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Why Iraqi police are shooting at protesters in Baghdad's Green Zone

Security forces use tear gas as the supporters of Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr try to enter the Green Zone in Baghdad, Iraq, on May 20, 2016.
Security forces use tear gas as the supporters of Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr try to enter the Green Zone in Baghdad, Iraq, on May 20, 2016.
Haydar Hadi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

On Friday, Iraqi security forces in Baghdad reportedly fired tear gas and live bullets at protesters who had stormed the city's heavily fortified Green Zone.

Protesters led by the influential Shia cleric and militia leader turned politician Muqtada al-Sadr have been holding largely peaceful demonstrations in the Green Zone off and on since August. And just three weeks ago, these same protesters stormed the Iraqi parliament.

However, this is the first time Iraqi security personnel have used force to try to push back the protesters, and it represents a pretty significant escalation of the tensions in Baghdad.

The protesters are angry about perceived government corruption and ineptitude

People are protesting over Baghdad's failure to provide basic services such as electricity and government corruption in general. Public outrage has been further exacerbated by Iraq's deepening economic crisis, due to exceptionally low oil prices and the costs of the war against ISIS.

Sadr and his supporters have called on Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to form a new cabinet of technocrats — that is, professionals ostensibly qualified to run the various ministries — to replace the current party-affiliated cabinet members, who are seen as deeply corrupt and inept. And Abadi actually tried to make this happen, presenting two different lists of technocrat candidates to parliament.

But many of Iraq's political parties oppose the new cabinet idea, seeing it as a threat to their hold on government ministries, and have thwarted Abadi's efforts. Political leaders in parliament are reluctant (to say the least) to give up such powerful and potentially lucrative positions.

So the protests have continued. And now, following the recent string of deadly ISIS bombings in predominantly Shia areas of Baghdad, the protesters have added to their list of grievances the government's failure to provide adequate security.

Political instability in Baghdad makes defeating ISIS harder

The violence in the Green Zone isn't going to make ISIS win, but it's an unhelpful distraction at a time when Iraqi officials could stand to focus less on Baghdad politics and more on fighting ISIS. This crisis comes as the Iraqi army, with US assistance, is gearing up to try to retake the city of Mosul, an ISIS stronghold. And ISIS still controls much of northern and western Iraq.

But more broadly, this crisis is symptomatic of Iraq's larger, longer-running problems with corruption and political instability. And most analysts believe that Iraq's political turmoil was one of the conditions that allowed ISIS to rise in the first place. Those problems make defeating ISIS much harder, not to mention preventing it or a similar group from rising up again later.

In this way, it can help to think of ISIS as a symptom of the underlying disease of political instability in Iraq (along with, of course, factors such as the chaos created by the 2003 US-led invasion). Defeating ISIS is important, but it only treats the symptom. And unless you treat the underlying disease, the symptoms may keep coming back.

That's the hard lesson of the rise of ISIS. In 2009, as US troops were beginning their drawdown from Iraq, al-Qaeda in Iraq (ISIS's predecessor organization) was largely defeated.

However, the power-sharing arrangement set up to govern Iraq was far from stable, and as the US was leaving, Iraq's prime minister at the time, Nouri al-Maliki, made a series of political moves designed to bolster his own power that resulted in dramatically escalating sectarian tensions and severely weakening the country's military.

This is the situation that enabled the remnants of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which had been quietly rebuilding amid the growing chaos in neighboring Syria, to explode back into Iraq under the new name ISIS and establish their so-called caliphate.

Although a number of factors came together to enable ISIS's rise in Iraq, there is little question that the absence of a stable, functional, representative government in Baghdad played a real role.

If the past is any indication, the continued failure of Iraq's political leaders to create a stable and inclusive government in Baghdad means that any battlefield successes against ISIS may, in the long run, prove to be short-lived.