Analysis: The myth of normality in Iraq

Salah Nasrawi , Monday 31 Jul 2023

Multiple challenges have left Iraq dangerously exposed, with business as usual likely to remain out of reach.

The myth of normality in Iraq
Al-Sudani welcomed by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in Damascus (photo: AP)


Nearly 10 months after Iraqi Prime Minister Mohamed Shia Al-Sudani formed Iraq’s latest coalition government, the country’s ruling elites are still boasting that Iraq is heading in the right direction.

Major offensives by the Islamic State (IS) terror group are no more, and there have been no further attacks by pro-Iran Shia militias against the US and other Western military and diplomatic installations in Iraq.

Public protests against the government’s inefficiency and corruption are now rare, and Iraq is enjoying growing ties with the outside world.

Yet, a peaceful solution to Iraq’s protracted conflicts remains uncertain. Lasting peace is still hard to find despite small steps in that direction, and tough battles between rivals for power appear to lie ahead and could be key to the country’s future.

Al-Sudani, came to power in October last year amidst a political stalemate and the public dissatisfaction that followed the 2021 parliamentary elections. He was backed by a mostly pro-Iran Shia alliance that formed a governing coalition with the country’s Kurds and Sunnis.

In his government’s action plan, Al-Sudani made multiple pledges to end government dysfunction, including by cracking down on rampant corruption, providing public services, and rebuilding Iraq’s shattered economy.

He also promised to overhaul Iraq’s security apparatus and control its unruly Shia militias. He pledged to protect and promote human rights, in addition to investigating cases of the killings of protesters and their arbitrary detention.

On the external front, Al-Sudani promised to work to shore up Iraq’s foreign credentials and build greater economic ties with the Arab countries, Iraq’s neighbours, and international partners to reduce the country’s dependence on Iran.

Al-Sudani realises that his political survival for the rest of his term in office will depend largely on his ability to address the many serious political and economic challenges Iraq faces. This will be crucial if the country is to return to normal after years of hardships and turmoil.

However, nearly ten months after taking office and making promises to turn a new page on Iraq’s bad governance, Al-Sudani’s pledges have yet to be translated into practical measures.

His ambitions have collided with Iraq’s harsh reality and his obligations to maintain a balance between competing factions of the Shia Coordination Framework (CF) that forms the backbone of the ruling State Coalition (SC) which backed his premiership.

The SC is another coalition of the necessity of the type that Iraq has embraced since the US-led invasion in 2003 to represent its religious and ethnic communities. Each of these coalitions has been fractious and the governments they have formed have ended up in political limbo.

Al-Sudani’s government is no exception, and uncertainty about its future has already started to emerge, raising questions about its ability to take on the most difficult tasks and safeguard stability.

Al-Sudani himself has gone to great lengths to paint himself as a powerful leader who is holding the complex balance inside the Shia alliance. But his political future depends on his ability to manoeuvre the bloc’s leaders, who have a say over the government’s decisions.

In addition to their attempts to tie his hands, internal fights inside the coalition shed light on the extent to which Al-Sudani can succeed in making the needed changes.

The CF is a cocktail of Shia Islamist groups and pro-Iran militias that work behind the scenes to use the government apparatus and resources to further embolden a growing segment of Iraq’s Shia public.

Yet, even so it is fraught with divisions, and the knives carving out government and security posts as well as the state’s assets and benefits have proven particularly sharp.

A more explicit and dangerous power struggle is emerging between the CF and the powerful Shia Muslim cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, whose withdrawal from politics last year paved the way for Al-Sudani’s accession.

Al-Sadr is now resurfacing and increasingly sending his supporters, sometimes even his Salam Brigaded militia, back onto the streets.

Last week, Al-Sadr’s followers attacked and burned offices of his main rival and key CF leader Nouri Al-Maliki in several cities. They also ransacked and set ablaze the Swedish Embassy in Baghdad after the burning of a copy of the Quran in Stockholm.

The events were the strongest signs yet of Al-Sadr’s intention to return to politics and defy the CF factions ahead of crucial provincial elections scheduled in October that the groups hope to win and use to consolidate their local power bases.

