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Why protesters overran Iraq's Parliament

Protesters outside of Iraq's Parliament building.
(Haider Mohammed Ali/AFP/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

On Saturday, hundreds of supporters of an influential Iraqi Shia cleric busted into the Green Zone, the heavily fortified area in the center of Baghdad that's home to Iraq's main government buildings and is normally off-limits to ordinary Iraqis, to demand a major cabinet reshuffle. Among them was Abbas Jabbar Halachi, who stormed Iraq's Parliament building along with a number of other protesters.

But when Halachi first got into Parliament, he didn't just march around or yell political slogans. He was distracted by a simple pleasure: air conditioning.

"I lay down and took a rest because it was the first time we've felt this kind of air-conditioning," Halachi, age 40, told the Washington Post's Loveday Morris. "The cold air was everywhere, coming from all directions."

Halachi's story is, in many ways, emblematic of what was actually going on in Iraq this weekend. On the surface, the protests were about a power-hungry cleric exploiting a cabinet reshuffle battle for political gain. But they're really about something much deeper: discontent over the failure of Iraq's governing institutions, which are some of the most corrupt and mismanaged in the world, to provide even the most basic services — like electricity to power air conditioning.

And though the protesters have dispersed, popular anger remains a major threat to Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's ability to hold power. Until some of these problems get resolved, crisis will remain the norm in Iraq, not the exception.

Saturday's protests are partially about a cleric's quest for power

Muqtada Al-Sadr Supporters Rally Against US Presence In Iraq
Muqtada al-Sadr supporters rally with a picture of his face.
(Muhannad Fala'ah / Getty Images)

In simple terms, the protesters and Prime Minister Abadi actually want the same thing: to fill Iraq's cabinet, currently staffed by political appointees, with expert technocrats who might help fix Iraq's economy and governing institutions. Since cabinet reform has been one of Abadi's main priorities since August 2015, you'd think Abadi would welcome these protests.

But the reality is a good deal more complicated. The protests, far from demonstrating support for Abadi, are widely seen as a blow to his government. That's because of the person who's leading them: a Shia Islamist cleric and political leader named Muqtada al-Sadr.

Sadr has a very checkered history. He rose to prominence after the US invasion, when he led the most powerful Shia insurgent group, the Iran-backed Mahdi Army. "His militiamen seized control of public buildings and police stations, administered death squads that murdered Sunnis through torture, notably with electric drills, and kidnapped local residents and foreigners," Renad Mansour and Michael David Clark write in War on the Rocks.

Yet, after his army was defeated in 2008, Sadr began reinventing himself. Sadr remains an Islamist, but he's also become a populist and Iraqi nationalist, preaching against elite corruption as well as foreign influence in Iraqi politics (yes, including Iran's). His political parties have largely supported Abadi's Western-friendly government. Sadr-aligned fighters are no longer seen as Iranian tools, and have fought with Sunni tribesman against ISIS.

"Sadr [now] occupies a necessary and unique role that no other can play," Mansour and Clark write. "As a semi-peripheral figure who circumvents the elitist political process that serves the strong to the detriment of the weak, Sadr appeals to the common man."

Sadr's moderation is partly genuine: By all accounts, he really does believe in the sort of populist nationalism he's been espousing of late — after all, his father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, was the founder of the Sadrist Movement in the 1980s, a fiercely nationalistic political movement popular among Iraq’s Shia lower classes.

But it's also political. Throughout his career, Sadr has demonstrated a knack for figuring out what positions he should hold in order to maximize his own influence. This weekend's protests are no different.

For months, Iraqis have been on the streets demanding improved government services and an end to corruption. In March, Sadr added his voice to the chorus, urging his (Shia and mostly poor) supporters to take the streets to call for political reform.

Sadr's decision was less about backing Abadi's long-standing reform proposals than it was hijacking them: Sadr is trying to build political support by making himself, and not Abadi, the public champion of reform. Indeed, though this Saturday's protest was billed as a pro-reform demonstration, its ranks were filled with Sadr loyalists.

