The magnitude of the crisis facing Iraq cannot be understated: a youth bulge, sagging growth rates, and economic pressure have combined with the pre-eminence of militia groups and their systematic atrocities, and a rise in geopolitical tensions. Iraq faces a potential moment of reckoning following its make-or-break parliamentary elections this month; the low voter turnout, estimated at 41 percent (at the time of writing), reflects a trend that has seen turnout shrink with each passing election. The Iraqi state faces an unprecedented crisis of legitimacy. In 2005, 80 percent of eligible Iraqi voters went to the pollsmarkinga resounding success for the nascent democratic process. However, that figure dropped to around 60 percent during the 2010 and 2014 parliamentary elections, and plummeted to 45 percent in 2018. In 2018, the crystallization of a ferocious protest movement that first emerged between 2015 and 2016 to demand reforms, basic services, and an end to corruption was met with a fierce crackdown and widespread atrocities that have been attributed to Iran-backed militia groups. At least 600 protestors and activists have since been killed while thousands have been wounded. Activists are also routinely assassinated.
Since coming into office two years ago, Prime Minister Kadhimi has had to balance the urgency of combatting militia groups and implementing reforms with the intricacies of Iraqi politics and the stark realities of state fragility. The Iraqi state is too weak to combat armed groups that operate outside of state control, and its conventional security forces are stretched as a result of the resurgence of ISIS and social unrest. In the midst of such wide-ranging threats, there are still major challenges to preventing an ISIS comeback, which has ramped up its attacks in recent months and is reconstituting itself in large parts of Iraq’s Arab Sunni north, where, according to officials, it is in the process of developing the infrastructure that enabled the emergence of its so-called Caliphate in 2014. This adds to recent woes that have resulted from the decline in oil prices and the COVID-19 pandemic.
To make matters worse, Iraq has a population of over 30 million, which is expected to reach 50 million in less than a decade. More than 60 percent of Iraqis are under 24, and 700,000 require jobs every year. Iraq lacks the infrastructure, sustainable governance, and private sector to meet the needs of its population. The country’s water resources have reduced by 30 percent since the 1980s and the water supply faces a reduction of up to 60 percent by 2025, which has dire implications for food production and electricity. Iraq’s economy is largely dependent on oil, which provides around 85 percent of government revenue. But 70 percent of its budget goes toward paying civil servants. The World Bank has estimated that productivity per Iraqi civil servant is 17 minutes per day, while Iraqi officials suggest it is around 15 minutes.
Iraq’s ruling class crudely assumed the threat of terrorism, the war on ISIS, and sectarian strife could deflect focus from their governance failures and the endemic (politically sanctioned) corruption in perpetuity. The political class has also capitalized on — and exploited — a powerful narrative that has been forged among its supporters — and indeed some policy circles in Washington and other Western capitals — that has measured the grievances and calamities of the country against the extremes of civil war or Baath-era rule. This sensationalist narrative propagated the notion of a revived Iraqi state and government, particularly spreading under previous administrations, albeit ignoring the underlying, deep-rooted issues that have galvanized an entire generation of Iraqis longing for a better future.
That said, there is still some hope. Since coming into office, Kadhimi has opened up channels of communication with protestors in an effort to address their grievances. While critics of this approach will point out that it has had limited effect, such outreach informs the wider policy-making process within — and outside of — the Prime Minister’s Office, opening up opportunities for empowering protestors and devising government strategies and measures that could contain militia groups. This will become all the more important now that the protest movement party, Imtidad, has secured 10 seats in the new Parliament. In the absence of such outreach, the disconnect between an increasingly aggrieved and disenfranchised public would be far greater, and social unrest far more precarious. Moreover, since the summer of 2020, Iraqi and Kurdistani intelligence agencies have made symbolic arrests of Kata’ib Hezbollah, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada militiamen responsible for conducting rocket attacks on U.S. personnel. These arrests, the coordination between Kurdistan’s Prime Minister Masrour Barzani and Kadhimi, and broader efforts to detain militias and hold them to account have been criticised for being symbolic. However, such measures have the potential to trigger important accountability mechanisms within Iraqi law and the judicial process.
The foremost challenge facing Iraq – both the Baghdad and Erbil governments – is economic, a crisis that enables both militia groups and could open up pathways for the resurgence of ISIS. Together with Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Ali Allawi, Kadhimi has established a blue print for the country’s economic revival. The White Paper was published just months after Kadhimi came to office, and it sets out a series of ambitious policies that will depend on garnering political consensus and an ability to navigate the volatility of domestic politics and geopolitical tensions. Amid its attempt to devise a comprehensive and viable economic package that addresses the economic crises and placates the public, the next government will continue to be tested by the uncertainties of Iraq’s domestic politics and those political and militant forces that will resist vital cuts in the public sector, lest these undermine their patronage networks.
The country’s future Prime Minister will most likely struggle to address Iraq’s domestic crises and fail to deliver services and to reduce the public sector payroll without prompting a strong public backlash. Reducing the public sector payroll is a double-edged sword: it reduces the government’s approval ratings and ability to garner popular support for reform while also enabling the space for the government’s rivals to exploit the public’s discontent to garner support and destabilise the political environment. That said, despite the slow progress of the White Paper, the government has managed to hold its head above water, helped by the recovery of oil prices. According to Karen Young, the KRG has been able to attempt some reform initiatives, including a digitalisation strategy which has helped the KRG improve transparency and accountability, and which has already helped the government institute cost-cutting measures that will be vital to Prime Minister Barzani’s efforts to alleviate economic challenges.
Both Erbil and Baghdad are undergoing transformational changes aimed at empowering start-ups and initiating an entrepreneurial culture that will stimulate the economy, encourage diversification away from oil and generate private sector investment. Kadhami’s push to pursue charges against government officials and industry officials – including former ministers – bodes well for the government’s attempts to foster confidence in the investment environment, but broader structural changes are still needed. According to parliamentarians, there are 6250 projects that need budget allocations worth $120 billion. Iraq’s failure to present a long-term reform strategy has also failed to allay investor concerns that the government has the capacity to address existing challenges, including its endemic corruption, red-tape, and the stranglehold that cartel-like groups with ties to the political elites have over key industries.
The next three months will be particularly critical for the ruling elites. At the time of writing, the country’s election results were still being contested by the Popular Mobilisation Force; its Iran-backed militias and leadership have suffered a major electoral decline, while their fiercest rivals have secured a strong showing. This includes the historic victory of Muqtada al-Sadr, whose movement has increased the number of seats it secured in the 2018 elections. The PMF must now manage its electoral decline with its ongoing tensions with those groups that were aligned with Grand Ayatollah Sistani and were previously under the command of the PMF but withdrew from the organisation because of the dominance of Iran-backed groups, their ties to Iran, and complicity in atrocities against protestors. Secondly, the PMF faces an uphill struggle to compete with Muqtada al-Sadr, whose movement is set to reign supreme for decades to come and, thirdly, a protest movement that has shifted and will continue to shift the tide of public opinion against Iran-aligned factions.
This makes the immediate future a dangerous one, particularly if the PMF views its post-election challenges as being existential, though it might also be an opportunity to tame the prominence of an organisation that has underpinned its political ambitions with wide-spread atrocities and systemic violence.