi society, have taken to the streets in huge numbers and at great cost to demand a fundamental change to the political system. They are not just calling for reforms, they are demanding an entirely new political system. While Kurds and Sunni Arabs have not been on the streets recently in the same way as Shia Iraqis have, they are also deeply dissatisfied with Iraq’s political system.

The elite response to the demand for profound political change has been perhaps the most salient indicator that Iraq’s political system is broken. Rather than come up with solutions that would re-build the legitimacy of the ruling elite and political institutions, Iraqi elites have used the chaos occasioned by the popular revolt against the political system to try to secure more power for themselves, and the result has been a complete breakdown of political cooperation and movement toward a way out of the political crisis. They have also responded to the peaceful protests with violence, arrests, and “disappearances” of protesters. This abusive response to the peaceful protests has only angered the Iraqi street more and deepened the sense in the general public that the Iraqi regime is illegitimate.

The combination of citizen demands for a new political system and the elite response has left Iraq in state of political paralysis, and there is no clear way out. The complete failure of elite cooperation to work Iraq into a new political equilibrium leaves the country in a very precarious position. With no functioning government, very weak and discredited institutions, a public growing angrier by the day, and a divided and desperate society, Iraq faces the possibility of eroding into a failed state. This has real potential to be a threat to U.S. interests in the region. An Iraq that cannot function as a congealed state is a potential source of extremism and regional great power competition beyond what we have seen in the past.

The Revolt against the Elite

Iraq has been witnessing huge and sustained protests since October 2019. The protesters have been mostly young Shia who have demanded an end to the post-Saddam political system and a new system created in its place. Most of the largely youthful protesters were born after the end of the Saddam regime. They are not ex-regime cronies calling for a return to the old system. They are young people who believe the present system is corrupt and broken.

The protests have also called for a removal of Iranian influence in the Iraqi political realm. Iran is largely and correctly blamed for playing a large role in creating the present political situation in Iraq. Since the killing of the Iranian Quds Force leader Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad by an American drone strike in January 2020, there is now an element of anti-Americanism that has also entered the protests.

While Iraq has seen protests in the past, particularly since 2011, they have never been as widespread and large, nor have they been as forceful in their demands for political change. These peaceful protests have been met with an often-violent response from either Iraqi security forces or Iraqi Shia militia aligned with Iran. Over 600 protestors have been killed and tens of thousands have been injured. There are also hundreds of protesters who have gone missing and are presumed to have been “disappeared” by the Shia militias. Despite this high toll among protestors, they have continued to take to the streets of Iraq’s cities demanding an end to Iraq’s existing political system.

While the size and the persistence of the protests are in themselves noteworthy, the fact the protestors have been largely young Shia and have been more concentrated in Shia areas of Iraq is particularly important to note. Young Shia are turning against the political system that their Shia elites have dominated since the fall of Saddam Hussein. The only Iraq the vast majority of these protestors have known is post-Saddam Iraq. The protests are driven by a huge amount of frustration and anger that has come about because the Iraqi political system has delivered so below expectations for so many Iraqis. Iraq is a country with great oil wealth, but it suffers from widespread poverty, unemployment, and a lack of basic government services. It is the gap between what Iraqis believe they should be getting and what they see they are receiving from their government that is driving their ire.

Studies of Iraqi public opinion clearly show growing disenchantment with the Iraqi political system over time. National public opinion surveys carried out by the Al Mustkilla for Research (IIACSS) based in Baghdad since 2003, have shown how Iraqis have grown very negative about what their political system has done for them.

Considered a very important indicator of public sentiment toward policy; whether a citizen believes the country is moving in the right direction or not. In the period 2005-2006, 62% of Iraqis believed that their country was moving in the right direction. By the end of 2019, only 19% of Iraqis believed that their country was moving in the right direction. Importantly, only 15% of Shia believed that the country was moving in the right direction. This is important because it is the Shia population that is most important for regime support and that is clearly eroding. There has been a very clear downward trend in optimism among Iraqis about the direction of the country.

Likewise, confidence among Iraqis that the government can improve the situation in the country is also dropping. In 2012, 59% of the country’s Shia believed that the government could improve the situation. Now, less than 35% of Shia believe this. Kurds are even more pessimistic, with only 17% believing that the government can improve the situation in the country. Sunnis, on the other hand, freed of the terrible experience of ISIS, are the most optimistic of Iraqis about the government. In 2017, 70% of Sunni Arabs believed the government could improve the situation in the country. Now only 50% of Sunni Arabs believe the government can improve the situation in the country. This is a very concerning drop in optimism in area where ISIS still has a presence. Most analysts believe that Sunni Arab optimism will continue to fade as reconstruction of their areas continues to languish. Overall, there is little faith among Iraqis that their government is capable of making their lives better.

