In its heyday in the late 1970s, Iraq was considered the luckiest Arab country as it had both oil and water, a relatively modern citizenry, and a Ba’athist regime which, though authoritarian, was progressive and less corrupt. Ironically, since then, Iraq has endured four decades of near ceaseless depredations with three ‘Mother of All Battles’, economic sanctions, occupation, and existential duels with al Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS). Recently, it has been crippled by agitations led by youth railing against an inapt and corrupt leadership. They are frustrated because of unemployment, decaying civic amenities, and foreign domination. On December 1, the Iraqi Parliament accepted the resignation of the Prime Minister throwing the country into a fresh bout of political instability.
Protests and the way ahead
Iraqis’ discontent is rooted in reality. In 2018, Iraq’s oil exports were $91 billion, or over $6 a day for each citizen. Yet, over 41% of population lived below the poverty line of $3.2/day. Two years after the defeat of the IS, millions of internally displaced Iraqis still await rehabilitation. Iraqis also resent foreign hegemony, mainly by the U.S. and Iran. The attempts to burn down the Iranian consulates in Karbala and Najaf last month show popular antipathy.
The redeeming features of the protest movement have been its non-violence and inclusivity, despite Iraq being a sectarian, tribal society awash with weapons. The protests have often been met with excessive force by authorities leading to over 400 deaths. Last week, unknown gunmen massacred 22 protestors and three policemen in Baghdad.
Although the agitators reject the current political system, they lack a precise alternative. They call for a revolution to dismantle the Muhasasa system of sect-based allocation of government positions and replace it with direct elections and meritocracy. While they are resolute and united, the absence of any hierarchy or nationwide coordination renders them vulnerable to manipulation and divisions. But then, these attributes also allow them moral high ground and focus.
Arrayed against the utopian and inexperienced youth are formidable forces: the wily politico-clergy nexus (and their sectarian militias), anarchists like al Qaeda and IS scheming for a rerun, and renegade Ba’athists yearning for Saddam Hussein’s authoritarianism. Since the U.S. invasion in 2003, anarchic and enfeebled Iraq has been a hunting ground for various foreign powers — the U.S., Iran, Israel, Sunni Gulf powers, and Turkey — and their local proxies. With its geostrategic location, massive oil reserves and large Shia population, Iraq is a big prize.
Although the Prime Minister’s resignation has broken a protracted stalemate, the prospects for an early positive resolution appear dim. The agitation could either coagulate into a more inclusive political force, or fragment along sectarian lines, or morph into a militancy. To survive, Iraq’s ruling politico-religious elite would need a package addressing agitators’ basic demands and mitigating their distress. The new dispensation would need to be sectarian-light. To make a clean break from the current discredited system, Iraq will need a new electoral law or even a new Constitution. In a young democracy, it is important to create institutions sympathetic to the youth’s aspirations. The new leadership would also be under scrutiny for its nationalism.
For Indians, the developments in Iraq may appear as a distant rumble. They are not. One, Iraq is India’s largest source of crude. A protracted instability in Iraq would result in oil price rise. Two, with direct bilateral trade of over $24 billion in 2018-19, Iraq is already a large market for India’s exports with sizeable potential for growth. Three, in the 1975-85 decade, Iraq was the biggest market for India’s project exports; its post-conflict reconstruction requirement would be huge. Additionally, India can also help Iraq in MSMEs, skill development, healthcare, education, and improved governance.
But before all this can happen, India would need to help Iraq avoid the worst-case scenario. For this, it needs to hold Iraq’s hand to foster political reforms and help create credible and effective socio-political institutions. Over the past 70 years, India has created such institutions suited for a multi-ethnic developing society. This makes it compatible to partner with Iraq. Moreover, India’s millennia-long civilisational ties with Mesopotamia give it a tradition of goodwill with all sections of Iraqi society. This legacy needs to be leveraged not only to help transform Iraq, but also revitalise India’s bilateral ties with this friendly country in the extended neighbourhood.
Mahesh Sachdev, a retired diplomat, was Ambassador to Algeria, Norway and Nigeria. He heads Eco-Diplomacy and Strategies in New Delhi