Right from its birth, the Iraqi state has been based on the monopolization of power by one of its various constituent sectarian groups. Nowadays, in addition to its structural limitations, the political system is being held hostage by the clash between Iran and the United States, the two countries that have sponsored its creation
Last update: 2022-04-22 10:03:40
Since its creation in 1920, the monopolisation of power by one of its main religious components has been the rule for the Iraqi state. For the past 83 years, the Sunnis have governed to the detriment of the Kurds and the Shi‘ites. After 2003, the latter took their revenge by excluding the Sunnis from political management. Today, the political system created after the fall of Saddam Hussein is held hostage by its structural limitations and conflict between Iran and the United States, the two countries that sponsored its creation.
Iraq as a state never existed by its current name and within its present borders before Sir Percy Cox, the British High Commissioner in Baghdad, proclaimed a “provisional government with an Arab face,” on 11 November 1920 (Mosul and Kurdistan’s fates were not decided until 1925). This was in the aftermath of a major uprising, the 1920 Iraqi revolt, which took the British forces months to subdue. Under the leadership of the Grand Ayatollahs, the country’s Shi‘ites rose up against British occupation of the country, which had been in effect since the 1914 invasion, and in reaction to the League of Nations (forerunner of the UN) granting Great Britain a mandate to govern Iraq.
Two large communities in the country, the Shi‘ites and the Kurds, found themselves excluded from power, which was monopolised by elites coming from the Sunni Arab minority (about 20% of the population). Following successive military defeats, these two majority communities (around 75% of the population) began a period marked by the permanence of an undeclared war with Kurdistan and the appearance of political parties which inspired hope for change that would prove to be illusory. After the defeat of the Shi‘ite religious movement in 1925, the latter began a half-century-long spell in the wilderness, giving way to secular or secularising political parties (the Communist Party and the Ba‘ath Party in particular). No Iraqi community escaped unscathed from this unacknowledged and perverse communitarian system: Kurds, Arab Shi‘ite tribes, Assyro-Chaldeans (1932), and Yazidis (same year), all fell victim in turns. The British assigned to the Iraq Levies (also known as the Assyrian Levies) the mission of “saving” Baghdad from the 1920 Revolt. From 1921 onwards, the new Iraqi army then took up the torch and was at permanent war against the Iraqi society and its diversity.
Gulf Wars and Religious Wars
The second Ba‘athist coup in Iraq occurred in 1968. But this Ba‘ath Party was very different from the one that led the first coup in 1963. By 1968 it had become a Sunni party dominated by the military, where a provincial Arab Sunni petty bourgeoisie tried to use familial and clan strategies to make up for a very small base. General Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr, a relative of Saddam Hussein, became president of the Republic. His faction originated in the city of Tikrit, located about 160 kilometres north of Baghdad on the banks of the Tigris river. Saddam soon emerged as the regime’s number two.
The Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr/Saddam Hussein tandem had to seek allies urgently in order to govern. A process of “minoritisation” was affecting the new regime, which was now forced to compete with other Sunni clans from Mosul, al-Dawr, Fallujah, Anah, Ramadi, and Samarra, among others. On 11 March 1970, Baghdad signed an accord with Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) leader Mas‘ūd Barzānī, which granted a Kurdish autonomy that would never be enforced. A little later, in 1971, the government adopted the National Action Charter, which was endorsed by the KDP and Communist Party, and that seemed to resurrect alliances from the reign of ‘Abd al-Karīm Qāsim, the first republican leader (1958–1963) after the fall of the monarchy. In July 1973, the creation of a National Progressive Front brought together the Ba‘ath, the Communist Party, and the KDP, paving the way for the entry of communists and Kurds into the government. The oil boom in the 1970s, crowned by the nationalisation of oil in 1972, changed the situation radically. The Ba‘athist regime, energised by the oil bonanza, no longer had need of its old allies. Once again, war resumed with Kurdistan and the communists went underground.
The Tikriti regime then realised that a danger much greater than the communists and the Kurds lay in wait for it. A new Shi‘ite religious movement was aiming to regain the place that the Shi‘ite religious leadership held before its defeat in 1925. Khomeini, in exile in Najaf, the Shi‘ite spiritual capital and an incubator for young ulama, was surrounded by the future leaders of Shi‘ite Islamist movements in Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, and in al-Ahsa province in Saudi Arabia. This new movement was different from the first, however: it could be described as “Islamist” because it reflected an ideologization of Shi‘ite Islam as an anti-Western political combat weapon, in unacknowledged competition with the Grand Ayatollahs, whose authority is based on religious knowledge. This “secularization” was made apparent by the emergence of political parties which, like the Da‘wa Party, founded in 1957, increasingly occupied the Shi‘ite political scene and replaced the Communist Party. In fact, many of the militants from these Islamist parties had communist or Ba‘athist pasts. This was particularly the case with ‘Adil ‘Abd al-Mahdī, who resigned as prime minister in November 2019.