Trust in all political institutions in Iraq is declining, even religious institutions. In 2004, 80% of Iraqis professed trust in religious institutions whereas in recent surveys that level of trust has dropped to less than 40%. Religious institutions, once extremely powerful and trusted in Iraq, were once viewed as a source for good in the country but are now blamed by many for contributing to Iraq’s many problems.

When asked what their primary concerns are, Iraqis are clear that they are principally worried about unemployment and corruption. More than 95% of Iraqis asked in 2019 believed that corruption was getting worse in the country.

If one examines key indicators of Iraqi demographics and political indicators, it is not surprising that Iraqis have grown so disenchanted with politics in their country. Iraq, while a brutal dictatorship under Saddam Hussein, had a relatively successful education system, particularly in comparison to other Arab states. In 2000, according to the World Bank, 74% of adult Iraqis were literate. In 2018, that percentage had dropped to 50% of the adult population. That is a staggering decline in literacy.

Iraq has also seen growing levels of unemployment, under-employment, and poverty rates since the 2003 invasion. Youth unemployment has grown at an alarming rate and is particularly bad in the Shia south of the country. This has been a salient source of anger among the Shia youth in the south as this area of the country is extremely oil-rich. The potential oil wealth of Iraq and the massive growth in poverty in the country has fostered deep resentment among Iraqis who are increasingly convinced the oil wealth is being stolen by corrupt politicians.

Iraqi concerns with corruption are matched by international perceptions of corruption in the country. Iraq has been steadily rising in the rankings among the most corrupt countries in the world by Transparency International. As of 2019, it was ranked 162 out of 190, thus in the top 10% of most corrupt countries in the world.

Even basic government services, previously taken for granted in Iraq, have faltered. Electricity is now unevenly supplied and prone to going out in the brutal Iraqi summer. The supply of safe drinking water has become an issue as thousands have become ill from tainted water. None of these were problems in Iraq until relatively recently and now they have become serious issues that the political elite have not been able to solve to the satisfaction of the Iraqi public.

Considering how many Iraqis have come to view their government as corrupt and ineffective, it is not surprising that so many of them have taken to the streets to call for a complete overhaul of the political system. An important question to ask is why the Iraqi political system got to its present state of dysfunction. Answering that question gives some insight into what can possibly be done to correct the situation.

How Did Iraq Get Here?

Three things are most important to understanding the present dismal state of Iraqi politics. One is the U.S. invasion of the country and the forces this fracturing of the Iraqi state unleashed. The second is the nature of policy-making power sharing that was created in the post-invasion period. The third is the role played by Iran in Iraqi politics. These three things have created a path dependent trajectory toward a dysfunctional political system that is riven by particularistic interests and corruption.

The invasion of Iraq and the destruction of the Saddam Hussein regime created a power vacuum in Iraq. In the case of any transition from an authoritarian system into a democratic system it is very important to identify which groups in society are best organized and have the strongest bases of potential support to contest elections. The Saddam dictatorship left the country without any functioning political parties. In the case of post-Saddam Iraq, the best-organized groups were the Shia Islamist political movements, such as the Dawa Party, which had taken refuge in Iran and saw themselves as protectors of Shia interests in Iraq. Such Shia religious movements, at once very sectarian in orientation and friendly toward Iran, came to dominate Iraqi politics in the post-Saddam era. They appealed to the majority of Iraqi Shia Arabs because of their promise to lift the economic and status prospects of the Shia community in the country.

Secular elites, most of who were exiled outside of the country, came to Iraq with the invasion force but did not have political roots in the country or domestic bases of support. The Shia Islamist parties, were better organized than the secular elites, largely with the help of Iran, and were able to appeal to Islamic values and beliefs which, were easier for the average Iraqi to understand and support. Islam, which has deep roots in Iraq, was a more comfortable fit for the Iraqi public than abstract political ideas.

This domination of the political system by sectarian Shia political elites has caused a number of problems for the country. First, it has greatly alienated the Sunni Arab and Kurdish portions of Iraqi society. With the Sunni Arab population, Shia sectarian domination of politics and the perception of mistreatment that accorded Sunnis was a central factor in the rise and strength of Al Qaeda in Iraq and then ISIS. It was only when these hardcore Sunni Islamist militant groups abused the Sunni population worse than the Shia government in Baghdad did that Sunni support for the groups evaporate. The spread of ISIS control throughout most of the Sunni Arab part of Iraq and the subsequent campaign to destroy the group ravaged a huge portion of Iraq and has been a devastating draw on Iraqi resources. It may take years if not decades for parts of Sunni Arab Iraq to rebuild and recover. Importantly, the experience with the rise of ISIS has been attributed by many Iraqis, including Shia, to the overtly sectarian nature of the post Saddam political leadership. It has gone a great way in discrediting religious-based politics in the country.

