Iraq Protests and the Problem of Ethno-Sectarian Balancing
Hirak Jyoti Das, Senior Research Associate, VIF

Iraq has been witnessing widespread protests that began in Baghdad on 1 October 2019 and spread throughout the state to express frustration about the deteriorating economic situation, corruption, unemployment, poverty, poor quality of services etc. The demand for reform quickly escalated to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi regime and a complete overhaul of the political structure. The protests that cut across ethnic and sectarian lines were spontaneous in nature and not coordinated by any political group.

The size of the protest on 1 October 2019 was small which was quickly dispersed. On the following day, the size of the demonstration grew after protestors gave a call on social media. On 2 October 2019, clashes were reported between the protestors and the security forces in Nasiriyah and Najaf and protestors attempted to enter the Green Zone.1 Large-scale protests grew in Amarah, Hilla, Diwaniya, Kut and Basra and in Kirkuk, Tikrit, Samawa and Diyala, peaceful demonstrations and small rallies were held in solidarity with the protestors’ demands.2 By 6 October 2019, 104 people were killed including eight security personnel and nearly 6,100 people were wounded including 1,200 security officials due to clashes throughout the state. 3

In Iraq, the basic issues in governance are linked to the frustration with the current political structure that was restructured after the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and the fall of Saddam Hussein regime. The current political structure, i.e. Muhasasa Ta’ifia, is based on consociationalism or ethno-sectarian apportionment to guide government formation in which power and budget are distributed among the people and parties of the three major communities namely the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. Under Iraq’s unique political process, the largest political bloc is identified after fresh election and the process of selecting a new speaker is made. The position of the speaker is first selected among the Sunni parties and approved by the largest bloc after which, the speaker and two deputy speakers are elected by absolute majority. The position of President is initially selected by the Kurdish parties after which the members of parliament elect a new president by a two-thirds majority. The President subsequently charges the new Prime Minister, reserved for a Shiite candidate and selected by the largest bloc to appoint a council of ministers.45 Accordingly, the positions of President, Prime Minister and Speakers are occupied by Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni candidates respectively.

This political structure, while being demographically justifiable, has created a system of rewards in which politicians after occupying government offices award its supporters that are largely on ethnic and sectarian lines and political groups use its ministers to extract government resources. Therefore political, ethnic and sectarian loyalty becomes extremely crucial for attaining employment in the bloated public sector. 6 The Muhasasa Ta’ifia system was applied in the provisional Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) set up by the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority between 13 July 2003 and 1 June 2004 and the system continued in dictate government formation and how ministries and resources would be distributed after 2005, 2010, 2014 and 2018 elections.7 The system of elite-power sharing has led to weak and undemocratic political institutions based on patronage. Moreover, the constitution has been misinterpreted to suit the interests of various political groups and the Iraqi political process is prone to external interference from the US, Iran, Saudi Arabia etc. The political parties and militias benefit from the structural pattern of corruption that has permeated in every aspect of governance and in case of crisis; political factions push for unity governments to avoid cracks in the political structure. 8
In terms of economy, the public sector occupies a major share; however, its management has been ineffective and fraught with corruption. Transparency International has ranked Iraq at 168 out of 180 states in the 2018 Corruption Perception Index. 9 Iraq has one of the largest proven crude oil reserves with 145,019 million barrels,10 however, according to the UN, seven million or 23 percent of Iraqis live in poverty and spend less than US$ 2.2 dollar per day. 11 Iraq’s young demography that will become part of the workforce is very large at 39.01 percent between the age group of 0-14 years and 19.42 percent between the age group of 15 to 24 years contributing more than half of the population in 2018.12 However, according to the World Bank, 16.6 percent of the total labour force between the age group of 15-24 is unemployed in 2018.13 The security situation has largely normalized after the Islamic State (IS) was uprooted in 2017, but the pace of reconstruction has remained slow. The government failed to fulfil the assurances to the volunteers that fought against IS for compensation and integration with the security forces. At the same time, the distribution of services are highly skewed and poor quality of basic services such as shortage of electricity, lack of regular water supply etc. are confronting the Iraqi state. The public anger against this elite power-sharing and continuing concerns over the deteriorating economic situation, corruption, unemployment, poverty etc. have been expressed in numerous protests in late 2012, January-June 2013, July-August 2015, April 2016, February-March 2017, July 2018 and lately in June 2019.