In December 1974, five Shi‘ite ulama were executed by the regime. They were the first from a list of Islamist movement martyrs that would grow much longer by the end of the 1970s. As forbidden and severely repressed Shi‘ite commemorations unfolded, an undeclared war between the Ba‘athist regime and the reborn religious movement settled in Iraq. Khomeini had been theorizing his conception of Islamic power since his exile in Najaf. Among the younger generation of his followers, a major figure of Shi‘ite Islam emerged: Muhammad Bāqir Sadr wrote a “preliminary note” that inspired the new constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, proclaimed on 31 March 1979.
Khomeini’s triumphant return to Iran galvanised the militant young Shi‘ite clergy in Iraq’s holy cities, who thought their hour of revenge had finally come. At the same time, the war in Kurdistan was redoubling in intensity. Faced with a threat that the Ba‘athist regime deemed deadly, Saddam Hussein pushed aside his rivals and seized power. And in September 1980, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Iran with tacit support from the great powers. The Iraqi army became the armed branch of the latter’s efforts to contain the Islamic revolution that Imam Khomeini was advocating. A tacit coalition was formed: the oil monarchies of the Gulf financed Saddam’s war against the Islamic Republic while the great powers, led by France, delivered cutting-edge military equipment to Iraq. These same great powers turned a blind eye to the gas attacks against Iranian forces, which had already begun by 1982. While Shi‘ite militants took refuge in Iran, the repression of the religious movement in Iraq redoubled: Muhammed Bāqir Sadr was executed in 1980.
This was to be the first in a series of Gulf wars, each one caused by the previous war. Terribly deadly, the Iran-Iraq war lasted eight years and cost both sides more than a million martyrs. When the ceasefire came into effect in 1988, there was neither a winner nor a loser. But Iraq was on the verge of bankruptcy, having gone into crippling debt to purchase military equipment. Saddam Hussein felt that he did not need to repay Iraq’s creditor countries, pointing out that Iraq had paid with the blood of its soldiers to save the oil monarchies. Indebted but strong in military power, Iraq wanted to be recognised as the region’s policeman. The oil monarchies perceived these claims as threatening, and they sought support from the same great powers that had encouraged Baghdad to wage war against the young Islamic Republic. Then, Kuwait demanded Iraq’s share of the oil market as reimbursement. Baghdad had completely destroyed its oil infrastructure and was unable to produce more oil. Washington played a perverse game, appeasing Saddam on the one hand and pushing Kuwait to bankrupt the Iraqi state on the other. Baghdad’s response is well known; Saddam’s regime invaded Kuwait in 1990, seizing the wealth that lay just past the Iraqi border.
Saddam fell into the trap that had been laid for him. An international military coalition immediately formed between the Arab countries and the great powers with Washington at the helm. The Iraqi army’s defeat enabled uprisings against the regime in fifteen of Iraq’s eighteen provinces. Between February and March 1991, everyone expected the regime to fall in the face of the Shi‘ite movement’s massive resurgence, although this insurrection was largely spontaneous. Then the Americans allowed Saddam’s Republican Guard to use toxic gases to subdue the Shi‘ite uprising. Kurdistan had already experienced the ill effects of these weapons, especially in Halabja in 1988. The international coalition imposed a no-fly zone north of the 36th parallel. Ironically, this operation was named “Provide Comfort!” The Iraqi army withdrew from Kurdistan, marking the beginning of Kurdish autonomy. Further south, the coalition allowed Saddam’s Republican Guard to drown the Shi‘ite insurrection in blood, resulting in more than 100,000 victims. Defeated by American bombings, Saddam’s regime was rescued from collapse by a series of UN resolutions that placed the Arab part of Iraq under international supervision. The most famous of these resolutions was “Oil for Food,” which stripped Iraq of any oil independence. Saddam remained the leader of a divided country with no sovereignty left. Beginning in 1991, Kurdistan, protected from Baghdad’s attacks, sailed towards unacknowledged independence, even as rivalry between Barzānī (KDP) and Talabānī (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, PUK) degenerated into intra-Kurdish civil war.