The Kurdish population of Iraq has become so disenchanted with the Shia Arab-dominated political system in Iraq that it has created significant support for secession from Iraq and the creation of an independent Kurdish state. In fact, when a referendum on independence was conducted in the Kurdish region of Iraq in 2017, it passed and was only nullified when a combination of Iraqi government and Iranian threats convinced Kurdish elites that it was not worth the potential for conflict to secede from Iraq.

After deposing Saddam, the U.S.-led occupation authorities tried to hold off complete Shia domination of the country by creating a type of consociational political system. Rather than creating a winner-takes-all political system, the new political system was to be based on quotas and power-sharing. This is very similar to the Lebanese political model. It was created in order to make all the major groups in Iraqi society feel included in policy-making and to avoid power struggles in a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional society such as Iraq. This system, known in Iraq as muhasasa, is based on the idea of quotas for societal groups in Iraq in positions of power and consensus-based policy making outside of formal institutions. The result is viewed as political elites who are seen as using the division of power to enrich themselves, give jobs to their family, friends, and political supporters and to ensure that the budget process is opaque and out of the public’s view.

The results of the two factors mentioned above has been a political system in Iraq that has been deeply flawed from the start. The strength of the pro-Iranian Shia Islamists out of the starting gates created great anxiety in the Sunni population and among other segments of Iraqi society. It also gave Iran an out-sized role in Iraqi politics, which has deepened divisions in the country and eroded Iraq’s ability to build a functioning economy, society, and polity. The quota-based muhasasa power-sharing system, rather than creating greater trust among the various elements of Iraqi society has created an elite political class in Iraq who have treated the state as a spoils system and have paralyzed efforts at political reform lest it could erode the elites’ control over resources, both political and monetary.

Thus, after nearly two decades of this type of politics, almost all segments of Iraqi society, save the narrow political elite class and the Iranians who fear an alternative to this system, have rejected the political status quo and are demanding a complete re-boot of Iraqi politics. But the Iraqi political class cannot work out a new political equilibrium that does not threaten their political and economic interests. The system is deadlocked and there is no clear actor who can bring the status quo out of its deeply dysfunctional state.

Perhaps the most important obstacle to achieving the desired political change demanded by the Iraqi street is Iran. No single actor has as much influence over political outcomes in Iraq as Iran does. An unforeseen and undesired consequence of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was to offer an opportunity for Iran to extend its influence in Iraq. Iran had several things going for it to build a deep network of influence in Iraq. One is Iran’s shared religion with Iraq’s Shia majority. Another important factor is the role Iran played in hosting and supporting the Iraqi Shia parties and militias opposed to Saddam’s rule. Finally, when ISIS surged through Sunni Arab Iraq and was poised on the gates of Baghdad in 2014, it was Iran’s support of Shia militias that provided the ground force that was decisive in rolling back ISIS and defeating it as a major battlefield entity.

It is Iran’s political allies that are now the single most powerful bloc in Iraqi politics today. While a target of the wrath of Iraq’s youthful protest movement for putting its interests above Iraq’s, Iran has no intention of backing away from its position of strength in Iraq. Iraq is immensely important to Iran for a number of reasons. First, there are several thousand U.S. troops stationed in Iraq that are viewed as a direct threat to Iranian security. Second, Iraq is a very important market for Iranian goods. Iran, which is in dire economic straits because of international sanctions, is desperate for income from Iraqi consumers. In fact, Iran has dumped its goods in Iraqi markets in order to capture Iraqi market share. This has been a major source of Iraqi anger towards Iran as unemployment grows, particularly in Iraq’s south where Iranian goods have flooded markets.

An unintentional Iranian scourge that has hit Iraq hard is the flow of Iranian drugs into Iraq. While it is not Iranian policy to move illegal drugs into Iraq, the loosening of border controls between Iran and Iraq and the corruption among authorities in both countries has facilitated the movement of Iranian drugs into Iraq, with devastating impacts on Iraqi youth.

A recent and developing issue in Iraq is the spread of the coronavirus from Iran into the country. The spread of the disease from Iran has angered many Iraqis who believe the Iranian authorities lied about the problem in Iran and then did not take measures to prevent infected Iranian visitors from coming into Iraq to spread the highly-contagious disease. For many Iraqis, it is one more indication that Iran is not to be trusted and its leadership does not care about the welfare of the Iraqi people.

