Iraq is a ‘Jenga Tower’ That Will Soon Collapse

The country is in the grip of corrupt and self-serving elites. We need a new constitution to break their grip.

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When the Iraqi Parliamentary elections of October 2021 recorded the lowest-ever voter turnout in the post-2003 era, it was clear the incoming government would face a legitimacy crisis. Almost 10 months later, Iraq’s political elites are no closer to forming a government or selecting a new head of state. Instead, the latest developments from July 27-31, 2022 have witnessed protestors storm Iraq’s so-called safe Green Zone before occupying the nation’s parliament. This is proof that Iraq’s political system is in an irreversible crisis.

These events are the latest part of a crisis after Muqtada al-Sadr, a powerful cleric and political leader whose party won the most seats in Iraq’s parliament, withdrew his MP’s from the political process. These developments have not occurred in a vacuum and are symptomatic of a failed political system that may finally be about to collapse, however long it is taking to die.

The roots of the crisis

The latest events should not shock or surprise us, given the numerous attempts from the parties in Iraq’s political framework to delegitimise the elections and threaten violence against opponents. These include rocket attacks on a Kurdish party in Erbil and a formal attempt to assassinate the current Iraqi PM, Mustafa Khadhimi. It should also be noted that post-2003, the Iraqi elites have a history of publicly being at war with each other and then later forming consensuses and governing blocs. So anything is possible in Iraq, even when hostile escalations are at their height.

The latest developments started when Muqtada al-Sadr, an Iraqi nationalist known for his direct anti-US and indirect anti-Iran sentiments, saw his party gain the most with 73 seats, up 19 seats from the 54 won in 2018. Meanwhile, Fatah, the coalition which represents the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), saw a massive decrease of seats from 48 to 17.

Sadr, once a commander of a powerful militia, the Mehdi Army, is a populist leader who has a loyal and extremely mobile force of support that has historically been radically active, including in the insurgency against the US forces during the American occupation and clashes with Iraqi authorities. Although the Mehdi Army formally disbanded in 2008, thousands of armed fighters from the militia joined its successor group, the so-called Peace Brigades. Meanwhile, Sadr’s Shiite rivals come in the form of an alliance known as the Coordination Framework (CF), which includes various Iran-aligned politicians (such as former Iraqi PM, Nouri al-Maliki) and paramilitary groups (such as the Fatah Alliance), as well as the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and a few Sunni members.

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki shows his inked finger at a polling station in Baghdad, as Iraqis go to the poll to vote in the parliamentary election, in Iraq, October 10, 2021. Photo: Reuters/Thaier al-Sudani

After last year’s elections, Sadr initially formed a parliamentary bloc, called Saving the Homeland, which included the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Sunni Coalition of Sovereignty. However, without the necessary two-thirds of seats in parliament, the bloc was unable to elect a Kurdish president – the first step of forming a government – without the agreement of the other Iran-backed groups. The deadlock was further fuelled by what many referred to as a ‘stab in the back’ by KDP leader, Masoud Barzani, who ended his alliance with Sadr’s bloc, despite his initial promises and the lobbying of prominent Sunni leaders to side with Sadr. Barzani was seen as the weakest link in the alliance, and thus, became a target of Iranian pressure — which came in the crude form of rockets fired at key partners of Erbil, as well as at quarters belonging to party personnel. This, combined with the lack of response by Sadr when Iraq’s Federal Supreme Court abolished the 2007 oil and gas law that allowed the KRG to sell its oil and gas independently of Baghdad, declaring the law ‘unconstitutional’ and forcing the Kurdish Regional Government to go through Baghdad in the future, forced the KDP to break their alliance.

Given the deadlock, Sadr instructed his parliamentarians to quit in June, a move that ended up working against him, as Iraqi electoral law dictates that resigning MP’s are replaced by losing candidates with the highest number of votes, with a significant number of seats going to the Shiite CF. Since the resignations, the CF’s attempts to get things moving, resulting in choosing a PM aligned to their interests – including former PM and Sadr’s arch rival Maliki – has incensed Sadr and his loyalists, igniting the latest protests and parliament sit-ins.

Iraq’s post 2005 elitist political system

Political instability has been endemic in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussain. Iraq’s 2005 constitution, which was influenced by the US, failed to create a unified, representative and functioning government. Ambiguities within the document have been abused by those in power and it has aggravated sectarian divisions within Iraqi politics. The constitution, along with former US-backed Iraqi elites would determine how Iraq’s political system would operate, even as it had both division and unity at its core, whilst being completely out of touch with ordinary Iraqis. There is irony in the fact that Iraqi protestors occupying parliament have had more representation over a few days through their actions than the last 15 years of self-serving elite rule.