"Sadr's saying that he's supporting Abadi, but in reality, he's undermining Abadi," Kirk Sowell, editor of the Inside Iraq Politics newsletter, told the Washington Post's Greg Jaffe. "It’s all about Sadr positioning himself at the center of things."

This is a major problem for Abadi. His reform proposals appear to be dead in the water: Most Iraqi political parties don't want their cronies in the cabinet replaced with non-partisan technocrats. Yet Sadr is outflanking him on the pro-reform side, threatening to stage a no-confidence vote in Parliament against Abadi's government if no reform passes. While Abadi isn't on the verge of being toppled, it's putting him in very tough political spot — especially as he's waging a war on ISIS.

"Can [Abadi] achieve a reshuffle? The answer is no," Sowell told Jaffe. "Sadr knows that. It's all a game."

The protests represent the Iraqi government's fundamental failures

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi Meets With Angela Merkel
Haider al-Abadi.
(Carsten Koall/Getty Images)

Ultimately, though, Sadr is a symptom and not a cause of Iraq's troubles. The problem is that — even aside from the country's well-known ISIS and sectarianism problems — its actual government is kind of a mess.

And that's where the experiences of people like Halachi, the 40-year-old protester who has finally discovered the joys of air conditioning, come in. People are angry because their government is failing them at its most basic tasks.

"Ordinary Iraqis have long been afflicted by car bombs, lack of running water and intermittent electricity — without their government seeming to either care or be capable of improving their situation," Emma Sky, a senior fellow at Yale University's Jackson Institute, writes in Politico magazine.

One reason why is simple corruption. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraqi elites have seen the government as their personal playground: Last year, evidence emerged that 29 companies have stolen over $4 billion from Iraq's government using fake contracts. Iraq ranks 161 out of 168 countries on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index.

The problem goes beyond illegal corruption. Cronyism has become a defining feature of Iraq's political system, which means even legitimate government businesses — like, say, state-run companies — serve more to get money to the right people than to do their actual jobs.

"Many politicians in Iraq are oblivious to the financial black hole of mismanagement," Luay al-Khatteeb, a fellow at the Center on Global Energy Policy of Columbia University, writes in the National Interest. According to Khatteeb, the problems include:

Generous subsidies for anything that moves and the propping up of a host of failed state-owned companies, as well as absurdly bloated ministry payrolls and high politicians’ salaries. In fact, ministry payrolls have become a kind of jobs-for-votes scheme. Therefore, $60 billion of Iraq’s $99 billion budget goes to state wages, blank checks for political hiring schemes.

Politically driven mismanagement has screwed up major national industries, like natural gas — which Iraq has to import because its processing systems are too inefficient to process enough of its abundant reserves for domestic consumption. In 2016, the World Bank ranked Iraq 161 out of 189 countries on an ease-of-doing-business scale, because, according to Khatteeb, "private investors that Iraq desperately needs find themselves walking into a minefield of political interests."

Prior to the past two years, this system was held together by oil revenues — enough people profited from government payments to avoid major unrest. But with the collapse in oil prices in the past two years, the Iraqi government has found itself very short on cash, raising public anger to a boiling point.

"The severe drop in oil prices has led to a cut in public-sector salaries in a country where 95 percent of the budget comes from oil revenues and about 7 million people are on the government payroll," Sky writes. "The stress on society has brought angry young men out to the streets, demanding an end to the 13-year mismanagement and plundering of billions of dollars by the new political class."

Tackling entrenched corruption and cronyism like this is hard in the best of times. But Iraq is in the middle of a war on ISIS.

Its military commanders hope to move on the group's most important Iraqi stronghold, Mosul, in the next few months. Even after ISIS's Iraqi holdings are retaken, the formerly ISIS controlled areas need to be rebuilt — and the sectarian tensions that gave rise to ISIS in the first place need to be addressed as well.

This makes for an extraordinary number of fundamental challenges for the Iraqi state. And it's far from clear that it is prepared to handle them.