The popular anger toward Iran is not yet enough to dislodge its power in Iraq. Iran is able to garner influence through the Shia militia turned political parties, which have turned into the second biggest political bloc in the Iraqi parliament, the Fatah Alliance. Their fight against ISIS has given the militias a strong base of support in the country. Not only are these allies of Iraq powerful in electoral politics, but they are more powerful on the street than Iraq’s official security forces.

Moqtada al Sadr: A Weakened Populist

One person who has positioned himself as the potential stabilizer in Iraq’s post-Saddam tumult has been the Shia cleric Moqtada al Sadr. The scion of a very influential clerical family in Iraq, Sadr has played the role of populist nationalist in Iraqi politics since the U.S.-led invasion of the country. His Mahdi Army militia unsuccessfully challenged the U.S. and coalition occupation of Iraq following the invasion. Sadr then fashioned himself into an influential politician who commanded a great deal of support from Iraq’s poorest Shia.

In recent years, Sadr has tried to position himself as a system outsider, someone who is on the people’s side against the political elite. By playing this populist card, Sadr was able to expand his appeal beyond those Shia drawn to his initial Islamist image. His populist appeal to common Iraqi grievances about jobs, corruption, Iran’s influence in Iraqi politics, and the non-responsive nature of the political class broadened his base of support from Iraq’s poor Shia to even Sunnis and others. His nationalist anti-Iranian stance was particularly important in attracting non-Shia voters, as has been shown by public opinion surveys over the last four years. In fact, in the 2018 election, he was able to bring Iraq’s Communists and other non-Islamist parties into his electoral alliance. His political bloc, the Sairoun, is the single largest in the Iraqi parliament.

But the image of populist crusader against the system has been severely tarnished recently as it became clear that Sadr, who had initially backed the protest movement against the political status quo, had turned on it when promised a leading role in shaping the new government in Iraq. In fact, Sadr’s activists, known in Iraq as the blue hats because of their distinctive headwear, are now helping to break up protests and are viewed by the protesters as part of the system they are trying to replace.

Sadr, it seems, was given an offer he could not refuse. Shia Islamist parties, many of them the off-shoots of the militias, and their Iranian backers approached Sadr with the idea that a new government could be formed where he would have a very large say in its composition. Basically, the offer was that his people could dominate the new government as long as he withdrew his support for the protests on the streets of Baghdad, Nasiriya, Basra, and other cities. Faced with the prospect of taking a dominate position in the formation of the Iraqi government and possibly the future of Iraqi politics, Sadr agreed and tasked his followers to support the Allawi nomination for prime minister, Sadr’s own pick, but also to break up the protesters and dismantle their camps and barricades. Sadr’s decision was a fateful mistake for his political standing in Iraq as he immediately drew the wrath of the Iraqi street, who viewed him as a traitor to the cause of fundamental political change in Iraq. He also failed to attract Sunni and Kurdish support for his move to get Allawi into the premiership and the bid has failed in the Iraqi parliament. So, Sadr failed to get his people to dominate the government and lost his reputation as a populist reformer.

Whether Sadr can bounce back in terms of the reputational damage he has suffered remains unclear. But one thing is evident by his power play. While he does command significant support among many Shia, it is not enough to take control of the Iraqi political system and institute the change that so many Iraqis demand.

What is the Way Forward?

Iraq is in crisis and the way out is very unclear. It has a political system based on quotas and consensus that has become a classic patrimonial system dominated by rent-seeking elites. There are many veto players in the system and an outsize foreign intervenor, Iran, that is very opposed to system change for fear of losing power and influence in a strategically crucial neighbor. The political elites and the Iraqi street are at complete loggerheads.

The present status quo is not viable as Iraq is now in complete political paralysis. Its caretaker government is not accepted by the Iraqi street and is constitutionally obligated to step down. But the power brokers in Baghdad cannot come up with a solution that both placates Iraq’s angry masses and keeps their power and control over resources intact.

The most likely scenario is that Iraq will undergo incremental political change toward a more efficient and responsive political system. Sudden, sweeping change is unlikely given the distribution of political power in the country. There is a very low probability that Iraqi security forces will break with the political elites and take the side of the protestors. Likewise, the present political elite has a very strong incentive to hold on to their power.