Placing the Iraqi state under supervision satisfied everyone: neighbouring countries and the great powers. It prevented Saddam from realizing his regional ambitions while containing the Shi‘ite religious movement. The 11 September 2001 attacks would upend the situation. Against the advice of the major American lobbying interests involved in Iraq (military, grain crops, oil, Israel), the Bush administration surrendered to his evangelical constituency’s millennialist arguments. For the latter, a guilty party needed to be identified, even if it meant lying shamelessly about weapons of mass destruction and Baghdad’s alleged links with al-Qaeda. The war began in 2003, without any international legitimacy. This time, France was opposed to the third Gulf War. Within only a few days, the Iraqi army was annihilated, and Baghdad’s leaders went underground.
The New Iraqi State (2003)
Saddam Hussein’s regime collapsed in April 2003. The Americans witnessed a widespread institutional collapse that they had neither anticipated nor prevented. The fall of Saddam’s regime brought about the collapse of the Iraqi state that was created by the British in 1920, a state which had reinforced the Sunni Arab minority elite’s monopolisation of power, excluding Shi‘ites and Kurds for 83 years. Washington thus found itself confronted by the threatening chaos of multiple insurrections: the Ba‘athists were in the process of reconversion to Islam, and meanwhile the Shi‘ites were aligning themselves with the Sadrists, a movement led by Muqtadā al-Sadr, the son of Muhammad Bāqir al-Sadr, which represented the poorest Shi‘ites in the country. Faced with the urgent need to rebuild Iraq’s institutions, Washington had no choice but to reach out to those excluded from the old system: the Kurds and the Shi‘ites. This did not pose a problem for the Kurds, who had been directly allied with Western countries since the 1990s, but seeking an alliance with the Shi‘ites, who were reputed to be close to the Republic of Iran, illustrated the impossibility of squaring the circle. One can imagine how little pleasure the triumphant Americans in Baghdad took in seeing turbaned former exiles returning from Iran to Iraqi soil.
The British had conquered Ottoman Mesopotamia during the First World War, an occupation that was later legitimized by the fledgling international community with a mandate from the League of Nations. Similarly, the UN Security Council voted quasi-unanimously (only Syria abstained) on 22 May 2003 for resolution 1483, which ended thirteen years of sanctions against Iraq and entrusted Iraq’s economic and political future to the US and Great Britain for a transitional period of twelve months. Just as the British founding of a “local state with an Arab face” in 1920 camouflaged Sunni Arab domination, the Americans chose Shi‘ite Islamist and Kurdish personnel for this “provisional Iraqi government.” In fact, the United States and Iran were paradoxically sponsoring a new communitarian, ethnic, and sectarian system. Members of the Shi‘ite Islamic Da‘wa Party, who had returned to Iraq from Tehran, became prime ministers and the 2005 constitution legalized this new sectarianism. Under the pretext of federalism, the Kurds were able to manage their three provinces without asking for permission from Baghdad. As for the Shi‘ites, they occupied the primary positions of power in the government, particularly in the new Iraqi army that was created following the dissolution of the old army founded in 1921. But the Americans were forced to face a basic truth: it is much easier for an occupying power to control a country through a minority group, as the British did, than through majority groups that are much less docile, since they know they are in the majority. The Shi‘ites—particularly across the Sadrist movement—quickly demanded the departure of the Americans.
The reconstruction of the Iraqi state was carried out “Lebanese style,” according to each community’s presumed demographic weight. “Tradition” was invoked to assign the most important position of prime minister to a Shi‘ite, the role of president of the Republic to a Kurd from the Talabānī clan (Barzānī having granted himself the post of president of autonomous Kurdistan, a role far more significant than that of president of the Republic), and the least important post, that of president of the Assembly, to a Sunni Arab. The issue in Iraq, as in Lebanon, was the disappearance of all common citizenship and public space. This structural fact was masked by the “democratic” nature of legislative elections, in which the democratic majority was mistaken for the demographic majority. This trap was illustrated by the virtual disappearance of political parties (the Communist Party being one of the few survivors), which were replaced by sectarian parties that divvied up power and corruption amongst themselves and the militia system that doubled the new army. In such a system, there is always someone who is excluded: the Sunni Arabs would henceforth occupy, despite contextual differences, the place that the Shi‘ites and Kurds had held for 83 years.
Faced with this Shi‘ite-Kurdish tandem asserting its power, religious radicalism quickly manifested itself among the former elites of the fallen regime. The former Ba‘athist officers, returning to their home regions with weapons, made a pact with al-Qaeda. As such rebellion inflamed the province of al-Anbar (Fallujah) in 2003 and 2004, before it was temporarily defeated by American forces who were aided by Shi‘ite militias for the first time in history. The Sadrists, for their part, claimed to support their Sunni “brothers.” But this would not last.
