Time Is Running Out for Iraq

The grievances of Iraq's people run deep. An Arab Spring-style rebellion could prove Maliki's undoing.

Since the last U.S. troops left Iraq in December 2011, the country has been embroiled in power-sharing struggles, with the Shia-dominated government trying to weaken its opponents—Sunni parties and rival Shia groups alike. In protest, lawmakers from the mostly Sunni Iraqiya Party boycotted parliament and the council of ministers. Once Iraqiya ended the boycott last month, many in the United States concluded that the political crisis was over. It is not.

Some experts warn that the crisis could lead to renewed civil war, invoking the intensifying polarization among political elites. But in looking only at the top, they overlook a more pressing concern that portends bottom-up violence: the growing frustration of ordinary Iraqis with their government. Faced with rampant public corruption, increasing repression, and deteriorating social and economic conditions, many Iraqis feel hopeless and powerless. Inadequate provision of basic services and abuses of civil liberties not only tarnish the government’s legitimacy, they also encourage popular upheavals, strengthen subnational actors, create opportunities for the emergence or revival of extremist militant groups, and promote secessionism. And one need only look at the grassroots unrest that precipitated the Arab Spring uprisings to recognize the danger of a profoundly unhappy Iraqi populace.

Legitimacy Lost

One of the fundamental aspects of an effective and popular government is its legitimacy, which civilians grant chiefly because the government is able to protect them and deliver services. Iraqis want an accountable government that can provide security, services and jobs. Their rejection of militias and terrorists, and Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s nationalist discourse—in conjunction with his strong emphasis on concrete security gains as a result of the U.S.-led surge—produced the popular support that helped his Islamic Dawa Party win the 2009 provincial elections. But the difficulties he experienced during the 2010 parliamentary elections demonstrate that discourse alone is not sufficient to sustain civilian support. Maliki’s government failed to provide the services it promised to deliver during the 2009 campaign and, as a consequence, low-level violence and popular protests in Iraq have been on the rise.

Thus far, the Iraqi government has made little effort to bolster its legitimacy, instead doing the opposite. Repression is on the rise. By all accounts, the government’s security forces frequently ban demonstrations, detain and attack activists, and raid the offices of local human-rights NGOs. They use intimidation techniques, collecting information about activists, tapping their phone lines, and posing as civilians to penetrate mass rallies and attack protesters. A case in point is the Day of Anger protests held throughout Iraq on February 25, 2011, during which people’s demands that the government improve basic services, provide jobs, observe human and civil rights, and stop public corruption were met with deadly force.

Seeds of Discontent

But politics are not the only source of discontent. Key indicators paint a bleak picture of social and economic conditions in Iraq. The estimated unemployment rate is 15–30 percent, and unemployment is high among Iraqi youth, a group particularly vulnerable to extremism and violence, and in places like Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s largest province and until 2007 the epicenter of the Sunni insurgency and the stronghold of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and its offshoot, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). Shortages of drinking water, food and electricity are chronic across the country. Access to health care and education is limited. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, almost a million internally displaced Iraqis live in extreme poverty in squatter settlements. Although Iraq’s gross domestic product (GDP) grew by 9.6 percent in 2011, the country’s economy, largely dependent on its hydrocarbon sector and sorely lacking in diversification, is especially vulnerable to unrest.

Within this grim climate, it is no surprise that international organizations categorize Iraq as suffering from severe corruption and human-rights abuses. Transparency International and the Fund for Peace rank Iraq near countries like Somalia in their ratings of corrupt and failed states, and Human Rights Watch points to abuses such as torture of detainees, oppression of women and assassination of journalists.

Losing the People

Reconstruction and development in postconflict countries such as Iraq can be difficult and slow. But as the country rebuilds, it is imperative to understand that people’s perceptions of their social and economic conditions are as critical as economic progress itself. In Iraq, measures of these perceptions indicate increasing popular discontent.

A January 2012 Gallup poll found that Iraqis who consider themselves “suffering” from poor social and economic conditions increased from 14 percent in October 2010 to 25 percent in September 2011. This decline in quality-of-life ratings coincides with Iraqis’ growing frustration: the percentage of Iraqis who experience “anger” daily has increased from 38 percent to 60 percent between 2008 and 2011, according to the poll. The International Republican Institute’s surveys of central Iraq and the country’s northern triangle in September and April 2011, respectively, confirm Iraqis’ mounting dissatisfaction with governance.