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.
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.
These polls indicate rising levels of perceived public corruption: in central Iraq, only 1 percent of those polled believed that government corruption had become “much better,” and 44 percent felt that it had grown “much worse.” In Anbar, nobody believed that corruption had improved and 63 percent thought it had become “much worse.”
Left unaddressed, popular discontent can drive citizens to distance themselves from Baghdad, either through membership in an oppositionist group or by supporting secession. If the government continues to pursue power struggles, engage in sectarian and identity politics, and ignore the public’s grievances, ordinary Iraqis may once again turn to Islamist groups like the Sadrist Trend.
The Sadrist movement has proven more effective than the government in providing protection and essential services to its constituencies. It also has a large reservoir of supporters, and it can quickly mobilize collective violence. Many desperate Iraqis are already seeking their spiritual leaders’ approval to join militant groups like Kataib Hezbollah in hope of finding work. In a recent statement, Muqtada al-Sadr, the political and religious leader of the Sadrist Trend, endorsed Iraqis’ joining such groups.
Extremist groups like AQI and ISI feed off the grievances of ordinary Iraqis. Even though both groups suffered major defeats, losing key leaders and many Sunni supporters during the 2007-2009 surge, their operatives have continued to raise funds (both through appeals and racketeering) and to recruit members in restive places like Mosul, including the city’s prisons. By alienating Sunnis, failing to help young Iraqis find sustainable employment and ignoring deepening civilian frustration, the Iraqi government may unwittingly be helping them gain recruits.
AQI and ISI have a history of exploiting inadequate security and economic conditions to win the support of disenfranchised Sunnis; in 2003–2004, AQI gained the allegiance of many Iraqis by capitalizing on the missteps of coalition forces. Specifically, AQI appealed to thousands of disenfranchised Baath Party members and demobilized army officers and took advantage of growing grievances among Iraq’s Sunni Arab community over a lack of services and security.
Today, the Iraqi government is repeating some of the coalition authorities’ mistakes. For example, in January 2012, Iraq’s Ministry for National Reconciliation announced the government’s decision to stop hiring into security forces the Sons of Iraq—part of the mostly Sunni sahwa (awakening) movement that helped U.S. forces fight AQI and restore security to the country. This is a risky move. If the government fails to integrate the Sunnis into the state system and provide adequate services and protection to all Iraqis, AQI and ISI might regain their prior stature and become major threats to Iraq’s stability once again.
The threat of secessionism grows alongside the swelling popular discontent. In response to the government’s failure to provide services and its mistreatment of the Sunni Arabs, last year the Diyala and Salahaddin provinces demanded to become federal regions. Notably, although some southern provinces such as Basra and Wasit have long sought the sort of autonomy already granted to the Kurdistan region, Sunni demands for decentralization are recent and indicative of the population’s growing dissatisfaction with the central government.
In Iraq, achieving functional federalism within the legal, constitutional framework may be difficult because of diverse interpretations of the constitution, competing Iraqi and Kurdish claims to the “disputed territories” like oil-rich Kirkuk and other ethnically mixed areas, ambiguous regional configurations, disputes over hydrocarbon resources and revenue sharing, and disagreements over devolution of power. This is why the Iraqi government must build legitimacy.
Without improvement in social and economic conditions and reduction in corruption, things can only get worse. Demands for federalism can swiftly turn into secession—and possibly into Iraq’s dismemberment—if the government refuses to hold a referendum on a region’s federal status in spite of local demands for autonomy. Historically speaking, de facto partitions have been violent, and the unrecognized quasi states that have emerged as a result have been hubs of instability. Think of Abkhazia, Chechnya, Kosovo, Northern Cyprus, Somaliland and Tamil Eelam.
Time is running out for Iraq. The government must start paying attention to ordinary Iraqis’ grievances if it wants to preserve the country’s territorial integrity, build a stable and prosperous nation and avoid an Iraqi version of the Arab Spring—one that, given Iraq’s recent history of horrific violence, could precipitate its undoing.