Between 2004 and 2008, an unspeakable sectarian war claimed hundreds of thousands of victims, above all among the Shi‘ites, who were targeted by continuous attacks that grew more and more murderous every day. Important Shi‘ite shrines—such as the Golden Mosque in Samarra, where the twelfth Imam is said to have disappeared from the eyes of the believers in 874—were damaged. Baghdad was bristling with palisades that separated neighbourhoods belonging to different denominations. At this great cost, the Shi‘ites became the majority in the capital, which up until then had been a multi-denominational home to the two Muslim communities in equal measure. Thanks to a tribal policy worthy of the British Mandate era, the Americans achieved the feat of regaining the support of some Sunni tribal chiefs. Thus, the famous Awakening Council (Sahwa) was created in 2006. Lull on the terrorism front enabled Washington to announce withdrawal of all US troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. Awareness of the need to escape from an inextricable quagmire—at any cost—motivated recourse to Sunni tribes and an unconcealed desire for American disengagement in Iraq.
The Sunni Arabs, however, boycotted successive legislative elections before attempting to integrate themselves into the political system through a political coalition, the al-‘Iraqiya Alliance (also known as the Iraqi National Movement, INM), which advocated for a way out of sectarianism. This was in 2010. Alas, it is very easy to enter into such a system, but practically impossible to depart it peacefully. Faced with the Sunni “danger,” a communitarian reflex united various Shi‘ite coalitions, which prevented any attempt to leave behind sectarianism in the name of demographic superiority. 2011 arrived with the Arab Spring. The Sunni Arab community made one last attempt to integrate themselves within the existing system. In demonstrations, they took up the same civil society slogans that were heard from Damascus to Sanaa by way of Cairo: freedom of expression, refusal of authoritarianism and corruption... without hiding the sectarian nature of their demands. The predominantly Shi‘ite government’s response was resounding: sit-ins and peaceful protests were suppressed by the army, while barrels filled with TNT were dropped on protesters from helicopters. There would be no further attempts at peaceful Sunni Arab integration.
The Irruption of Islamic State
The use of the most brutal force possible against the 2011 demonstrators succeeded in convincing the very last Sunnis who were still holding out hope for the possibility of integration within the existing political system. A group of Salafist-Jihadist in Iraq, which includes al-Qaeda, has called itself by the name Islamic State since 2006. It added “and in the Levant” (ISIL) to its name in 2013. The group attracted a number of former Ba‘athists, as well as tribal and neighbourhood chiefs from cities with Sunni Arab majorities who went on to adopt its rhetoric. It was no longer about begging for integration within the system, but instead destroying it by targeting specific states, particularly Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. ISIL used the history of the British mandate to assert that these states and their borders were not legitimate because they were created in Europe against the will of the real or presumed majority. But what ISIL forgot to say is that its base is made up of the community that had previously dominated the Iraqi state thanks to the British Mandate.
In January 2014, Fallujah, located 80 kilometres west of Baghdad, fell into the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. On 10 June 2014, Mosul, Tikrit, and most of al-Anbar were conquered by ISIL without firing a single shot: this is accounted for by the collapse of the Iraqi army and the inhabitants’ favourable reception. After this victory, jihadist fighters occupied a third of Iraqi territory, which was effectively divided into three zones: Shi‘ite, Kurdish, and Sunni Arab. On 13 June 2014, faced with the threat of ISIL taking over Baghdad, the Ayatollah ‘Alī al-Sīstānī—the highest Shi‘ite religious authority—launched an appeal for jihad against ISIL. Shi‘ite militias, often armed by Iran and reinforced by hundreds of thousands of volunteers flocking to recruitment centres, formed the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF, al-Hashd al-Sha‘bī). Then, Abū Bakr al-Baghdādī was proclaimed Caliph, and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant chose a shortened name, Islamic State, to signify that it no longer had borders.
While the Shi‘ites have paid a high price in terms of ISIL victims, one community can claim the status of genocide victim. The Yazidi have, indeed, been the object of the jihadists’ relentless hatred. Expelled from their ancestral lands in Northern Iraq, they have experienced hell: summary executions by the thousands, women reduced to sex slaves, and the forced recruitment of children, who were also used in kamikaze operations. The Yazidi community found itself in great danger of disappearing altogether. As far back as 2014, the UN described ISIL’s campaign against them as an “attempt at genocide.” Recognised for the first time with two representatives in Iraqi Parliament, the Iraqi Yazidis experienced the torments of political sectarianism at their expense.
