Government Falls as Iraqi Protests Turn Violent

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region


Last month, Iraqi Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi agreed to step down as protests against his government continued to claim the lives of hundreds of protesters. The decision has done little to quell the anger of the Iraqis, many of whom are angered by the deteriorating economic situation in the country as well as Iran’s increasing influence in Iraq’s political and security institutions. The protests, however, have failed to gain the support of the Iraqi Kurds, many of whom see with suspicion any attempts to change the current status quo with regards to the region’s autonomy.

Writing for The National, Mina Al-Oraibi casts doubt on the likelihood that the resignation of the prime minister would satisfy the protesters: “The reality is, Mr. Abdul Mahdi’s presence – or lack thereof – is not the primary concern of the protesters or most Iraqis. Replacing him with another figure will not in any way improve Iraq’s situation nor win over the demonstrators. Exactly two months have passed since the protests began in Baghdad and a number of provinces. Their root causes – a rejection of corruption, call for basic services, rejection of Iranian influence on the political system – continue. However, the death toll and use of brute force against protesters has compounded the problem.”

Iran’s influence in Iraq continues to remain a divisive issue that is driving much of the domestic and regional conversation. In a recent editorial, Gulf News suggests that what is happening on the Iraqi streets should serve as a wake-up call for Iran and its allies in Iraq: “Antigovernment protesters who have been on the streets since early October have overwhelmingly rejected Iran’s political presence in the country. The ‘corrupt’ government they are protesting against is intrinsically linked and backed by Iran. The arson attack struck a symbolic blow against Iran, which attaches great importance to its outposts in the Shiite heartland of southern Iraq. It sends the message to Tehran that the Iraqi people are putting their country’s interests first, before that of Iran’s, despite the links between the two countries…. Now more than ever, Iran needs to re-evaluate its destructive behavior at a time when its economy is in disarray due to international sanctions and now faces an open revolt by its own people.”

Asharq Alawsat’s Ghassan Charbel, when discussing the relevance of the Iranian question in the current impasse in Iraq, points to increasingly irreconcilable religious and secular positions between Iran and Iraq as a likely culprit: “Realistically, the dominant Iranian role was not the only or the first cause of the uprising. The protests were triggered by widespread corruption, looting of state funds, rising unemployment and the failure of institutions. But the protesters considered that the “Iranian tutelage” participated in producing this reality and covering it. Another issue is the widening gap between the positions of the Iraqi and Iranian spiritual authorities, which renewed the debate on the old rivalry between the Najaf and Qom authorities. The dispute has taken a new dimension due to the divergence in the position over Welayat al-Faqih.”

Iranian authorities and commentators have pushed back against such narratives, suggesting, as Ramin Hossein Abadian does in a Tehran Times op-ed, that the anti-Iranian rhetoric and actions in Iraq are the result of meddling by Iraq’s other neighbors: “As the Iraqi government has stated, the main goal of agitators who provoked the attack on the consulate is to undermine the strategic Baghdad-Tehran ties. However, the position of Iraq’s government shows that the rioters’ action did not have the slightest impact on the relations between the two countries. Iran’s ambassador to Iraq, Iraj Masjedi, rejected the claims that Iraqi people were involved in the attack and reiterated the strong ties between Baghdad and Tehran…. In any case, it is clear that the recent events in Najaf are a new scenario, which is being led by foreign elements and carried out by the infiltrators in Iraq.”

The Iranian government is not the only one unhappy about the current instability in Iraq. According to Al Ahram’s Salah Nasrawi, Kurdish leaders in Iraq are wary of what is going on in Baghdad, even though publicly they have taken a more hands-off approach: “Unlike other areas in Iraq, where anti-government demonstrations have gripped the country, the streets of the Kurdistan Region have been calm and life has carried on as normal…. The Kurdistan Region Government (KRG) and the main ruling parties in the region have taken a firm rhetorical stance, saying that the protests in Baghdad and in the south are not their concern…. However, it is no surprise that the Kurdish politicians and political parties oppose the protests against the government in Baghdad. They believe that the protesters represent a movement that threatens the rule of their allies in Baghdad and could also serve as an inspiration for Kurds disgruntled with corruption and dysfunction in their own government.”

But that may not be the only concern. According to a Rudaw op-ed by Timothy Griffin, “While constitutional reform would represent a huge victory for Iraqi protesters, it might entail damning consequences for the autonomous Kurdistan Region. Major reform of Iraq’s constitution could represent a serious threat to the Kurdistan Region’s current autonomy…. Government capitulations to Iraqi protesters may nonetheless present Baghdad with another opportunity to encroach on Kurdish autonomy. Changing the constitution may give the government what it perceives as legal-moral authority to incorporate the Kurdish Peshmerga into the federal forces on security and stability claims. Such a move would leave Iraqi Kurdistan without its greatest component of autonomy – its own military force.”

Despite such concerns, change is coming to Iraq. Whether it will produce the desired results is a different matter altogether, however. At the end of the day, solving Iraq’s challenges will, as this editorial by Khaleej Times asserts, require the cooperation of all segments of the Iraqi society: “The crackdown on peaceful protesters from different strata of society and sects was the final straw. The people had reconciled their differences while the politicians were busy politicking. Mahdi did not factor in the extent of the resentment and anger at the government that did not have its ear to the ground. People want the basics which the government has been unable to provide. Iraq has oil wealth but its squabbling politicians are busy frittering away its gains…. The people must be lauded for their commitment towards a larger cause. They have made politicians bow to their will. To them goes the credit. A new government will have to listen to ordinary Iraqis, deliver on jobs, services, and education. The challenges for Iraqis are many. Together, they can.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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