Iraq: Protests and Reforms

Iraq: Protests and Reforms

Years of governmental neglect has driven Iraq’s Shiites to the streets, precipitating an ever-deepening crisis for Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi’s government. With Shia political leader Muqtada Al-Sadr derailing the efforts of his coalition partners in resolving the crisis, and the machinations of regional and international powers vying for control in Baghdad, the future looks uncertain at best for Iraq. 

Since the beginning of October, Iraq has been gripped by mass protests that have been met with a brutal crackdown, leading to more than 100 dead and thousands of injuries. Coming from all walks of life, the grievances of Iraqi protesters stem from the failure of the government in addressing socio-economic concerns, such as high unemployment and lack of adequate governmental services. However, the main object of outrage has become the endemic corruption of the Iraqi state.

Prime minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, appointed by the Alliance Towards Reform (Saairun) and Conquest Alliance in 2018, scrambled to contain the crises, releasing a 13 point plan to address the protesters’ demands and firing government officials. Meanwhile, the Conquest Alliance, composed of various Iran-backed militias, quickly moved to shield him from any questioning in parliament and allegedly deployed its snipers to help suppress the protests. However, its coalition partner has not attempted to save the prime minister, with Muqtada Al-Sadr, head of the Sadrist Movement, calling on protests to resume on October 25. 

Protests in Iraq

As it currently stands, the demonstrations have resumed and are evolving to a level that can threaten the country’s ability to function. The prime minister has lost the backing of the ruling coalition and is on the verge of being replaced, but was there ever a chance that he could implement meaningful reform? And will the following prime minister be able to change anything?  

The short answer is unlikely, and the reasons for that answer lie in the flawed structure of the Iraqi state, which will prevent him from carrying out any meaningful reform. The 329 seat Council of Representatives, elected through party-list proportional representation with allotments for minority groups, was conceived on the notion of reflecting the country’s diversity. However, this system, which has not produced a majority government since the 2005 elections, has played a role in the spread of institutional and structural corruption in the Iraqi government. The reasons, which were first articulated by Iraqi activist and writer Abdul-Sattar Al-Kaabi in October of last year, are provided below with references to current events and examples.

Negotiations over Executive branch positions

First, when it comes to building governing coalitions and conducting the daily affairs of government, Iraqi political parties operate on the principle of accumulating and holding on to as many benefits and privileges as they could. This is done through taking control of ministries, appointing loyalists in positions of authority and ensuring, to the most considerable extent possible, control over the disbursement of public funds. This state of affairs led to several highly publicised scandals over the years, with the most egregious of these arguably being the fake bomb detector scandal

Negotiations over the top positions in the executive branch are the reason it took five months since the results of the 2018 elections were announced for Saairun (composed of Shia Islamist Sadrist party and the Iraqi Communist Party) to form the government. As the recent protests indicate, the choice of the prime minister and much of the other ministers was not even that of leading vote-getter Saairun. But it was the Iran-aligned runner up and coalition member Conquest Alliance, leading to its description as the “Conquest Alliance government” due to that particular party’s persistence in protecting it from any change. 

Ministerial lack of independence

The second reason is the lack of autonomy that plagues ministers in minority governments. Having been placed in their positions through political jockeying and negotiations, they are controlled and steered by the coalitions that brought them to power. Different political groupings within the minority government would cut deals with one another to ensure that “their” ministers are protected from any investigation or removal. These deals ensure that there can never be a majority vote to remove or investigate any minister. Media reports indicate that the Conquest Alliance is obstructing its coalition partners from questioning government minister. Example, oil minister Thamir Al-Ghadhban, who has been accused by Iraqi MPs of presiding over wide-spread theft of energy resources by various Iraqi oil companies.

Prime Minister’s weakness

The third reason as to why structural and institutional corruption is widespread in the Iraqi state is the weakness of the prime minister’s office. His appointment being the result of an agreement between the two largest vote-getters in the current parliament, the prime minister does not have the necessary backing in parliament to implement any meaningful political agenda. 

For example, Saairun and Conquest Alliance, which controls 105 out of the 165-seat ruling coalition, appointed Adel Abdel-Mahdi as the Prime Minister after the 2018 elections. Yet all that is needed to remove the Prime Minister from his position are 220 seats which can be easily arranged should he step on the wrong toes by implementing policies to root out corruption in the state. In terms of the current events, PM Adel Abdul-Mahdi steered clear of upsetting any significant political or sectarian forces by offering to replace inconsequential government ministers, such as healthcare, communication and immigration, and industry. 

According to the Iraqi Commission of Integrity, a governmental corruption watchdog, there are 13,000 active, unresolved corruption cases filed with the commission, with 100 of the most prominent cases referred to the parliamentary integrity committee for follow up with the relevant ministers. These cases include the central bank allegedly loaning out a total of 575 million dollars to 20 influential businessmen with preferential interest rates, which the businessmen refused to pay back.


Iraqi protestors are fully aware that a change in leadership will not suffice. However, It remains to be seen if this new protest movement can achieve a complete overhaul of the political system, or if the system can manage to co-opt the movement. Foreign actors will inevitably exert all their efforts in determining the outcome, the most dominant of whom is Iran, which views its influence as a strategic priority due to the ever-tightening US sanctions. 

About Author

Ibrahim Sowan

Ibrahim Sowan is an investigative researcher and a published translator, with experiences that span education, economics, and political science. Currently, Ibrahim is a Research Manager at Exiger, a recognized leader in the compliance field. Ibrahim has a BA in political science and economics from the University of Toronto, and an MA in Translation Studies from Hamad Bin Khalifa University.