In August 2014, a vast anti-ISIL coalition of 22 countries led by the United States and other Western countries was formed. Tacit collaboration between the pro-Iranian Shi‘ite militias and airstrike campaigns, mostly American, made it possible to recover conquered cities one by one. On 17 October 2016, the battle of Mosul began, led jointly by the Iraqi army, Shi‘ite militias, and Kurdish Peshmerga, with the support of an airstrike campaign from the anti-ISIL coalition. Mosul was re-conquered in July 2017: it took more than eight months to retake the religious capital of the Islamic State.
ISIL’s military defeat was also the defeat of a community that had entrusted itself to Islamic State in desperation. Hundreds of thousands of refugees are still crammed into camps on the edge of the desert, a breeding ground for jihadism where they dwell on their mortifications as they are subjected to the abuses of the Shi‘ite militias. More than four years after Iraqi “victory” over ISIL, the historic centre of the city is still a field of ruins whose former inhabitants do not know if they will ever be able to return.
The end of Islamic State’s territorial domination has taken away the Iraqi government’s justification for the collapse of public services, including recurrent power cuts in record heat, water shortages, lack of sewers, and the destruction of public hospitals. Since nothing seemed likely to change once the threat outwardly disappeared, demonstrations have resumed with the same slogans from 2015 and 2016, castigating the political class, sectarianism with its quota system (muhāsasa) that fuelled corruption, and the widespread moral bankruptcy and state of “lawlessness” in the governing functions. This time, unusually, the movement has been led by the Shi‘ites. The 2018 legislative elections elevated ‘Ādil ‘Abd al-Mahdī to the post of prime minister, a figure who claimed to be an outsider to placate the protestors’ demands for the total replacement of a corrupt and inept political class. The desperation of many of the poorest Shi‘ites led an increasing number of demonstrators to gather in Tahrir Square in Baghdad, growing to more than a million by 2019. The new prime minister’s response to the protestors’ demands was conciliatory while at the same time repressive. More than 500 were killed by the police or unidentified snipers: proof that the problem lies not with the person in power, but with the political system itself, which is proving to be irreformable. When asked who their demands were addressed to, the demonstrators replied, “certainly not the political class in power!” whose departure they were awaiting. Even Ayatollah al-Sīstānī was not successful in embodying a credible alternative, since his name is associated with the system to which he initially gave his blessing.
The unsustainable nature of Iraq’s political system is not only directly linked to the nature of the state, but also to its borders, as demonstrated by its various plans for alliances/unions with other Arab countries, whether it be the Fertile Crescent Plan concocted by Nūrī al-Sa‘īd, who was prime minister under the monarchy, or the Arab Unions, be they Nasserite or Ba‘athist.
It is often forgotten that the current sectarian political system’s establishment was only possible because of the United States’ and Iran’s tacit sponsorship from 2003 onwards. That year did not witness only the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. The American occupation of Iraq led to the collapse of the first Iraqi state, founded in 1920 by the British. In this way, 83 years of Sunni Arab minority elites monopolising power came to an end. The new Iraqi state has gone bankrupt much more quickly than its predecessor. Seventeen years after Paul Bremer, the US administrator of Iraq, proclaimed the establishment of the Transitional Governing Council, the new state has brought the “Land of Two Rivers” to a series of impasses.
The Failure of a System
On 9 April 2020 the Kurdish Iraqi president, Barham Sālih, named a new prime minister, Mustafā al-Kāzimī: he was the third candidate in four months. The pro-Iranian camp had achieved the withdrawal of Adnān al-Zurfī. A Shi‘ite ex-governor of the Najaf province, he was appointed Iraqi prime minister after the resignation of Muhammad Tawfīq ‘Allāwī, who was unable to form a government one month after his appointment. Rejected by the Shi‘ite militias, the pro-Iranian camp, and the people, all sides vilified the newcomer as an “American agent.” A former member of the Shi‘ite Islamist Da‘wa Party, from which the majority of Iraqi prime ministers have come since 2003, Adnān al-Zurfī lived in exile in the United States after the Shi‘ite uprising of February-March 1991 was repressed by Saddam Hussein’s regime, and he has maintained many contacts from his time there. His failure to form a government illustrates the deleterious situation, in which the coronavirus pandemic has added to the oil crisis, due to the collapse of oil prices, along with the political stalemate that Iraq has been experiencing since the resignation of Prime Minister ‘Ādil ‘Abd al-Mahdī at the end of November 2019.
