How to Save Iraq
The prime minister has improved relations with the Sunni minority and the Kurds. But he can’t meet the demands of the protesters without fixing the economy.
Iraqis have had enough. After years of poor governance, the Iraqi people have run out of patience with the failures of their governing elites to deliver basic services or to reduce unemployment and corruption. Tens of thousands have come out in protests in Baghdad and parts of southern Iraq since last week. More than 100 protesters have been killed and thousands have been injured by security forces. Broadcasting stations have been attacked and social media platforms and the internet have been blocked.
The scale and magnitude of the protests is unprecedented, as is the violent reaction from the Iraqi government. Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has failed to prevent Iraq’s worst crisis since the Islamic State seized Mosul in 2014. He must take responsibility and ensure that the officials responsible for the large scale killings of protesters are prosecuted.
The crisis places Mr. Abdul Mahdi in a precarious position. Protesters want jobs and services, accountability and, in some cases, a complete overhaul of the Iraqi political class. The prime minister has failed to offer concessions — an increase in salaries, a basic wage for poorer families and interest-free housing credit programs — that could placate them. In a televised address, Mr. Abdul Mahdi expressed willingness to respond to the “rightful demands” of the protesters but warned that there was no “magic solution” to Iraq’s problems.
Mr. Abdul Mahdi, an independent politician who has been the finance minister and vice president, deserves a chance to pull Iraq out of this crisis and move forward. He is a veteran Shiite politician known for his conciliatory tone and personality, who shuns the dogmatism and authoritarianism of his predecessors.
He came to office in October 2018 as a compromise candidate after Iraq’s leading rival political parties came together in a coalition government and nominated him. For the first time in 13 years, Iraq has a prime minister who does not have a legacy of alienating members of his own coalition government and marginalizing large sections of the population, particularly Iraq’s Sunni community, whose marginalization and grievances enabled the Islamic State.
That should be made to count. Parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi, one of the most prominent officials from the Sunni community, told me in Baghdad recently that he no longer envisages sectarian issues as being the paramount challenge for the country. “Iraq’s main challenges will be external and economic from now on,” he explained.
Mr. Abdul Mahdi’s premiership has secured the inclusion of Sunnis in the government and fostered a sense that their long-ignored demands for greater political participation are being met.
He has also improved Baghdad’s relationship with the Kurds, who took part in the elections and helped secure Mr. Abdul Mahdi’s prime ministerial job. They are fully vested members of the Baghdad government and hold multiple ministerial posts.
Kurdish leaders were barely on speaking terms with Iraq’s previous two prime ministers; they held a referendum for independence in 2017. But the Kurdish leaders had fought against Saddam Hussein alongside Mr. Abdul Mahdi, who at the time was a senior member of the Iraqi opposition. “He understands us and our people,” an adviser to Masrour Barzani, the prime minister of the semiautonomous Kurdistan region of Iraq, told me.
But despite winning some social peace, a youth bulge, sagging growth rates and economic pressure could result in the country’s next implosion, as the protests have indicated. Iraq has a population of more than 30 million, which is expected to reach 50 million in 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.
Mr. Abdul Mahdi, who has a reputation for being more about substance, has already signed agreements with Germany to upgrade Iraq’s electricity infrastructure and has developed Iraq’s economic ties with its neighbors.
But the challenges he faces are daunting. Iraq’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 an embarrassing 17 minutes per day, while Iraqi officials suggest it is around 15 minutes.
Iraq once boasted of an excellent educational system, but it remains neglected and poorly funded. The education, reconstruction and health sectors receive around 8 percent of the budget. Millions of Iraqi children do not attend school or are destined to perpetual unemployment. Sayyid Ammar al-Hakim, a revered religious and political figure, has rebuilt his movement around the young by allowing them greater opportunities for political participation. “There is no point discussing Iraq’s future and the state unless we begin with the youth,” Mr. al-Hakim told me in Baghdad.
Iraq needs help. Western governments remain too focused on a potential conflagration that could result from a war between Washington and Tehran on Iraqi soil, without a strategy for reinforcing Iraq’s sovereignty. The harsh truth for the United States is that Baghdad is too dependent on Tehran and cannot manage without Iranian natural gas and other products that meet its day-to-day needs. Iraq’s annual trade with Iran is $12 billion while American exports to Iraq are a mere $1.3 billion.
Washington can help reduce this dependence and reinforce Iraqi sovereignty by enabling Baghdad to build stronger relations with countries that can provide alternatives. This can take the form of a road map to energy independence involving facilitating strategic dialogues on shared energy grids and new pipeline connections with the Gulf states and Jordan.
The United States needs to increase its financial and technical investments in Iraq and leverage its global reach to mobilize international investors, which would prop up the economy and fund reconstruction projects. American technology giants and industry leaders should embrace Iraq’s burgeoning start-up movement and a new generation of leaders who are not yet absorbed into patronage networks.
Co-working spaces like The Station have helped establish a tech ecosystem that with the right investment can become an industrial powerhouse. An entrepreneurial, mercantile ethos runs deep in Iraqi society — but it is suppressed by the public sector, dependency on oil, red tape and patronage networks.
While protesters have called for the downfall of the ruling class — and even for Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi to resign — the way forward is not a new government and a new prime minister, and the dangerous political uncertainty that brings. Instead it is a concerted effort to improve governance and to work for the economic regeneration of Iraq.
Ranj Alaaldin is a fellow at the Brookings Doha Center. He directs a study on exiting proxy wars in the Middle East for the Carnegie Corporation.