At the same time, the Kurdish and Sunni Arab parties that are part of the ruling SC alliance are showing increasing signs of internal divisions. They have been witnessing splits that threaten to weaken their voices in the national government.

The more Iraq’s two main communities are fragmented, the less they will be able to influence the country’s political process and the weaker will be the state’s ability to ensure national cohesion and peace.

While overall security remains a challenge, the after-effects of the IS terror crusade in the region are still haunting Iraq. The group no longer holds territory in the country, but it continues to operate as a highly active insurgency, particularly outside cities. It may take many years to eliminate its dangers.

The country’s economy is another complex and longstanding issue facing Iraq’s governing partners that will require a comprehensive programme of far-reaching reforms in order to achieve stronger and more inclusive and sustainable growth.

Al-Sudani took charge of an economy that was still basking in an oil boom and recovering from the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic. But high inflation, weak growth, and a young population in need of jobs have weighed on Al-Sudani’s promised recovery.

This has been fraught by major risks posed by structural bottlenecks that can only be solved by stringent measures, including better public investment, better public service delivery, and reinvigorating the private sector to create more job opportunities.

The Iraqi economy has been wracked by severe restrictions imposed by the US on dollar transactions to stamp out what US officials describe as rampant money laundering in the country that benefits Iran.

In its latest crackdown, the US last week barred 14 Iraqi banks from conducting dollar transactions as part of the sweeping measures. As a result, the exchange rate of the Iraqi dinar has jumped to around 1,550 to the dollar at street exchanges, compared to the official rate of 1,320 to the dollar.

One of the daunting challenges Iraq faces today as it struggles with increasing criminality is drugs. Since the 2003 invasion, Iraq has become a main regional transit route for illicit drug trafficking.

But officials say it has also become a consumer market for different kinds of drugs. The government disclosed last week that it had found a site in the southern Muthana Province bordering Saudi Arabia where millions of Captagon pills, an amphetamine-like drug, are being produced.

Water scarcity is a tougher challenge still. Extreme weather has added to water shortages caused by lower intakes from the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers to create drought conditions that threaten lives and development.

The flow in both Rivers is decreasing at an unprecedented rate due to the construction of upstream dams in Turkey and Iran and causing a prolonged drought.

In a report released on Friday, the Iraqi Ministry of Water said that the country was “on the verge of major water scarcity”. According to the UN, 90 per cent of Iraq’s rivers are polluted, and the country will meet only 15 per cent of its water needs by 2035.

Successive Iraqi governments have failed to make Iran and Turkey change or adjust their policies of diverting water upstream in order to alleviate Iraq’s worsening water crisis.

One major effect of the water shortages and desertification was the government’s decision to cut irrigation for agricultural areas by up to 50 per cent. Iraq now has to rely heavily on agricultural imports for food security, ironically mostly from Iran and Turkey.

The list of challenges faced by Iraq are interconnected, and from a strictly technical point of view are longstanding and the harbingers of conflicts to come.

Recasting Iraq’s past two decades in this light helps to cut through the myths of stability and normality propagated by the Iraqi ruling classes and to understand Al-Sudani’s efforts in their own right.

Throughout these two decades, the Iraqi ruling elites have talked up normality while, behind the façade, gutting the country’s institutions, rules, and laws. Having emerged from exile themselves, they have looked to wheeling and dealing to get things done, including corruption and cover-ups.

The only notion of normality worth exploring in Iraq should be with regard to the chaotic post-US invasion experience. It is certainly not normal to live in a state dominated by non-state actors with its resources under their control.

Iraq ranked 154 in the Global Peace Index for 2023, produced by the Institute for Economics and Peace and considered the world’s leading measure of global peace.

To grasp just how normal Iraq is, one does not need to reckon only with its past 20 years. There was also chaos last week surrounding protests against the burning of copies of the Quran in Stockholm and Copenhagen.

The protests, initially called by Al-Sadr, soon turned into a competition with the pro-Iran groups to showcase each force’s capacity to mobilise.

The display was a warning of how easily things could go terribly wrong and shatter the illusion of Iraq’s returning to normal.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 28 July 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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