On top of that whole ISIS situation (which is still far from being resolved), the capital of Iraq is facing another battle with their own disgruntled citizens. After months of complaints about corruption and a walled-off elite governing class (any of this sound familiar?) a mob of angry residents stormed the center of government inside the green zone this weekend.
Protesters stormed Iraq’s parliament on Saturday in a dramatic culmination of months of demonstrations, casting uncertainty over the tenure of the country’s premier and the foundations of the political system laid in place after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Security forces declared a state of emergency in the Iraqi capital after demonstrators climbed over blast walls and broke through security cordons to enter Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, also home to ministries and the U.S. embassy. Many were followers of Iraq’s powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who has been urging his supporters onto the streets.
So what about all that corruption? I suppose we shouldn’t be too surprised to learn that the disaffected masses were largely supporters of our old friend, Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
“Today the people announced their revolution,” said Sadr, who led a violent resistance against U.S. troops during the Iraq War, in a statement Saturday night. “History will record the birth of a new Iraq, from the ashes of corruption and the corrupt.”
Entering the parliament building, which, like the rest of the Green Zone, has been off-limits to the public for the past 13 years, protesters reacted with jubilation. To many, the area has become a symbol of corruption, the place where Iraq’s political elite live walled off from the rest of the country.
As was discussed by largely ignored critics in the run-up to the Iraq war, the citizens of that nation are used to corruption. Iraqi society was largely based on it long before we arrived, with anyone wishing to do business there knowing they would need to grease the palms of the local power brokers. It was just bred into the culture and largely accepted (though not liked) as a way of life.
By the time we’d taken Baghdad and begun to get things settled down, nothing much had really changed on that score. The Iraqis were ready to wheel and deal and take what was there for the taking, and that included the (literal) tons of cash that the Unites States was flying into the country. Check out this report from nearly ten years ago which recounted the embarrassing scene when Congress asked for an accounting of $12B in shrink wrapped 100 dollar bills flown into Iraq on pallets. That money later simply disappeared for the most part, vanishing into the pockets of corrupt local officials and Iraqi army leaders.
I suppose the one upside here is that the Iraqi people have gotten at least a taste of democracy and western culture, so now they think they can actually demand reform from their own American backed leaders who still seem to be ripping them off. The question to be answered here is precisely how much internal turmoil and strife Iraq can afford at this point. ISIS has been driven back from some of the territory they’d previously taken, but it’s worth recalling that it was less than one year ago that we were talking about the terrorist fighters having breached the defenses at Ramadi, sitting within striking distance of Baghdad itself. In just the past two days ISIS has claimed responsibility for a massive truck bomb which detonated inside the capital. Iraq still has enemies outside the wall, so they can ill afford to have too many among their own ranks. The standing and security of Iraq’s leader, Haider al-Abadi, won’t be helped much by the fact that he has now ordered the arrest of many of the protesters. Unrest and internal strife make for a fertile breeding ground when it comes to terrorism. At the same time, America can only push just so hard from the other direction because the influence of Iran in Baghdad continues to grow.
Clearly al-Sadr is untouchable, so the administration is going to have to find a way to deal with him and his followers. As the saying goes, it’s better to have the cleric inside the tent peeing out than the reverse.