Notably, large-scale protests in Iraq are usually backed by political factions and the response of the security forces is not excessive and generally aimed at crowd control. However, in the October 2019 protests that were de-centralized and spontaneous in nature, the response of the security forces was harsh including the use of live bullets. The recent protest is largely non-sectarian in nature, focusing on common economic and social issues plaguing all aspects of Iraqi society unlike previous protests backed by sectarian groups. Moreover, the October protests in primarily directed towards the Iraqi government and politicians instead of external actors such as Iran and the US.14 Saad Mann, spokesperson from the Interior Ministry noted that protestors have attacked 51 government buildings and eight headquarters of political parties.15 It reflects public anger not only against the government but also against politicians of all shades. Iraq’s problems are structural in nature and protestors are looking for structural changes. Several protestors expressed frustration towards the parliamentary system of government and appealed for the re-introduction of presidential style republican government. Therefore, political overhaul rather than reform has been the key theme in the recent protest. 16

Protestors also criticized the government’s decision to demote the widely recognized and respected military officer Lt. Gen. Wahab al-Saadi who was heading Iraq’s Counter-Terrorism Service before being transferred to an administrative role in the Defence Ministry in late September 2019. The Counter-Terrorism Service also known as the Golden Division was trained by the US Special Forces during the fight against the IS. The role of Saadi in defeating IS along with his clean image and popularity is seen as a threat by the ruling elites. Pro-Iranian politicians have also expressed suspicion about Saadi’s links with the US. During the protests in early October 2019, posters of Saadi were seen on the streets and social media was filled with messages of solidarity and allegations of unjust treatment by the Iraqi government.17

Protests for complete political overhaul began in the Shiite dominated cities and within days, resentment was displayed against Iranian interventionism. Iran, during the protests, has sided with Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi regime and on 7 October 2019, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei expressed concern over the protest warning that the enemies that were trying to divide Iran and Iraq would not be successful. 18 Iran’s state news agency, IRNA blamed the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel for the unrest in Iraq stating that the protests were aimed at disrupting Iran’s ties with both Iraq and Syria. 19 Saudi Arabia is largely seen in favour of the protest that intends to capitalize on Iraqi antagonism towards Iran that may weaken Iranian control. 20 Therefore, the sectarian undertones and external factors eventually penetrated the protest discourse which was largely non-sectarian, decentralized, spontaneous and directed against the Iraqi political elites.

Government’s Response

Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi, a technocrat by training came to power on 2 October 2019 as a compromise candidate of the two largest Shiite blocs led by Muqtada al-Sadr’s Saairun Alliance and Hadi al-Ameri’s Fateh bloc. 21 The Mahdi government was concerned that the protests could become a nation-wide movement that could severely hamper the state’s security. The government initially sought to downplay the protests and curfew and police action were carried out under the pretence of preserving general peace and safeguarding public and private property. It also laid the blame on malicious elements for stirring violence. The Iraqi security forces in order to disperse the protestors used tear gas, water cannon and live ammunition. Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi condemned acts of vandalism during the protests while expressing his sympathy with protestors’ legitimate demands. 22 Therefore, the rhetoric of public order continued to dominate Iraq’s harsh approach in dealing with the protests.

The government also resorted to internet shutdowns to weaken public mobilization and Iraqi news outlets were prohibited to show the ground reality. On 5 October 2019, the Baghdad offices of media outlets such as Al-Arabiya, Al-Hadath, Dijlah TV and Kurdish Arabic channel, NRT Arabic that covered the protests were attacked by masked gunmen to arm-twist their coverage.23 Journalists have also been detained and equipments were confiscated at several protest sites.24 A majority of Iraqi public and private news outlets have practised self-censorship in reporting protest incidents. Iraqi news outlets have rather focused on the correlation between protests and public disorder.

The media landscape in the post-Saddam Hussein period is a by-product of the current political structure and news outlets are backed by political parties and these groups have used newspapers, radio and TV to shape public opinions. In the case of earlier protests, the media outlets could pick sides and cover the event based on its own biased perception.25 However the present protest has targeted the entire political establishment and political parties, therefore media outlets have been slow to cover the events. Resultantly, there is a large public consensus that Iraqi media outlets do not reflect their opinions and daily struggles and in this context, social media and comedy shows have emerged as effective platforms to broadcast public uproar against the government. 26 The government, at the same time, was acutely aware of the political costs in case the demands of the protests are not met. It was also sensitive to the international outcry over political instability and police brutality and measures were announced to contain the protests.

On 1 October 2019, Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi assured jobs and instructed the government sector to enforce 50 percent quota for local workers in foreign enterprises in Iraq. 27 The Prime Minister on 2 October 2019 held an emergency National Security Council meeting and expressed sorrow over the deaths and injuries on both sides. On 3 October 2019, Mahdi expressed his willingness to meet with the protestors and messages were sent from the Prime Minister’s office to the general public to express their grievances. 28 On 4 October 2019, the government set up a task force to look into the events. The speaker of the parliament on 5 October 2019 announced reform measures such as availability of loans as bank credits to set up factories and equipment and on 6 October 2019, the Iraqi cabinet announced 17 planned reforms such as raise in welfare stipends, land distribution and construction of 100,000 new housing units.29

After more than 100 people were killed during days of protests, the Iraqi military on 7 October 2019 admitted that excessive force was used outside the rules of engagement and after a cabinet meeting on 14 October 2019, 61 government officials were terminated. 30 In several areas, army units were replaced by federal police units to de-escalate the situation and return normalcy.31 The heavy crackdown along with assurances of reform has quelled the protests by 9 October but small scale clashes continued at several places throughout the state. A call of protest has been made for 25 October 2019 to continue their agitation and Muqtada a-Sadr, the leader of the Sairoon Alliance has announced his support. 32

The Way Forward

The October 2019 protest is rooted in demand for employment, tackling corruption, improving the economic situation, reducing poverty etc. The frustration with the government eventually pushed protestors to demand a regime change and resignation of Adil Abdul Hadi. However, the ruling regime in Iraq is part of a complex web of sectarian and ethnic interests and the political structure is characterized by a formal lack of opposition. The lack of formal opposition means that all political stakeholders are complicit in upholding the corrupt political structure. The ruling elite is aware of the public discontent, however, it lacks the political will to implement structural changes. The weakness of Mahdi government is reflected in its inability to either effectively handle the protests or meet the demands of the protestors. 33

The set of reforms announced by the Mahdi government in response to the protests are largely seen as cosmetic and it would not succeed to bring long-term changes. Therefore, structural changes such as the introduction of new electoral law and independent election commission could work towards a more representative legislative and executive institutions and genuine political opposition could be created. 34 Moreover, freedom of expression and upholding the liberties of the media could establish crucial links between the civil society and the ruling elite.

The recent protest has acted as a wake-up call for the ruling regime that it cannot ignore the concerns of ordinary Iraqis. Iraqis are giving up on the ethno-sectarian political system based on elite bargain for elite benefit and unless structural changes do not take place, protests, unrest, renewed regional rivalry and violence are likely to haunt Iraq’s state and society in coming days.

