Cycles of Crisis

KENNETH POLLACK — The same political mistakes that sparked Iraq’s conflict in 2006 and 2014 threaten to tear the country apart again.

In 2013 we spoke with the Brookings Institution’s Kenneth Pollack about threats to Iraqi democratic development after nearly a decade of occupation. Three years later, as many of the same social and political challenges are reemerging to undermine Iraq’s political future, it is time to follow up.


On 30 April protesters stormed Baghdad’s Parliament inside the International Zone to demand a major cabinet reshuffle. These massive demonstrations were largely spurred by radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. How did Sadr transform what had been a flagging protest movement into a major national force that posed a serious political threat to the government in Baghdad?

These events are developing within the context of divergent interests in Iraq. The country today is drifting in very different directions. The country’s Sunni population remains focused on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and the reasons why the organization gained traction within their community. The Kurds are wholly focused on their own political and financial challenges. And the Shia are increasingly uninterested in either the Kurdistan issue or the fight against ISIL; instead, they are concerned about who holds power in Baghdad, reform processes, and constructing a better government. It is truly remarkable that these three communities are concerned about completely different things.

The Sadr narrative is founded on basic, underlying grievances of the Iraqi populace — particularly of the Shia communities in the country’s large southern cities. This population has been waiting very patiently for decades to get the basic services to which they have felt entitled. Many Shia leaders feel that they had been deprived basic social and infrastructure services under Saddam’s regime and the international sanctions, and that their communities had never received adequate compensation of attention following the 2003 US-led invasion. These figures have nevertheless been hopeful that the government in Baghdad would finally begin performing satisfactorily, and deliver much-needed provisions. These simmering expectations boiled over in summer 2015. Protesters organized massive street demonstrations in Baghdad, demanding better services — particularly improved electrical production. These demands were supported by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and the Hawza of Najaf.

Prime Minister Haida al-Abadi initially attempted to seize on this popular unrest. He recognized that widespread protests represented both a challenge to his authority and an opportunity to pursue reforms that he has always felt necessary, but had never been able to accomplish. Recently, the Prime Minister declared that he could not move forward on his reform agenda without first establishing a technocratic cabinet. This effort was blocked by other political parties, thus creating an opportunity for the further eruption of popular frustration.

Sadr, being the ultimate opportunist, recognized an opening to further his political ambitions. He saw that Iraqi people were unhappy with the government, that the Hawza had demanded reform but Abadi had failed to deliver on his promises. Sadr was thus able to focus popular outrage so that he could benefit from it politically. By leading this protest movement — by claiming its narrative — he improved his popularity on the Iraqi street and asserted leadership over the country’s populist political discourse.

While this strategy has been somewhat successful, there have been causes for pessimism. The moment Sadr tried to insert himself into the protest environment, his rivals in Baghdad immediately began moving against him. Nobody in government wanted to see Sadr succeed — even groups and individuals who have expressed dissatisfaction with Abadi’s governing strategy nevertheless have united to block Sadr’s aspirations. Critically, every time Sadr tries to mount popular protests and displays of public disobedience, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki can attempt to bring the situation under control as a means of demonstrating his leadership ability. Sadr has not been able to translate the political clout and visibility gained through his activist maneuvers into the political power he needs.

Since the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) seized Mosul in 2014, various Shia paramilitary groups have risen in both military and political prominence following battlefield successes. These organizations have served to diminish Sadr’s traditionally strong influence among Iraq’s non-elite Shia populations. By catalyzing protests in Baghdad, how has Sadr sought to reassert his leadership over this critical segment of Iraq’s population?

Sadr has suffered a number of different challenges to his self-appointed position among the Shia community. In particular, during ISIL’s offensives in summer 2014, there was a great need for armed groups to protect the capital — the fact that Sadr’s Mahdi Army was unable to protect Baghdad and its Shia populations has undermined some of the cleric’s claim to prominence and power. In addition, a number of other Iraqi Shia political forces — including Maliki, as well as Ammar al-Hakim and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) — began to compete with Sadr for leadership positions over the country’s Shia underclass, cutting into his traditional support base.

As a result, Sadr has been searching for ways to distinguish his group from the other Shia organizations operating within Iraq’s politico-military environment. He has been unable to achieve this goal through simple military achievement — Haider al-Ameri’s Badr Organization, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis’ Kata’ib Hezbollah, and Qais al-Khazali’s Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq have all been just as prominent, if not more so, in the fighting against ISIL and securing Shia population centers. Sadr needs some other way to demonstrate his indispensability. The reform movement, and Abadi’s inability to deliver services that many poor and working class Shia desperately want, have provided the opportunity for him to reassert his legitimacy and importance.

Since his return to Iraq’s political arena, Sadr has successfully placed himself as the voice of the country’s Shia underclass. However, the Sadrist legacy of sectarian violence and intimidation limits the cleric’s ability to act as a nationalistic figure. Does Iraq have a political figure that could unite the country’s political and social discourse, such as Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani — how does the absence of effective or credible national leadership threaten the Iraqi state?

It is very difficult to discern any truly national leader. There are many analysts who consider Grand Ayatollah Sistani as the kind of figure who could play such a role. However, it is important to remember that as wise and far-sighted as Sistani has been, one of the key reasons why so many — especially the Americans — admire him is that he is a quietist clergyman. He does not believe in getting deeply involved in Iraqi politics: ironically, it is for this reason that observers wish he could assume a greater political role. When Prime Minister Maliki was in power, he would regularly ignore the fatwas issued by Sistani. While he is a very revered figure, the Ayatollah has ultimately been unable to exercise the kind of political clout that he needs to affect change in Iraq’s political landscape — nor does he want to.

