Iraqi youth have been protesting (with one break for a major religious holiday) since Oct. 1. The major themes of the protests are economic — jobs, services, infrastructure — but the subtext is largely about bad governance and discontent with Iranian influence. Centered on Baghdad’s central Tahrir Square, the demonstrations are an amazing expression of the social renaissance that observers on the ground have been noting for some years. While the demonstrators have remained peaceful, the government has responded with violence that has caused at least 240 deaths (probably more) and thousands of people to be wounded.
The government that is being protested is the product of the 2018 elections. To make a long story short, the elections left the Sadrist party and the Iranian aligned, militia-backed Fatah party in charge — in close cooperation with the Kurdistan Democratic Party. Though there are some Western-oriented technocratic ministers, the bulk of the power in this government is at least Iranian-friendly, if not Iran-aligned. Given the electoral outcome, the United States was prepared to tolerate the result — even though this is by no means its first choice.
Today’s protests, against this government, are unique in Iraq’s history. The protesters are drawn from the Shiite Arab majority that also makes up the majority in the government, so the protests have no hint of sectarianism. These protests are not anti-occupation or anti-Western. There is no taint of military coup. They are not Islamist. In fact, there is almost nothing to dislike about these protests, save the violent response to them.
These protests are fundamentally about reform. The demonstrators want to see corrupt politicians go to jail. They want their electoral process to be free and fair. They want their political institutions to be less clumsy and sclerotic, necessitating some constitutional amendments. There are no calls for putting in a dictator or imposing Iranian-style clerical rule. They want democracy, but in its full meaning, and not just elections.
The protests have a distinct anti-Iranian undertone. Iran has been a malign actor in Iraqi politics and has actively promoted the dysfunction and corruption, and the people know it. Again, the protesters are not pro-American. But they are anti-Iranian. That’s good enough.
All these factors clearly point to what U.S. policy should be. While maintaining stability, the United States should support the demands of the demonstrators and help in gently pushing aside this disappointing government, the latest in a decade of similarly disappointing ones. The protesters are demanding new elections, and the United States should absolutely support that, both as a matter of principle and as a practical matter. This government clearly no longer has a popular mandate, and new elections are required to reclaim legitimacy. As a practical matter, it is hard to see forces opposed to U.S. interests being as successful in a closely supervised new election. The militias aligned with the Fatah party are clearly implicated (along with the government) in the deaths of the protesters. Do we really think they will do nearly as well electorally in that aftermath?
This is also a chance to unify U.S. policy on Iraq. In the Trump administration, policy on Iraq has been divided between those who believe in the viability of Iraqi democracy and those who saw Iraq as occupied territory to Iranian sympathizers. Without either side conceding its argument, this moment is a chance for both sides to coalesce around a policy that achieves both goals: aiding the demonstrators in both reforming the Iraq project and pushing back Iranian influence.
To this end, the administration should empower a high-ranking official — be that Ambassador Matthew Tueller at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad or a special representative — to forcefully coordinate U.S. policy, including the work of the Defense, Treasury and Commerce departments and the intelligence community. This is a unique moment, an unexpected opportunity to repair some of the poor outcomes from the U.S. occupation period. The United States should not let the chance slip by.
Change is coming. If Baghdad somehow manages to tamp down these demonstrations, another round is sure to come. Does the United States really want Iraq’s youthful society to remember us as the actor that stood by and supported, at least passively, the ancien regime?