The recent protests across southern Iraq as the country’s political leaders remain locked in post–election negotiations are both a sign of hope and a warning signal of what may lie ahead.
On the positive side, the protests are a sign of resiliency: real activism and a diversity of views are alive and well in the country that was battered by the U.S.-led invasion fifteen years ago, a vicious civil war, and multiple terrorist threats. But they also offer a warning sign to Iraq’s politicians that they need to address the everyday problems of ordinary Iraqis, or the country could slip back into disorder.
In recent years, it has been the dramatic rise and fall of two would-be states, an ISIS caliphate and an independent Kurdistan, that has captured international headlines, while southern Iraq slipped off the radar. This summer, as violence in northern and central Iraq reaches lows not seen in nearly a decade, it is the south that has caught fire.
Fed up with filthy water and a cut-off of Iranian-supplied electricity in scorching summer heat, people in Basra began protests that have spread across southern Iraq. As one protestor put it, “I am demanding water in 2018 and I have oil that feeds the world.” Protesters blocked roads and sought to disrupt Iraqi oil fields as they endured record-breaking heat.
What should Western officials make of these protests? Below are three takeaways.
1. Iraqi nationalism endures and Iraq is not “lost” to Iran. In fact, the idea that Iraq is “lost” is a refrain one hears attributed to some senior Trump officials as they prioritize other regional issues. It is a self-fulfilling rationalization for failure masquerading as savvy strategic thinking.
Basra’s protests—which included burning Iranian-backed militia offices and images of Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini in effigy—show that Iraqi Shia are far from monolithic in their views. Some do have close ties with Iran, their neighbor who exercises influence ranging from bribes to coercion over family members. But many, including Minister Abadi and Moqtada al-Sadr who lead to large Shia electoral blocs, want to claim distance and counterbalance Iraqi ties to Iran.
One hears different things as to whether U.S. pressure on Iraq’s government over payments to Iran for electricity – which U.S. officials reportedly feared were being diverted Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, and which could expose Iraq to secondary anti-Iran sanctions – might have contributed to Iran’s decision to cut off supplies, which sparked the Basra protests. What is clear is that it exposed a deep undercurrent of Iraqi nationalism that attempts by Iran or anyone else to undermine Iraq’s sovereignty. This is true even in Basra, whose sons volunteered in droves for militias and received Iranian assistance to fight ISIS in Sunni and Kurdish areas. One of the authors of this piece recently met with university faculty near Najaf and heard firsthand how the militia experience—which many westerners view as essentially sectarian—was often framed by Iraqi Shia in terms of national pride at rescuing Iraq from the tight grasp of terrorism.
Saudi Arabia recognized these shades of gray among Iraqi Shia and saw a political opportunity. As Iran cut off gas, Saudi Arabia stepped in to sell fuel. Also, the country plans to sell electricity seventy-five percent cheaper than Iran’s and offered to build a power plant.
2. Iraq’s Shia clerical elites are fed up with Iraq’s politicians. The top Shia religious leader, the widely-respected Najaf-based Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, is known for his limited interventions to pull Iraqi politics back from the brink. But the Iraqi Shia clerical elite’s role as a pillar holding up Iraq’s political system may be coming to an end.
Iraqi Shia clerics—unlike their Iranian fundamentalist counterparts—espouse a centuries-old doctrine of political “quietism,” a separation of mosque and state reminiscent of U.S. founding father James Madison’s belief that “religion and government will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.” However, since the fall of the dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003, waves of successive crises—invasion, occupation, insurgency, civil war and ISIS—forced Iraqi Shia clerics to bend their quietest principles to take a greater role in politics.
That may be changing. In the past, Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani broke from his past practice of telling Iraqis it was their religious duty to vote. This year, he told them it was their choice—a rebuke of corrupt political elites one official called a “yellow light.” Now, Sistani has come out in support of nonviolent protests against Iraq’s political class, stating that Basrans face an “extreme lack of public services.”
Iraqi Shia clerical elite may be seeking to revert to their old posture of maintaining greater distance from Iraqi politics and its discontents after years when successive crises required their intervention. As one Iraqi explained to one of the authors, in case of emergency, a starving Muslim is allowed to eat a dead animal on the roadside regardless of dietary rules: in the same spirit, Iraq’s Shia religious establishment “tried politics and didn’t like the taste of it.” For those who have counted on their stabilizing role, that should be cause for concern.