Political Crisis in Iraq: Challenges for India

 By Nirmolika Sangha
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October 2019, saw Iraqi citizens come out on the streets to protest against their government. The protest, that began as small rallies in certain pockets of the country soon mushroomed into a countrywide people’s movement. With citizens taking to the streets, endemic issues plaguing Iraq were brought to the fore. The protest has now entered its third month and has become one of the biggest challenges faced by Iraq in recent years, especially after relative peace since the military defeat of the Islamic State (IS) in 2017. The protest has led to the death of more than 450 people and resulted in the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi in 2019.

The protests began on October 1, 2019, following the demotion of Lt Gen Abdulwahab al-Saadi from the leader of Iraq’s Counter Terrorism Service, to a desk job at the Defence Ministry. Saadi is a popular leader and was a key figure in retaking Mosul from the IS. His demotion angered Iraqi citizens, who took to the streets in protest.[1] Saadi’s demotion proved to be a trigger for anger over larger issues of high unemployment, corruption and the government’s failure to provide basic services. As citizens came out to protest, the security forces responded violently, fuelling even more anger.[2]

The first week of protest was concentrated in Baghdad and saw aggressive crackdown by the security forces, who resorted to water cannons, tear gas and live ammunition to clear the demonstrations. In addition, an internet blackout was imposed in certain regions of the country. The crackdown intensified the protests and they spread beyond the capital, while the government continued to deny and deflect blame for the death of protestors. This only reinforced the frustration of Iraqi citizens, who believe that the government is corrupt and indifferent to their demands.[3]

Apart from economic and political failures, the protest is also aimed at Iran’s influence in Iraq. In recent years, Iran has emerged as a powerful force in Iraq’s internal politics. Saadi’s removal was seen by many as precipitated by Iran due to the belief that he was ousted for his attempt to tackle corruption in the army, particularly among Shia militias, which have alleged ties with Iran.[4] Angry protestors also tried to set fire to the outer walls of the Iranian consulate in the city of Karbala as a rejection of Iran’s growing influence.

The protest is also significant as the participants cut across both sectarian and class differences. The protestors include lower middle-class youths with no access to quality education or employment, as well as educated, upper middle class citizens employed in the private sector.[5] In a country that has experienced sectarian clashes in the past, this is a grave indication of the frustration with the government. Another noteworthy fact is that the demonstrations are not backed by any major political faction in Iraq.

The protest is a culmination of years of anger at the government. It is a rejection of the political system put in place after the US invasion in 2003. It reflected in the demands of the protestors, which went from anger at corruption, unemployment and lack of services, to a total overhaul of the current political system. Even after PM Mahdi resigned on December 1, protestors, while celebrating, vowed to continue their protests till the system was replaced.

The grievances of the protestors are not without merit. Iraq’s consociational-based system of governance has now developed into sect-based political factionalism, making democratic procedures less accountable. This system has entrenched religious and ethnic identities in society, and has embedded them in politics.[6] According to Amr Hamzawy from the Carnegie Middle East Centre, sectarian politics have undermined the rule of law, enabled corruption, and have allowed the rise of loyalist militias that operate outside the legal framework of the state.[7]

Corruption in Iraq has become embedded in the system. According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2018, Iraq has scored 18, which falls in the highly corrupt bracket of the index.[8] This has contributed to a lack of trust in the government. According to public opinion polls conducted in 2018 by Princeton University’s Arab Barometer, 87 per cent Iraqis don’t trust their government.[9] This mistrust is reflected in declining voter turnout in elections, where the 2018 national elections saw only 44 per cent turnout.[10] Citizens are also unhappy with the slow pace of infrastructural reconstruction after the defeat of IS. Systemic corruption has also prevented an equitable distribution of Iraq’s oil wealth, which contributes to almost 93 per cent of the budget, making it Iraq’s only source of income.[11] Adding to this, global oil prices have been declining, which leaves the country without adequate resources to generate employment.

A major chunk of employment opportunities are in government sector enterprises, but corruption in the government and the power of political factions has turned state institutions into personal patronage networks, robbing ordinary citizens of employment.[12]

These grievances, coupled with violent crackdown by the security forces, and a power vacuum at the helm of the government has the potential to create an environment conducive to the resurgence of old threats like the IS, or new sect-based militias. While IS may have been militarily defeated, the ideology of the group still has followers, and this threat cannot simply be cast aside in light of the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the group’s leader. For the IS’ target groups, domestic abuses as well as external influence are major grievances. Authoritative structures are linked to the grievances that IS propaganda plays on, even if it may not be automatically drawing people to extremism.[13]

Discontent sections among the Iraqi youth could also prove to be dangerous. One such section is part of militias that were formed to fight against IS, who have now returned but have not been integrated into the Iraqi security forces. These youths are highly trained with access to weapons, where discontent with the government and unemployment could play into the IS’ ideology.[14] What compounds this threat further is the escape of hundreds of IS detainees from the Ayn Issa Camp in Northern Syria in October, amidst the offensive by Turkey against the Kurds in the Kurdish controlled region. As Kurdish forces have turned their attention to the Turkish incursion, guarding IS prisoners has become second priority for them.[15] Any more prison breaks could be a chance for IS fighters to regroup and pose a threat to the already fragile region.