Beyond Sistani, it is very difficult to identify any figure who can act as a strong nationalist figure. Maliki has demonstrated that he can be quite decisive and effective when implementing policy. Unfortunately, many of the actions he took as Prime Minister hoped undermine Iraqi democracy and push the country back into civil war. Many had hoped that Abadi would become a stronger political leader — while he is a good man with the best of intentions, he cannot maneuver effectively within his country’s political or administrative environments. Iraq has a massive and unwieldy governmental structure, and it is dubious whether any one figure will be able to operate according to its parameters. Such a leader would have to posses exceptional administrative talent and the right intentions. Even if there were a set of individuals who met these requirements, he might not ultimately earn acceptance by the country’s political brokers. To overcome such a challenge, an external actor like the Iranians or Americans would need to put their full political weight behind a chosen candidate.

Within the current political context, such a solution is highly unlikely. Instead, a better option may be for American policymakers to more wholly support Abadi’s prime ministership. He has the right intentions, and he is a very intelligent man. Strengthening the current government’s position may be far more effective than trying to find an entirely new leader.

Does the absence of any national leader leader present an existential threat to the Iraqi state? The breakup of the Iraqi state is a very real danger. If Iraq continues on its current trajectory — that is, the further weakening of Abadi’s government in Baghdad — one might expect an increasingly fragmented political situation, or even the return of civil war. One of the most troubling scenarios is born from the United States’ near-myopic fixation on the threat posed by ISIL. While the anti-ISIL coalition may be able to defeat the jihadist threat within the next six to 12 months — this is not an outlandish prediction — support for post-ISIL transition could quickly evaporate. Even if ISIL is extirpated from the country’s landscape, Iraq cannot fend for itself. In such a scenario, Washington must not declare “mission accomplished” and pull its troops from Iraq — these actions would threaten a repeat of the conditions that precipitated the current crisis. As various groups attempt either to assert control over the Iraqi state, or try to break away from it, civil and internecine conflict could intensify.

On the other hand, it might be possible that a new strongman could take power in Baghdad. For example, Maliki could return in the event of domestic dissolution, convincing the other Shia that the only way to salvage their position is to restore his prime ministership. Under these circumstances, Maliki — or any other similar figure — would have to become a kind of “Shia Saddam.” He would need to employ enormous brutality and oppression against Sunni, Kurds, and various recalcitrant Shia groups. Such a resolution would also prove disastrous: the only figure who has shown an ability to wield such swift force was Saddam. There is no reason to believe that Maliki could replicate the former dictator’s strategy.

Unless some powerful external actor starts to exert its influence in Baghdad, it appears as if one of these “worst-case scenarios” might come to pass.

By inserting himself as the voice of popular anti-corruption sentiment, Sadr established a sharp contrast between his seemingly pro-active leadership and Abadi’s ineffectual policymaking. Now, even if any reform effort is successful, such a victory may be attributed to Sadr rather than the government. How will a perceived Sadrist triumph create greater unease among Iraq’s ruling groups? 

If the reform movement is seen to succeed — whatever that means — Sadr will enjoy some degree of success. It is difficult to measure how much benefit he will reap. It is even more vexing to determine how that credit will translate into political clout. Iraq is scheduled to hold elections in 2018 — the situation in Baghdad could change dramatically in such a wide timeframe. Without an election, how can Sadr translate any political support from the Iraqi population into a more meaningful tool? He might be able to ask Abadi for additional positions within the Iraqi cabinet into which he will place loyal administrators. Of course, if Sadr’s stated mission succeeds, and Abadi forms a truly technocratic cabinet, he should not be able to dictate such appointments. There may be other positions at the provincial level of which he can take control. Any effort to further his political position in this fashion is, while possible, extremely difficult.

Iraq’s per capita income is around $7,100 per year. Such bleak economic prospects among vulnerable populations sparked recent demonstrations. How can the Iraqi government confront rising poverty and diminishing employment opportunities within the current socio-political environment?

Iraq must be able to deal with its problematic economy. For average Iraqis — unless they live somewhere that is under ISIL control — security is no longer the same primary concern as it was even just one year ago. The majority of Iraqis living in large population centers, aside from Mosul, are much more focused on their problematic economic circumstances. These grievances were the ultimate root of the protest movement in Baghdad.

The problem facing Iraqi leaders is that they must devise policy according to a hierarchy of issues: security, political, then economic concerns. It is impossible to deal with economic challenges if Baghdad cannot reconcile serious political deadlock. Iraq’s ongoing security problems have further complicated any effort to resolve this political confusion. This set of concerns does not match the reality of bleak economic prospects that average Iraqis face. Until policymakers can overcome the dual security and political challenges fueling popular unrest, they will be unable to address the underlying dissatisfaction with how the government functions. There is no way to tackle any single problem individually — a holistic approach is needed.

Although Iraqi Security Forces have made significant gains against ISIL in recent months, political upheaval in Baghdad has raised concerns over future operations. What alternative groups or militias exist with which US and other coalition partners could cooperate, in the event of either an Iraqi government collapse or the emergence of unfavorable partners at the helm of government in Baghdad?

If there is a governmental collapse in Iraq, the various paramilitary forces will turn on each other — gradually or immediately. Each of these groups represents political power in a power vacuum. The real question will be whether the United States tries to continue its fight against ISIL within this civil war context, as it has done in Libya and Syria; ISIL is just another actor in these conflicts. It is impossible to separate jihadist elements from other groups on the battlefield. Within the civil war environment, there will be no way to address underlying grievances that led to ISIL’s initial rise: the war against the group will be over. 


KENNETH POLLACK is a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, where he served as director in 2009-2012.

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