But the protesters are not going anywhere. The pressure on the political elite to institute meaningful reform is intense and unrelenting. Even in the face of bullets, arrests, disappearances, and the coronavirus, Iraqi protesters are undaunted and stay on the streets to push for political change. This is a protest movement that shows no sign of abating. Iraq’s politicians will be forced to reckon with its demands or watch as the country dissolves into societal, economic, and political paralysis and dysfunction.

The United States has an incentive to stay engaged in Iraq because as it now stands, it is a country that is dominated and exploited by the Iranians, destabilizing the country and the region. An unstable Iraq that is dominated by Iran is a threat to US interests. The expansion of Iranian power in the region has drawn countries located there closer to war.

The present scenario in Iraq is a Godsend to ISIS, hoping for a comeback. Disenchanted Sunnis, seeing their towns remain in rubble with little prospect for rebuilding and a political system dominated by people who view Sunnis as treacherous enemies is a recipe for the terror group’s potential resurgence. While ISIS still leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of most of Iraq’s Sunnis, given the barbarity of the group when it was ascendant, many Iraqi Sunnis living in miserable conditions may find their alternatives very limited.

What role can the U.S. play to help Iraq move toward a more functional, efficient, and clean political system that is not dominated by Iran? The best way the United States can aid positive political change in Iraq is to give verbal support to the voices of democratic political change in the country. This should not include direct contact with protesters or tangible support as that would be used against the protesters. Iranian propaganda already paints the protesters as stooges of the United States. If the U.S. plays a direct role in supporting the protests it will undermine their legitimacy. The U.S. should use its indirect influence with the EU and in the UN to protect the protesters from those want to crush the protests. The U.S. should also sanction those in Iraq who have used violence against peaceful protesters and those who are engaging in graft.

Another important potential U.S. effort to stabilize Iraq would be to include the issue of Iraqi politics in any deal reached with the Iranian regime. This means that as the U.S. works on coming to an accord with the Iranian government to reduce tensions and create a workable relationship between the two countries, it includes the demands that Iran cease to sponsor militias in Iraq and stop its policy of trying to dominate Iraqi politics.

What the U.S. should definitely avoid is making it look like it is only involved in Iraq to counter Iran. Iraqis are very leery, and rightly so, of their country being used as a platform for proxy conflict between the U.S. and Iran. If the United States backs a democratic and reformist future for Iraq, it will buy it a tremendous amount of goodwill in the country and in most of the region. It will stabilize a key strategic country in the Middle East and inevitably scale back Iran’s power over Iraq. Ignoring Iraq’s problems will only be a temporary option for the U.S. as those problems will become U.S. problems again at some point.

Biographies of the authors:

Dr. Munqith Dagher is the CEO and founder of IIACSS research group (Al Mustakillah), the oldest public opinion research company In Iraq, he conducted Iraq’s first-ever public opinion poll in 2003 and since that time he has been responsible for undertaking more than 2 million interviews for a range of agencies and topics. He has managed more than 800 public opinion and various market research projects. Munqith has published several articles on Iraq in the Washington post, WINIP and CSIS. He is currently writing a book on ISIS in Iraq for Oxford University Press. Due to his wide experience and intense research, On June 16th 2015, he awarded the Ginny Valentine Badge of Courage for Bravery in keeping research alive in multiple conflict zones from the Research Liberation Front. On Feb.2018 Munqith became a board member of Gallup International association, in charge of Middle East and North Africa region. Munqith holds a Ph.D. in Public Administration from the University of Baghdad, College of Administration and Economics and Master degree in war sciences. He was professor of public administration and strategic management in Baghdad, Basrah and National defense universities.

Dr. Karl Kaltenthaler is Professor of Political Science and Director of Security Studies at the University of Akron and Adjunct Professor of Political Science at Case Western Reserve University. His research and teaching focus on political psychology, public opinion and political behavior, political violence, countering violent extremism (CVE), and Middle East/North African and South Asian politics. He has worked on multiple research projects in the Middle East, Central Asia, and South Asia. Dr. Kaltenthaler’s current research centers on Iraqi politics and security issues. He has published several articles on Iraqi security issues as well as consulted on these issues. He is currently writing a book on ISIS in Iraq for Oxford University Press. His body of research and analytic work has resulted in academic publications and presentations as well as analytic reports and briefings for the U.S. government. Dr. Kaltenthaler has consulted for the FBI, the U.S. State Department, US. Central Command, US. Joint Staff, U.S. Army TRADOC, and the U.S. Intelligence Community. His research has been published in three books, multiple book chapters, as well as articles in International Studies Quarterly,Security Studies, Political Science Quarterly, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, as well as other several other journals.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He has served as a consultant on Afghanistan to the United States Department of Defense and the United States Department of State.

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Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy