Shortly before Iran fired a barrage of missiles on two Iraqi bases that host US troops last week, Tehran sent an official verbal message to Iraqi caretaker Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi saying that an attack on the bases was imminent.
Two days earlier Abdul-Mahdi had revealed that US officials had also informed him that an attack by US drones would be carried out on Iran’s powerful commander and point man in Iraq Qassem Suleimani outside Baghdad International Airport.
In both cases the alerts for Abdul-Mahdi were meant to give him notice, but the inept prime minister failed to stop the two attacks or even to protest to his Iranian and US interlocutors about violations of Iraq’s sovereignty and territory.
While some Iraqis met Abdul-Mahdi’s abysmal response with wit and laugh-out-loud humour, others accused their prime minister of lacking the stature of a national leader able to stand up for the country against foreign aggression.
In his approach to the standoff Abdul-Mahdi has demonstrated once again his impotence, this having now dragged Iraq into its worst political crisis in years and triggered a massive popular uprising.
Furthermore, it has glaringly exposed the inadequacy of the country’s political elites that came to power after the US-led invasion in 2003 that toppled the regime of former dictator Saddam Hussein.
Iraq has been rocked by widespread anti-government protests for more than three months, with the violence and anger steadily escalating and echoing Iraqi demands for leadership change and an overhaul of the political system.
What began as peaceful marches has since exploded into the country’s biggest political crisis since Saddam’s ouster, pitting the country on the edge of wider domestic and regional conflicts.
The massive movement has been pressing demands for the removal of Iraq’s ruling elites, accusing them of misrule, corruption, sectarianism and being proxies of Iran. At issue is government mismanagement, leadership failure and the impunity of a ruling class that has siphoned off huge amounts from state revenues over much of the past 17 years.
The protesters have expressed their deep-seated resentment towards the political establishment, which they blame for corruption, Iraq’s high unemployment rate, and foreign interference.
After nearly two months of anti-government protests, Abdul-Mahdi was pushed to offer his resignation, and Iraq’s parliament was forced to enact new laws for parliamentary elections.
Iraq’s post-Saddam ruling elites have been under harsh criticism for squandering opportunities to rebuild Iraq, one of the world’s most resource-rich countries, into a stable and flourishing state.
For many Iraqis, a group of corrupt and greedy leaders that was empowered by the US Occupation Authority in Iraq has been responsible for the disastrous polices that have paralysed the country for nearly 17 years.
Over all these years, these Iraqi elites have been given poor grades in government and have shown themselves to be incapable of taking the bold and innovative steps that are need to bring about change and direly needed national rebuilding.
Instead, the Iraqi body politic has endured an astonishing list of maladies, not least being the fostering of strong sectarian patronage networks that have strengthened their own power and fortunes and have gradually eroded the pillars of the state.
Successive Iraqi governments have failed to address enduring problems that have been largely eclipsed over the years by political chaos and deteriorating security as the country has battled a large-scale insurgency by the Islamic State (IS) terror group.
Under their rule Iraq has become a geopolitical mess with regional implications, as the rivalry between Iran and the US has continued to play out in Iraq over the past 17 years while Baghdad has remained a battleground between groups aligned to each side.
The consequences of being leaderless have been dire for Iraq, and when Abdul-Mahdi was named prime minister in October 2018 many hoped that he would be able to tackle the country’s problems and turn around its fortunes.
Many Iraq experts drummed up excitement at Abdul-Mahdi’s appointment, as they saw this French-educated economist as a man who would be able to turn around the policies of his predecessors whose failures had been largely blamed for the crisis in Iraq.
But like his predecessors Abdul-Mahdi turned out to be merely a figurehead for a government run by the Shia politicians and militias that run the country as fiefdoms and plunder its resources.
Abdul-Mahdi made political blunders when he failed to deliver on his promises to tackle the dismal state of Iraq’s essential infrastructure, lack of basic services, high unemployment and the long-standing corruption that is seen as the fundamental cause for the government’s dysfunction.
Abdul-Mahdi’s failures sparked large-scale protests that have rocked Iraq since October, killing some 600 people and wounding thousands of others. He eventually announced his resignation after the country’s top Shia cleric Ayatollah Ali Sistani called for a change in leadership in Iraq.
However, his resignation did little to quell the growing fury inside the country, and it underlined Iraq’s leadership quandary as the political factions have failed to name a new prime minister acceptable to the protesters, turning the uprising into a volatile political crisis.
The roots of Iraq’s political turmoil go back to the political order forged by the US Occupation Authority after 2003, which established a sect-based political system in the country controlled by sectarian leaders and militias.
Part of this quota-based system allocated the symbolic post of president to the Iraqi Kurds, the speaker of the parliament to the Sunni Arabs and the powerful post of prime minister to the majority Shias.
Yet, power has remained in the hands of a small oligarchy that exercises disproportionate influence and controls Iraq’s main political, economic, security and military institutions.
A closer look at Iraq’s political landscape reveals that the dozen or so warlords that comprise the highest echelon, including the heads of the sectarian and ethnic factions and the militia chiefs, are in fact in charge of the country.
It also shows a deeper crisis in lower levels of government, represented in the shortage of efficient leaders due to the political patronage that prevents the promotion of potential technocrats and managers.
Since Saddam’s fall, powerful political factions have controlled all the key positions in the Iraqi army, security forces, intelligence and bureaucracy. They name their cronies and associates as military commanders, ministers and senior officials to some 400 posts in the government.
One of the major consequences of this rule of kleptocracy in Iraq has been the failure of the parliament to act as a national platform elected to enact laws and supervise the government in a system where the aspirations of individuals and groups are reconciled towards the common good.
This kleptocracy has progressively paralysed the country and drained it of its resources, imposing its hegemony on public space and creating an inequality and injustice that has led to communal and political unrest.
The elitism in Iraq has resulted in the country’s political instability, and its increasingly heavy-handed rule has been increasingly undermining efforts to rebuild Iraq as a unified and functional state.
Iraq has become a poorer place as a result and one that is politically, economically and socially stagnant. It has been saddled with burdens that will haunt future generations that will be forced to repay what the ruling elite has run up to stay in power over recent years.
As the search for a new prime minister to meet the protesters’ demands has shown, a leader who can move Iraq forward has been hard to find. The leadership shortage is a national scandal, and it is becoming the biggest challenge that Iraq is facing as it passes through a particularly difficult period.
Iraq needs a transformational leadership with strategic vision, courage, integrity and consensus-building abilities to introduce a new set of political initiatives that will transform the way the country is run and make it less like simply a collection of fiefdoms.
Without such leadership, Iraq will not survive the shortcomings of its ruling elites. Instead, it will miss its chance and could eventually vanish as a unitary state because its leaders have been unwilling or incapable of doing what is needed to surmount problems of their own making.
As the anti-government uprising in Iraq enters a crucial turning point, the key question now is whether the Iraqis will be able to find a new prime minister who can meet the expectations of the protesters and provide the needed leadership.
Further poor leadership will be catastrophic for Iraq and will likely leave it paralysed for years or decades to come.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 January, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.