Over the past few summers, as scorching heat meets a growing dissatisfaction with their government’s inability to provide basic services and employment, Iraqis have taken to the streets to protest. These demonstrations have occurred primarily in southern Iraq and in Baghdad, where violence has been relatively contained for several years now. To many Iraqis, protest is the only voice they have left. They view the formal political and electoral process as just reinforcing the same elites who have repeatedly failed them since the U.S. invasion of 2003 that toppled Saddam Hussein.
Last summer’s protests in Basra, however, altered the dynamics of these public outcries. Unlike previous years, protesters marched against all sides of the Iraqi political spectrum—including the mainly Shiite, state-backed paramilitary groups known as the Popular Mobilization Units, or PMU, which had previously been considered a sacred force in Basra for liberating Iraq from the Islamic State. Almost a third of the PMU fighters have come from Basra. Unlike previous years, demonstrators in 2018 went against calls from populist Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who had championed the protest movement in the past but was now forming the government, after his political coalition had won the 2018 parliamentary elections. More critically, the protests also turned violent, as political party offices were torched and at least 23 demonstrators were killed in clashes with security forces.
That violence didn’t just end the protests; it changed their nature by increasing the element of fear. Protesters now have to decide whether to risk their lives taking to the streets, and powerful political parties and armed groups have to decide the extent to which they can use violence to suppress demonstrators.
As this summer approached, Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s new government, elected last fall but still not completely formed, has attempted to stem anymore unrest by promising reform. Yet both his new Cabinet, which is still not fully staffed, and the new legislature have been slow to deliver. Mahdi, despite his pledges to be a different kind of prime minister, has been an all too familiar one, focused on appeasing rival political interests in Baghdad and splitting the national pie between the usual entrenched elite. Last month, over a year after the election, Mahdi was finally able to appoint a defense and interior minister. But he still doesn’t have a justice minister and, critically, a single female minister in his Cabinet.
Many of the realities that have led to protests in previous summers haven’t gone away. Most Iraqis still lack sufficient basic services and still feel marginalized by a government that doesn’t really represent them.
Last year’s low voter turnout and protests signaled a call for fundamental change to this broken post-2003 status quo. In response, Baghdad’s political class focused on forming a new government that would include so-called technocratic ministers, who were chosen on merit rather than political party affiliation. The idea was that these technocrats understood what needed to be done and would not simply serve the often corrupt interests of their parties. For many observers, it suggested a positive trajectory for Iraq.
Many Iraqis feel that protests are the only way they’ll have a voice.
But more than a year later, this top-down approach has not led to meaningful reform. Instead, several ministers complain that they can’t implement their agendas, since they lack the backing of a political party and are being undercut by party appointees in their own ministry. Within each ministry, there are still several hundred so-called proxies who serve the interests of political parties. While Mahdi’s government has promised to end this system, which represent the unchecked power that political parties wield in Iraq, the parliament continues to delay any movement on reforming it.
As a consequence, power does not necessarily lie with any of Mahdi’s technocratic ministers, who in some cases have ended up serving only as figureheads. “Council of Ministers meetings have become boring,” a long-time civil servant in Baghdad told me. “In the past, there used to be debate on the motions. But now, the ministers rarely debate motions. They just all vote for what has been approved.”
Another major policy issue will be security sector reform and the future of the Popular Mobilization Units. Known in Iraq as al-Hashd al-Shaabi, this paramilitary network has existed as a loose umbrella organization of some 50 groups since being officially formed under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in 2014, after the Iraqi army collapsed in the face of the Islamic State. However, civil society activists have in the past year expressed concerns that certain armed groups within the PMU shot and killed their fellow protesters in the streets. Activists have also blamed the PMU for a series of assassinations against civil society activists, and particularly women, in southern and central Iraq. The PMU leadership, led by Abu Mehdi al-Muhandis, agrees that there are bad factions within the organization that need to be addressed. Muhandis’ goal has been to consolidate the organization with an eye to centralizing the command structure.
In response to public concerns surrounding the PMU, Prime Minister al-Mahdi issued a decree on July 1 to formally integrate these paramilitary groups into the state. Under his plan, the groups will come under control of the PMU Commission, which sits within the National Security Council in the prime minister’s office. The decree calls for the end of individual group names and a unification of the loose network of paramilitaries.
However, the PMU is already an official state organization, according to a previous decree in February 2016 by then-Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. In November 2016, the Iraqi parliament also passed a law that recognized the PMU as an autonomous state organization under the prime minister’s office. Rather than really integrating them into the state, this new decree has more to do with the PMU leadership’s attempt to transform the organization from a wartime force to a peacetime one. To do so, Muhandis needs to address an internal power struggle between various PMU leaders.
To pursue this consolidation of power, Muhandis is seeking to work with Mahdi and the prime minister’s office. Mahdi was put in power in large part by the PMU’s political bloc, the Fateh Alliance. Since then, Muhandis has worked with civil servants to gain influence within Mahdi’s government. So, the new decree serves Muhandis’ plan for the PMU, even if the organization is nominally brought under more direct state control.
Given this reality, many Iraqis don’t believe that the new government is able or willing to combat corruption or reform the security sector, since Mahdi is still seen as weak compared to the various political parties that made him prime minister. But will Iraqis take to the streets to protest again, or did last year’s violence create a sense of fear that could deter them? This remains the unanswered question from last summer’s unrest. Many activists from Basra to Mosul have told me that they are now afraid of how the state-recognized paramilitaries will respond to demonstrations. Yet even with this fear, many of them still feel that protests are the only way they’ll have a voice.
This article was originally published in World Politics Review.