20 September 2020
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A ‘revolution of rising expectations’ topples Iraq’s prime minister

Sunday, 01 December 2019 10:44

Alexis de Tocqueville would not have been surprised by the recent demonstrations in Iraq, which have resulted in hundreds of deaths and now the resignation of Prime Minster Adel Abdul Mahdi. De Tocqueville wrote in “The Old Regime and the Revolution” (1856): “Nations that have endured patiently and almost unconsciously the most overwhelming oppression, often burst into rebellion against the yoke the moment it begins to grow lighter. . . . Evils which are patiently endured when they seem inevitable, become intolerable when once the idea of escape from them is suggested.”

Iraq has had not one but two yokes lifted. First came the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003 as a result of the Anglo-American invasion following 24 years of iron rule. Then came the overthrow of the Islamic State in 2017 — three years after these murderous terrorists had taken control of Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul. Iraq’s people have repeatedly been told that democracy and prosperity are theirs for the taking after decades of sacrifice and bloodshed.

There have, to be sure, been marked improvements: Since 2018, the first year in memory without a single car bombing in Baghdad, thousands of concrete barriers have been removed from the capital’s streets. The streets are clogged with traffic, and street life has returned with stores, restaurants, clubs and cafes opening.

But economic development has not kept pace with improvements in security. The Wall Street Journal reports that “the government hasn’t released unemployment statistics since 2017, when the jobless rate was 13 percent and youth unemployment nearly double that. Economic observers here say the job situation has only worsened since then. . . . The 800,000 people who reach working age each year have few options.” Electrical outages are still common and bottled water a must. The education and health-care systems remain ramshackle and inadequate.

There is a widespread perception that a large part of the state budget of $111.8 billion, derived almost entirely from oil revenues, is stolen by corrupt bureaucrats and political hacks. More than half of that total goes to support civil servants who do little work, and there is not nearly enough left over to rebuild areas devastated by the Islamic State.

Iraq is ostensibly a democracy, but there is little connection between the will of the people, as expressed at the ballot box, and the composition of the government, which is determined in backroom deals among Shiite political parties that are beholden to Iran. The most powerful man in the country is probably Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force, the unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps charged with exporting Iran’s revolution abroad.

These are the ingredients that over the past two months have combusted to produce what political scientists call a “revolution of rising expectations.” Tens of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets, mainly young Shiites whose fury is directed against their own political class and its Iranian patrons. (A trove of leaked Iranian cables published by the Intercept and the New York Times shows just how thoroughly Iranian operatives have penetrated Iraqi politics.) The Iranian consulates in both Najaf and Karbala have been attacked. The Iraqi security forces and Iranian-backed militias have responded with shocking brutality, causing the deaths of more than 350 people.

The violence has gotten bad enough that Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, a powerful Shiite cleric who normally stays out of politics, strongly criticized the government on Friday. The withdrawal of his support was enough to topple the government led by Abdul Mahdi, but it is far from clear that his successor will do any better. Abdul Mahdi is a moderate technocrat who was acceptable to Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, as well as to both the United States and Iran. Whoever succeeds him will need to deal with these same political forces.

It is understandable if, more than 16 years after the invasion of Iraq, Americans are heartily sick of that country. But even as our interest level wanes, Iraq’s strategic importance remains unchanged. It has the fifth-largest proven oil reserves in the world (148.8 billion barrels, or 8.8 percent of the global total), and it has a critical position between Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Syria.

Iran cannot escape U.S. sanctions or carry out its plans to dominate the region— to the detriment of American allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia — unless Iraq is in friendly hands. Because this is currently the case, the mullahs can establish a land corridor from Tehran to Beirut. A more nationalistic Iraqi government would be in a position to stymie Iran’s bid for Middle Eastern hegemony. The Trump administration — which is interested in combating Iran if not in promoting democracy — would be well advised to do what it can to support the formation of a government that would be willing to stand up to Iran and launch the kind of painful economic and political reforms demanded by the dissatisfied Iraqi electorate.

Source: The Washington Post

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