According to the terms of the Iraqi constitution of 2005, the president of the Republic is responsible for appointing a prime minister from the majority coalition within one month of the legislative elections. The most recent to date were in 2018. Leading with 54 seats, the Sā’irūn (Marching Towards Reform) alliance brings together supporters of Muqtadā al-Sadr and is supposed to represent poor Shi‘ite neighbourhoods in major cities, particularly the large neighbourhood that was renamed Madīnat al-Sadr (Sadr City) after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. The Sadrist movement represents an Iraqi Arab Shi‘ism that was often opposed to Iranian Shi‘ism in the past, when it challenged not only the Americans, who were designated as enemies to expel from the country and fight with weapons in hand in the years 2003–2008, but also the Shi‘ite religious authority embodied by the Grand Ayatollah al-Sīstānī in Najaf. The second coalition (48 seats), the Fatah Alliance (al-Fath), represents Shi‘ite militias that are dominated by the Popular Mobilization Forces (al-Hashd al-Sha‘bī) led by Hādī al-‘Āmirī, the head of the Badr organisation, one of the most committed militias on the ground. Al-‘Āmirī, reputedly close to Tehran, reached an agreement with Muqtadā al-Sadr, who seemed to renounce his Iraqi “nationalist” stance for a Shi‘ite confessional pact. Justifiably credited with victory against Islamic State during a campaign of reconquest carried out between 2014 and 2017, these militias retained their autonomy when they were integrated into the Iraqi security forces in 2017. Did they not help to contain ISIS when the Iraqi army suffered a total rout, followed by an unnamed debacle? They must be credited also with the reconquering of lost territories from the jihadists. Coming in third place with 42 chairs is the Victory Alliance (Nasr), which intends to promote former Prime Minister Haydar al-‘Abādī, member of the Da’wa Party, as “the Father of Victory” for his role in the campaign against Islamic State. Finally, in last place is the “Rule of Law” Coalition (25 seats), led by Nūrī al-Mālikī, a former Shi‘ite prime minister who retook leadership of the coalition from his colleague, ‘Iyād ‘Allāwī, who had tried to put an end to sectarianism during the 2011 elections with a coalition that attracted many Sunni votes.
The new prime minister, Mustafā al-Kāzimī, was previously the head of Iraqi intelligence services, having been appointed to this position by Haydar al-‘Abādī. Reputed to be close to the Americans, nonetheless a consensus seems to have formed in his favour, particularly between pro-Iranians and pro-Americans. Will he succeed where his predecessors have failed? His selection seems, in any case, to show the political class’s belated awareness of the emergency that the country faces. Al-Kāzimī appears to be the last chance to save a political system that is totally adrift. The new prime minister has already announced the next legislative elections in 2021, a last resort that the leaders of a failing system can use to buy time, following Lebanon’s example. An example of the difficulties facing the new Iraqi prime minister: a dozen or so pro-Iran fighters were arrested for firing rockets at Americans and then released after a few days, a slap in the face for Mustafā al-Kāzimī, who was trying to use this raid to stand up to anti-Washingtonists. The Hezbollah brigades, of which the 14 arrested men were members, then threatened to prosecute Mustafā al-Kāzimī for “kidnapping.”
‘Ādil ‘Abd al-Mahdī, a close associate of the Shi‘ite Islamic higher Council, had to relinquish his position in the face of a growing protest movement among the country’s Shi‘ite population that has claimed more than 500 official deaths, victims of state security forces and hooded snipers perched on rooftops. Shi‘ite against Shi‘ite, these protests expressed the despair of a community that has been subject to misery, the bankruptcy of public services, corruption at all levels of the state and administration, and widespread nepotism. Their main demand was the overturning of a system of political sectarianism that has been in place since 2003. They demanded that an honest political class without party or confessional allegiances replace the ruling technocrats.
