Iraq’s deepening political dysfunction

Iraq’s deepening political dysfunction

The recent occupation of Baghdad’s Green Zone by followers of Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr highlights the country’s entrenched political deadlock, which poses a significant source of political and security risk domestically and regionally.

Last month, after tearing down barricades and swarming into Baghdad’s Green Zone – home of most of the country’s governmental bodies and many foreign embassies – Shi’a demonstrators left as suddenly as they had arrived a day earlier.

This occupation ended by the direction of the influential Shi’a leader Muqtada al-Sadr. While this is not the first time al-Sadr has organized political demonstrations, it is the first time any such demonstration was able to storm the supposedly-secure Green Zone.

The ease with which Sadr’s supporters were able to breach the Green Zone – and the government’s inability to control them – is worrisome. On the one hand, this sort of dramatic action may finally spur the Iraqi legislature into reforming the government, even as it risks weakening Iraq’s political institutions further by undercutting the Prime Minister.

However, the government’s inability to maintain control of the Green Zone reveals just how weak it actually is; thereby incentivizing armed groups to try and seize control by force and threatening further instability. This instability will help undermine any chance of Iraqi economic recovery, and poses a source of risk to neighboring states.

Possibility of reform

While the storming of a country’s center of government by an angry mob almost never bodes well for that state’s future stability, there is reason to think that the occupation of the Green Zone may actually have some positive effects for Iraq.

Currently, the Iraqi government is at an impasse between the legislative and executive branches. In response to widespread public discontent and government incompetence, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is seeking to seat a new cabinet of technocrats who are not beholden to any major political party. However, this action threatens the influence and power of many career politicians who made names for themselves under the current system, which allocates government to politicians based on their ethnicity and sect. Parliament has thus unsurprisingly refused to accept these reforms,

By having his followers barge into the Green Zone, Sadr has effectively demonstrated to Iraqi legislators that they cannot expect to indefinitely stall reform and expect the Iraqi populace not to push back. This could galvanize them to accept the Prime Minister’s proposal, passing reforms which would cut down on corruption, work against the omnipresent patronage networks, and generally make the Iraqi state more capable. They could, in short, finally start Iraq down the long road to recovery and economic growth.

Haider al-Abadi, Prime Minister of Iraq. Credit: Wikimedia. Link to original.

Political risks

However, while the storming of the Green Zone might encourage reform and help end the deadlock in the Iraqi legislature, it also points to a major source of political risk for the government. The ease with which al-Sadr’s followers were able to enter what was supposed to be the most secure area in the country and the central government’s inability to keep them out clearly demonstrates the government’s impotence.

Additionally, while reforming the appointment of ministers could help the Iraqi state by increasing its efficiency and reducing its corruption, it could simultaneously help undermine the country’s stability by indicating that the government will accede to threats and violence. It is therefore likely that this tactic will be repeated in the future.

The weakness of the central government thus raises the specter of mob rule, where whichever faction controls Baghdad can control the government. While this conflict may initially be helmed by relatively moderate party leaders, historical instances of mob rule show a disturbing tendency towards increasing extremism, destroying former leaders in the process.

Finally, the storming of the Green Zone poses a further political risk because it undercuts Prime Minister al-Abadi’s position. If the reforms are passed, it will be seen as due to al-Sadr’s action, while if they fail it will be seen as further proof of al-Abadi’s inability to control the government. The weakness could easily lead to another change of government in Iraq, at a time when it faces problems from all sides.

Muqtada al-Sadr. Credit: Wikimedia. Link to original.

Increased sectarianism

This sort of forceful intervention of one actor in the state’s politics also raises the likelihood of increased sectarianism, regardless of whether Abadi’s reforms succeed or fail. The ease with which al-Sadr’s Shia followers took control of the Green Zone cannot help but worry minority ethnic groups, most notably the Kurds and Sunni Arabs.

To be sure, despite his prior involvement in the sectarian cleansing of Baghdad, al-Sadr has worked to portray himself as more of a moderate figure since the US withdrawal from Iraq. He has framed himself as an Iraqi nationalist, and created an advisory council which includes Sunni Arabs and Kurds.

However, this new image has done little to change the composition of al-Sadr’s followers, who remain overwhelmingly Shi’a. Additionally, the ease with which his followers entered the Green Zone makes it more likely that some other Shi’a faction, perhaps one with more radical views than al-Sadr, could seize control of the government. All of this creates fear and risks inflaming sectarian tensions, causing minorities around the country to build or reinforce their own armed groups as a means of self-protection.

The overall results of the occupation of the Green Zone are thus likely to be mixed. While the protesters may succeed in pressuring the legislature into making much-needed reforms in the way key government ministers are appointed, in doing so it raises the specter of mob rule and increased sectarianism. This poses a risk to domestic Iraqi security, which could in turn spill over and affect the security and stability of neighboring countries. While some onlookers may herald this as a turning point towards new stability and prosperity for Iraq, investors should remain cautious.

About Author

Jacob Purcell

Jacob Purcell is a Middle East expert. He holds a Master's graduate from the University of Chicago Committee on International Relations Program, where he focused on International Security and International Economics. He received his BA from the University of Arkansas, where he graduated Magna cum Laude with majors in International Relations, Political Science, and Economics, as well as minors in French, History, and Classical Studies.