The world is focused on preventing the spread of the corona virus, and for good reason. The crisis is hitting us hard in Europe and might hit even harder in places much less well prepared. Fragile countries haunted by conflict and fragmentation will have even less ability to focus on this new health crisis, as they often have to deal with multiple challenging dynamics at once.
Iraq is one such place. So far, the number of persons reported as infected by the virus are relatively low, although Iraqi culture and tradition could be the reason for that.
Factors such as family values but also social stigma play an important part in Iraqi society. Many Iraqis would rather die at home than be separated from their family and risk being kept in one of the dysfunctional hospitals. Other people will not seek medical advice until extremely ill and perhaps at a point of no return because of the fear of being stigmatized in society.
Yet others find it hard to deal with government imposed curfew for simple economic reasons. The poorer parts of the country in Eastern Baghdad or some of the southern provinces were still swarming with people going to work in a daily effort to somehow make ends meet until recently. It is difficult to envisage how they will cope with this situation, as the government is hardly in a position to compensate them for their loss of income. Clashes with the police trying to enforce the curfew have already been reported.
Largely unimpressed by this severe health crisis, which by itself is enough to paralyze all other societal and political life in Europe, other fundamental crises and challenges continue – each one of them having the potential to disrupt the functioning of the State.
Battlefield for hegemons
It is just over three months ago that Iraq was once again in the international headlines when the United States killed the Iranian top-general Qasim Sulimani through a drone strike on the road from Baghdad airport and the whole world trembled in front of a possible direct confrontation between a furious Iran and the United States with consequences hard to imagine. When Iran replied by shooting missiles on some Iraqi military bases hosting parts of the American forces in the country and no casualties were reported, analysts agreed that both sides had settled to avoid the looming catastrophe and the issue disappeared again from the headlines.
However, the conflict soon after flamed up again. Just enough to make sure the explosiveness of the situation wasn’t forgotten, but also wouldn’t reach world headlines again, well protected by the unique focus on the corona-crisis. Rockets attacks attributed to the major pro-Iranian Shia militia group Kata'ib Hezbollah against Iraqi army bases hosting international coalition forces killed and wounded several Americans. The militia had lost their leader Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis who was killed along with Sulimani.
After the US response of bombing sites suspected to be hosting fighters of the militia backfired due to the death of several regular Iraqi security forces the US found itself in front of a dilemma. Strike yet harder against the militia or even Iranian targets and probably alienate all Iraqi supporters in the process or let the game of small-scale attacks continue unpunished. Their opponents meanwhile seem to dispose of all necessary intelligence to hit them in the maze of large army bases and disappear in time before retribution takes place in a completely different site. In addition, they seem to regard occasional fatalities amongst their fighters, such as happened at other instances of US strikes, as collateral damage or even serving the cause of exposing the US as ruthlessly disrespecting Iraqi sovereignty.
For the time being, strategic consolidation seems to be the answer for the US. Some US troops have withdrawn from the country, officially due to the spread of the corona virus. Others have vacated army bases all over the country in order to assemble in other better protected bases. In a further move, patriot missiles capable of intercepting rocket attacks are to be installed there. However, it is unclear how long this strategy could work. Attacks against soft targets, such as an American oilfield service company in southern Iraq were already reported as the latest.
The corona crisis raging in both the US and Iran might keep both countries from escalating the situation further. However, small-scale attacks against US targets in Iraq seem to continue and it is difficult to judge when a red line would be passed triggering another response by the US. Meanwhile, dynamics might change soon and suddenly a new escalation might suit any of the sides.
Country without leadership
And indeed, dynamics can change rapidly in Iraq. Until last week prospects for instating a new prime minister were bleak. Wide-spread and month-long demonstrations in Baghdad and the South of the country had forced the moderate prime minister Abd Al Madhi to resign late November last year, after hundreds of demonstrators were killed and even more wounded by thugs, regular and irregular members of the security forces. Since then the country has remained leaderless. Mohammed Allawi, former minister of transport, the first candidate proposed by President Barham Salih was opposed by the street and Sunni and Kurdish parties. When Salih then suggested Adnan Al-Zurfi, former governor of Najaf, Shiite parties refused him for being pro-US.
Iran sent Sulimani's successor Esmail Qa'ani to unite the Shia parties under a different candidate. Lacking charisma and personal contacts comparable to his predecessor, it is doubtful whether the agreement by some Shia parties on an alternative candidate was because or inspite of this visit. Nevertheless, soon after the Iraqi intelligence chief Mustafa Al Kadhimi was proposed and quickly received support from all sides.
The former journalist is seen as non-threatening by most and both the US and Iran seem to accept him as such. Kadhimi is described as an Iraqi nationalist and is not affiliated to any political party. This also means, however, that he lacks any power base in parliament. Whoever has control over political parties will therefore retain important influence. Already there is rumors of the parties dividing up ministerial posts amongst themselves.
Meanwhile, Kata'ib Hezbollah have described Kadhimi's nomination as an attack on the country – Kadhimi is also known for his approach to reign the independence of the Iraqi militia forces.
Severe effects of the oil-crisis
As if all the above wasn’t enough, Iraq will soon face an economic crisis with the potential of bringing the country's finances on its knees. Iraq was probably the most effected victim of the recent fall-out between Saudi Arabia and Russia over the levels of oil production.
Iraq relies on oil revenues for more than 90 percent of its budget. The budget calculations for 2020 are based on oil at 56$ a barrel while prices have crashed to less than half of that. The recent agreement of OPEC+ countries is not likely to change that situation significantly. Officials are warning the government will not be able to pay salaries — in a country where the majority of people work in the public sector — and keep up essential imports. The government has recently resorted to asking for donations from private foundations.
The only hope is long-term
At the same time, the wide-ranging demonstrations have provided a completely new dynamic that looked hopeful and future-oriented before all the other crises described here increasingly occupied the picture. Demonstrators came from the young elements of the majority Shia society. Unlike the demonstrations in Sunni-majority provinces before 2014 which ultimately led to the rise of the so-called Islamic State, these demonstrators challenge the Shia leaders of their own community. Six, seven years after the unfortunate efforts of Sunni youth to address corruption, lack of services and confessionally driven discrimination, the youth on Baghdad's Tahrir Square and in several provinces of the South is in many senses a new generation. They are no longer the post-Saddam generation that grew up under dictatorship like most of the ordinary people, or in exile in the US, Europe or Iran like most political figures. They have known an Iraq which in principle is free and democratic – very much in principle. But they went out to the streets to claim exactly that principle. And they will return to the streets once the corona-crisis is over one way or another, in the middle of a probable economic crisis. They will likely not achieve the change they long for straight away, but in the mid- to long term this post-protest generation presents the best chance for the stability of Iraq.
- In order to avoid prolonged political chaos in the midst of several ongoing crises, it would not matter who assumes the post of prime minister. The country needs clear leadership, where it comes from is secondary. Opposing one or the other candidate for political-strategic reasons will not be in the interest of stability of Iraq.
- Once demonstrations resume, they will need support to frame their demands more clearly and realistically and channel them towards elections which will eventually take place.
- Iraq's unbalanced economy faces challenges impossible to overcome alone. Practical and quick assistance will be needed to avoid economic break-down, risking levels of instability yet unknown.
- As long as Iran is pressed against the wall by US sanctions it will continue to try to use Iraq to exert pressure on US interests. Any de-escalation in the US-Iran conflict will directly improve stability in Iraq.
About THE AUTHOR
Moritz Ehrmann, former diplomat and delegate at the International Red Cross, organises mediation initiatives in Iraq and the wider region for Crisis Management Initiative (CMI).