Since 1 October 2019, a protest movement of unprecedented scale and radicality has demonstrated that the system in place has run its course. “Mā nurīd qā’id ja‘farī, tālīhā yetla‘ sarsarī!” (“We do not want a Shi‘ite leader who will become a rogue!”) or “Bism al-dīn, bāgūnā al-harāmiyya!” (“The bandits are robbing us in the name of religion!”), these slogans, shouted by hundreds of thousands of demonstrators from Baghdad’s Tahrir Square to Basra via Nasiriyah and the Shi‘ite holy cities, demonstrate that the point of no return has been reached. At one point, Muqtadā al-Sadr attempted to play the role of sponsor of the reforms, but he gave up, illustrating his customary versatility, so as not to alienate the support of the elected members of his coalition. Even Ayatollah al-Sīstānī, who seemed to agree with the protesters, giving the government a deadline of 30 days to satisfy the movement’s “legitimate” demands, failed to take the lead of the disillusioned demonstrators. This is the measure of the secularization of Iraqi society, which the Shi‘ite Islamist parties’ rise to power has tended to conceal. Hadn’t the Sadrist Sā’irūn coalition reached an agreement with the communists, their lifelong adversaries and competitors in the poorest neighbourhoods of the big cities?
This is the strength and weakness of the movement: driven by social networks, no leaders have emerged. This protected it from co-option on the one hand, but at the same time has deprived it of any political translation. The demonstrators have systematically crossed out the names of new prime ministers or alleged candidates with red ink.
The new Iraqi “state” was established in 2003 thanks to a paradoxical sponsorship: the United States and Iran. The 3 January 2020 assassination in Baghdad by an American drone of Qasem Soleimani, head of Nīrū-ye Qods (the Quds Force) within Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and his Iraqi lieutenant, Abū Mahdī al-Muhandis, deputy chief of the Popular Mobilisation Forces which gathered together the Shi‘ite militias, precipitated spiralling fears of open war between the two sponsors of Baghdad’s current system. Caught in a vice, Iraq has become the privileged domain for clashes between the two countries. This led to a 5 January vote in the Iraqi Parliament on a resolution that called for the withdrawal of American troops from the country. Of the 6,000 foreign soldiers engaged in the struggle against Islamic State, 5,200 are American. In retaliation, regular bombings attributed to Shi‘ite militias have targeted Baghdad’s Green Zone and the American bases in the north of the country, which has resulted in several American deaths.
The divorce between the two sponsors of Baghdad’s current system began to manifest itself publicly when Donald Trump came into office on 20 January 2017. Very quickly, the new American president withdrew from the Iranian nuclear deal, replacing it with economic sanctions that have strangled the Iranian economy. Iraq’s heavy dependence on its Iranian neighbour for basic necessities has prompted an Iraqi “exemption” from sanctions on Tehran. But these “exemptions” have been tightened over time. American withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 left a void that has been filled by the growing influence of Iran on Iraq’s political and religious scenes: Donald Trump was merely reacting to a growing imbalance and following the American peoples’ desire to disengage from this quagmire. One consequence of this divorce is that the extent of the bankruptcy of the system set up between 2003 and 2005 became fully apparent.
At the end of February 2020, Iraq announced the closure of its border with Iran while Ayatollah al-Sīstānī promulgated a fatwa making the fight against coronavirus a “collective obligation.” Iran, the country most affected in the region, officially asked President Trump to postpone US sanctions against it, and several Iranian grand ayatollahs made the same request. With no result.
But popular piety is not always aligned with religious authority. Thus, the pandemic did not prevent a procession of tens of thousands of Iraqi Shi‘ite pilgrims on 21 March, who came to the suburbs of Baghdad to celebrate the birth of Imam Mūsā al-Kāzim. Some pilgrims even affirmed that they were “ready to die for their Imam.” Contrary to the direction of Ayatollah al-Sīstānī, the populist Shi‘ite leader Muqtadā al-Sadr had called on the faithful to participate in the commemoration. There were two notable changes to this event from previous years: its reduced character, compared to the previous year, and the almost total absence of Iranian pilgrims.
The pandemic is seriously affecting Iraq, and the authorities are downplaying the extent of the damage. The virus emptied the streets of protesters in Shi‘ite cities (with the exception of a few dozen diehards who camp in Tahrir Square in Baghdad). It also has the paradoxical effect of reducing foreign influences on the country (in particular those of its Iranian and American sponsors), but at the same time it reinforces community solidarity in the face of a state unable to handle the health crisis.