Unrepresentative Iraqi political elites have plundered the nation’s resources, with millions of Iraqis left without prospects. While the majority of Iraq’s populace struggle with existential crises, Iraq’s elites continue to govern through the arrangements known as ‘muhasassa’ (the US-introduced quota-based political system) of and ‘wasta’ (nepotism). Although, divides along ethnic and sectarian lines are key causes of disagreement between competing sects, there is a unity that transcends these divisions when it comes to forming post-election political blocs in government. The message to voters is clear: elections do not determine political outcomes in Iraq, horse-trading does. Political parties are given ministries in exchange for support in forming governing blocs. Hence, it is no wonder that post-election government formation is interminable, with the latest period being the longest in Iraq’s history, beating the 290-day record set in 2010.

A divided Iraqi state suits foreign actors

Governing blocs are also connected to – and influenced by – external actors. This is because these blocs are deeply divided at their core, serving as revolving doors of entrance for foreign influence into the Iraqi state.

The many competing global and regional actors inside Iraq range from the US and Turkey, to Saudi Arabia and China. Yet the most dominant power inside Iraq is neighbouring Iran, which has exploited the strategically weak and divided Iraqi state – whilst working hard to maintain Iraq’s resilient elitist system. In the process, Tehran has also been able to exploit Iraq as a cash-cow to fund a comprehensive grand strategy in the Middle-East. Iran’s ambition, to  empower the region’s Shiites, remains achievable so long as Iraq is the principal economic and military pivot point. Iraq’s own national security is achieved through Iranian state-sponsored militias and proxies who are embedded in the Iraqi military and security services. The militias were made a permanent fixture in Iraq’s security forces thanks to a vote by the Iraqi parliament in 2016.

The unbreakable cycle

Since 2011, protests and popular movements that have challenged elite dominance or questioned the government – or its domination by Iran – have been violently repressed. The presence of Iran in the heart of Iraqi politics has been fortified through a Shiite-dominated government that has depended on Iranian Popular Mobilisation Units to maintain order in Iraq, with many reports of the use of snipers by Iranian-backed militias at anti-government demonstrations since 2019. Geographically, Iranian-backed proxies hold key strategic roles and locations throughout Iraq.

Iraq’s unrepresentative elites and its stagnated political system are, however, notably resilient. Those who speak out against Iranian influence in Iraq, and those who protest in general at the lack of services and unemployment, are attacked violently or killed, with Hisham al Hashemi and Reham Yacoub being two high profile examples. The elite’s survival depends on key intellectual repressors which effectively prevent, restrain and dominate the minds and thoughts of ordinary Iraqis. The intellectual repression occurs alongside high unemployment and a crisis in civil service salaries, whereby the central government of Iraq and the Kurdish Regional Government have been either delaying, part-paying or not paying salaries at all.

Another way in which dominant elites have managed to maintain control is through the infamous ‘jobs-for-votes’ scheme, in which voters vote for the political parties who control the ministries they are employed by. It was therefore no surprise that even in the latest October 2021 election – with such a low turnout – the nine million Iraqis who voted were almost equal to the amount on the public sector payroll.

Iraq’s current political system is the problem

Iraq – thanks to the US occupation – has been riddled with short-term fixes and thinking since 2003, to the point where there is little appetite for major change, despite the 2019 protests calling for a complete overhaul of the political system. But recent events show that Iraq’s problems are deep-rooted and institutional, and if not addressed, may yet escalate into a full-scale coup.

There are many areas that need attention, beginning with a re-write of the country’s 2005 constitution, something which I argued 5 years ago. The document was written during a period of political instability after a war and occupation riven with conflict. Given that Iraq’s political system was made by unrepresentative US-backed Iraqi elites, it will continue to serve elite interests to the exclusion of all others in a continuous cycle of dysfunctionality.

Meanwhile, the concept of ‘reform’ in Iraq has become a tired cliché, which is used by politicians to bide time, or to win elections. My extensive research and analysis shows that any substantial reform in Iraq would disrupt the current elite arrangements, making real reform virtually impossible under the current political system. Keeping Iraq’s population dependent on government salaries enables Iraqi elites to maintain its authority and its hold over natural resources. Only private industry, in a system where genuine policy issues and new cross-cutting identities emerge, will unify voters along more progressive lines.

The best way to understand post-2003 Iraq is as a very long game of Jenga, where political elites – beginning with the US occupiers and then Iraq’s own rulers – continue to take chunks out of Iraq’s resources for their own benefit at the expense of the institutions of Iraq and the Iraqi people. This game has also been played by foreign actors and corporations, who have benefited from the insecurity and the divisions inside Iraq. Even if a new elite consensus emerges out of the latest crisis, or if new elections are agreed, it is inevitable that the Jenga tower that is Iraq’s political system will eventually collapse.

Bamo Nouri is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of West London, and an Honorary Research Fellow at City, University of London. He is also an independent investigative journalist and writer with interests in American foreign policy and the international and domestic politics of the Middle East.