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  2. Al Jazeera. “Several killed as Iraq protests escalate, spread nationwide”. Al Jazeera. October 3, 2019. Accessed October 16, 2019.
  3. The Guardian. “Iraq protests blamed on 'malicious hands' as death toll passes 100”. The Guardian. October 7, 2019. Accessed October 17, 2019.
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  5. Mansour. R. Iraq’s 2018 government formation: unpacking the friction between reform and the status quo. LSE Middle East Centre Report. February 2019. Accessed October 21, 2019.
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  9. Transparency International. “Iraq”. Transparency International. 2018. Accessed October 20, 2019.
  10. OPEC. “Iraq Facts and Figures”. OPEC. 2019. October 21, 2019.
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  13. World Bank. “Unemployment, youth total (% of total labor force ages 15-24) (modeled ILO estimate): Iraq”. World Bank. 2018. Accessed October 19, 2019.
  14. Al Jazeera. “Why are Iraqis protesting against the government?: Inside Story”. Al Jazeera. October 2, 2019. Accessed October 18, 2019.
  15. Human Rights Watch. “Iraq: Lethal Force Used Against Protesters”. Human Rights Watch. October 10, 2019. Accessed October 20, 2019.
  16. Al Jazeera. “How can Iraq's political unrest be solved?: Inside Story”. Al Jazeera. October 6, 2019. Accessed October 19, 2019.
  17. Twaij, A. “In Iraq, Protesters Are Sick of Corruption and Foreign Influence”. Foreign Policy. October 7, 2019. Accessed October 19, 2019.
  18. Jalilov, O. “Iran’s Supreme Leader Accuses “Enemies” Of Attempting To Sow Discord Between Iran & Iraq”. Caspian News. October 8, 2019. Accessed October 20, 2019.
  19. Al Jazeera. “Iran sees Iraq unrest as a plot to undo bilateral ties’. Al Jazeera. October 8, 2019. Accessed October 20, 2019.
  20. Twaij, A. “In Iraq, Protesters Are Sick of Corruption and Foreign Influence”. Foreign Policy. October 7, 2019. Accessed October 19, 2019.
  21. Majalla. “Adil Adbul Mahdi Iraq’s New Prime Minister”. Majalla. November 5, 2018. Accessed October 21, 2019.
  22. Rasheed, A. & Aboulenein, A. “Iraq declares curfews as gunfights rage and protests spread nationwide”. Reuters. October 2, 2019. Accessed October 20, 2019.
  23. Committee to Protect Journalists. “Unidentified assailants raid 4 broadcasters in Baghdad, assault staffers”. Committee to Protect Journalists. October 7, 2019. Accessed October 20, 2019.
  24. Committee to Protect Journalists. “Iraqi authorities obstruct journalists, cut internet access amid protests”. Committee to Protect Journalists. October 4, 2019. Accessed October 20, 2019.
  25. Freedom House. “Iraq”. Freedom House. 2019. Accessed October 20, 2019.
  26. Al Jazeera. “A platform for the Iraqi people and the protests: The Listening Post”. Al Jazeera. October 13, 2019. Accessed October 20, 2019.
  27. VOA News. “Influencial Iraqi cleric calls on government to resign over protests”. VOA News. October 4, 2019. Accessed October 20, 2019.
  28. Al Jazeera. “Iraq's PM calls for talks as thousands of protesters defy curfew”. Al Jazeera. October 4, 2019. Accessed October 17, 2019.
  29. The Telegraph. “Iraq's government pledges social reforms as death toll rises to more than 100 in six days of protest”. The Telegraph. October 6, 2019. Accessed October 16, 2019.
  30. Middle East Monitor. “61 Iraqi officials sacked over protests”. Middle East Monitor. October 16, 2019. Accessed October 20, 2019.
  31. Al Jazeera. “Iraq military admits 'excessive force' used in deadly protests”. Al Jazeera. October 7, 2019. Accessed October 18, 2019.
  32. Middle East Monitor. “Iraq’s Al-Sadr announces support for 25 October protests”. Middle East Monitor. October 21, 2019. Accessed October 22, 2019.
  33. Al Jazeera. “Iraq's uprising an open crisis with no known path forward”. Al Jazeera. October 9, 2019. Accessed October 19, 2019.
  34. Haddad, F. “Iraq's protests and the reform farce”. Al Jazeera. October 5, 2019. Accessed October 15, 2019.

(The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct).

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