The Threat of ISIS and the Deadlock with Kurdistan
On 26 October 2019, al-Baghdādī, the self-proclaimed caliph of Islamic State, was killed by an American drone in the Syrian province of Idlib and replaced by an unknown Iraqi. In October 2017, Islamic State lost its last territories when the (majority Kurdish) Syrian Democratic Forces retook Raqqa, ISIS’ “administrative capital” in the Euphrates Valley of Syria, under American air cover. Since then, Islamic State has gone underground, limiting itself to attacks against Iraqi and American forces, particularly along the Syrian-Iraqi border. Its many supporters, particularly in Mosul, are maintaining a low profile while they wait for better days like dormant cells. None of the causes that led to the emergence of Islamic State in 2014 have disappeared—quite the contrary. Tens of thousands of refugees crammed into makeshift camps on the edge of the desert, banned from returning to their ruined cities—especially Mosul—silently brood over their hatred of the Shi‘ites. The Iraqi Sunni Arabs are deprived of any real representation in Parliament, where elected officials—in particular those from the Iraqi Islamic Party close to the Muslim Brotherhood, who are considered “collaborators” of the Americans and the Shi‘ite militias that annihilated many of their community’s high-ranking figures—speak on their behalf. Unsurprisingly, the Arab Sunni and Kurdish MPs opposed the Shi‘ite vote demanding the departure of American soldiers after the assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani.
According to unverified sources, ISIS ordered its fighters to avoid travel to Europe so as to escape contagion. Other sources allege that the jihadist organisation is the creator of the virus, which is described as “God’s punishment.” A significant consequence of the coronavirus pandemic has been that the coalition against Islamic State has been forced to freeze its activities. One by one, the coalition countries have reduced their participation in land based anti-ISIS activities. The United States announced the suspension of Iraqi armed forces training, the withdrawal of a large portion of the American soldiers engaged in the fight against Islamic State, and their replacement with drones. On March 25, 2020, France chose to withdraw all its soldiers from Iraq, who were involved in similar anti-ISIS training activities (200 soldiers from Operation Chammal). The coalition then resumed its surveillance activities. But the question remains: won’t ISIS be revived within an increasing area of Iraqi territory, due to the isolation of the country and the weakening of the coalition on the ground? Could the pandemic be the last chance for the organisation to return to the centre of the political game? The question is more compelling than ever because the Iraqi government has never seemed so incapable of making reforms. This is true in the face of the mostly Shi‘ite protesters, but what about the Sunni Arabs? There is no risk that the Kurdish and Sunni Arab MPs’ joint vote to reject the Shi‘ites’ demand for the departure of American troops will change the situation. The Sunni members of Parliament have long since lost their audience, and now appear to be puppets on Washington’s payroll.
A second referendum on the independence of the Kirkuk province and other disputed territories was held in Kurdistan on 25 September 2017. That evening, Barzani announced the triumphant results of a 92.79% yes vote in favour of independence. The referendum had been called by the leader of the Kurdish Democratic National Party (KDP), which dominates the capital, Erbil, and northern Iraqi Kurdistan. The rival Kurdish party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), to which the president of the Iraqi Republic belongs and who is close to Baghdad, refused to join forces.
Kirkuk and the disputed territories were taken by Kurdish military forces (the Peshmerga) on 14 June 2014 after the routing of the Iraqi army by Islamic State. On 16 October 2017, Baghdad’s forces, assisted by Shi‘ite militias, retook Kirkuk, returning it to the fold of central power. Kirkuk is a multi-ethnic city where majority voting trends have changed several times in light of Baghdad’s policies and the Kurdish parties: Arabisation under Saddam Hussein, Kurdification under autonomous Kurdistan. Important Turkish and Arab, Sunni, and Shi‘ite communities often find themselves the hostages of this iron fist.
The referendum provoked waves of opposition: first from the Shi‘ite ruling parties, but also from Turkey and Iran. Baghdad reacted immediately with an Iraqi Parliament vote that declared the referendum illegal, imposing sanctions against Kurdistan, which included closing the Kirkuk airport. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan threatened to declare the initiative illegal, despite the fact that Iraqi Kurdistan is closely dependent on Turkey to export its oil. As for the great powers, they have refused to acknowledge any initiative that calls into question Iraq’s unity. Only Israel welcomed the results of the referendum.
The referendum on Kurdish independence showed, once again, that the Kurdish people of Iraq want to have their own state. But it ended in failure, as Iraqi unity was once again preferred to the legitimate aspirations of its inhabitants. The initiative also illustrates Kurdish divisions: in addition to the PUK, the Gorran party (Movement for Change), which for a long time represented the emerging Kurdish civil society against the ruling parties (PDK and PUK), boycotted the referendum. Added to this are Barzānī’s ulterior motives, who, lacking a true electoral mandate for the past several years, needed to re-legitimise himself.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation
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To cite this article
Pierre-Jean Luizard, “Iraq: the State Against Society”, Oasis, year 16, no. 31, pp. 26-41.
Pierre-Jean Luizard, “Iraq: the State Against Society”, Oasis [online], published on December 2020, URL: /en/iraq-state-against-society