Another big cause for anger amongst Iraqis has been Iran’s influence, which has grown significantly since the removal of Saddam Hussein in 2003. In the post-Saddam era, Shia factions that began emerging in Iraq as power brokers in the new political system, had ties to Iran even before the war.[16] Iran has also trained and organised Shia militias which operate in Iraq, some of which were key players in the fight against IS. The Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) were trained by the Quds Force, the covert wing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, commanded by Maj Gen Qassem Suleimani.[17]

Iran has forged relationships with all political factions represented in the Iraqi Parliament, primarily to exert pressure to reduce US’ influence. Iran has invested itself so deeply in Iraq, that the current protest introduces an element of uncertainty that threatens Iran. For ordinary Iraqis, Iran is also complicit in their government’s failure.[18]

With deep stakes in Iraq, political instability and a possible descent into violence will urge Iran to keep a close eye on the developments in Iraq and may encourage it to back factions that discourage reforms, in order to maintain the status quo.

Challenges for India

The deteriorating situation in Iraq could signal some worry for India. India has had historic ties with Iraq, with formal ties established between the two countries in 1949. Iraq has always been a major supplier of oil to India.[19] Iraq has also been home to a large Indian diaspora, but this has significantly reduced following the 1991 Gulf War, 2003 US invasion, and the rise of IS in 2014. However, after revision of the Indian government’s travel advisory in 2019, Indian workers have again begun shifting to Iraq. Currently, Iraq is home to around 15,000 to 17,000 Indians.[20] A pressing potential challenge to India due to current protest would be the safety of the diaspora. Any escalation of violence could necessitate the evacuation of Indians from Iraq, as has been done previously from Kuwait in 1990, Lebanon in 2006, Iraq in 2014, Yemen in 2015, and Qatar in 2017. India was already caught unaware once in Iraq in 2014, when 39 Indian workers were abducted in Mosul, and were ultimately killed by IS.[21] There is a need to monitor the situation closely and be prepared to ensure the safety of the diaspora.

India’s economic ties with Iraq have been on the rise, and trade has been increasing. Bilateral trade between India and Iraq in 2018-19 was valued at USD 24.16 billion. Increasing trade has once again made Indian companies, which largely stayed away due to security risks after 2003, eager to enter the Iraqi market. An effort to this end was made by the Department of Commerce, Trade Promotion Council of India, which led a delegation of Indian exporters to four Iraqi cities in 2018, to rebuild confidence for restarting trade.[22] However, the deteriorating security scenario due to the protest could scare Indian companies away again, and cost big opportunities, especially in the crude oil, commodities and infrastructure sectors.

India is hugely dependent on oil imports, which increased from 82.9 per cent in 2017-2018 to 83.7 per cent in 2018-19. Although India is trying to reduce its oil import dependence, rising consumption levels and declining domestic output has made it difficult. The country’s oil consumption has grown from 184.7 million tonnes in 2015-16 to 211.6 million tonnes in 2018-19, according to data from the Oil Ministry’s Petroleum Planning and Analysis Cell (PPAC). PPAC data also shows domestic output has declined from 36.9 million tonnes in 2015-16 to 34.2 million tonnes in 2018-19.[23] In this context, West Asia remains an important source of crude oil for India, although India has begun diversifying its imports from the US, Africa and Latin America.

Iraq remained India’s top crude oil supplier in 2018-19, the second year in a row, meeting almost one-fourth of the country’s oil needs.[24] The situation in Iraq at present does not seem to have a significant bearing on oil supply to India. The larger problem of oil imports that India faces is the proposed reduction in crude oil output by Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) due to declining oil prices. OPEC has cut its forecast for global oil demand for 2019 to 0.98 million barrels per day (b/d), which is 40,000 b/d down from its estimate in September 2019.[25] The global economic slowdown and trade tensions between the US and China has precipitated a fall in oil prices, and rising supply and faltering demand has forced OPEC and non-OPEC oil producers to reduce production in order to stabilise prices.[26] This is going to be a big challenge for India’s crude oil demands, not the crisis in Iraq.

The delicate peace achieved in West Asia after the Arab Spring threatens to be unravelled by a multitude of factors, ranging from the Turkish offensive in Syria, to mass protests across Iraq, Lebanon, Iran and Algeria. These protests are reflective of larger people’s movements across the world in 2019, over issues like rising prices, corruption, inequality and bad governance. People protested in Chile, Hong Kong, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, to name a few. India too saw citizens take to the streets in opposition to the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019. Like Iraq, several of these protests saw brutal crackdown by security forces, but that has not dampened the zeal of protestors. The Arab world is seeing a resurgence of people’s movements, after the Arab Spring saw little success and was countered with more repression than reform. Anger against authoritarianism has been percolating amongst citizens since then, and only time will tell whether the current wave of protests throughout West Asia is an extension of the 2011 movement, or a new Arab Spring.

Notes

[1] Jen Kirby, “Iraq’s protests, explained,” Vox, November 5, 2019. URL https://www.vox.com/2019/11/5/20947668/iraqs-protests-baghdad-mahdi-tehran-explained, Accessed on December 4, 2019

[2] BBC, “The Iraq protests explained in 100 and 500 words,” BBC News, December 2, 2019. URL https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-50595212, Accessed on December 5, 2019

[3] Jen Kirby, “Iraq’s protests, explained,” Vox, November 5, 2019. URL https://www.vox.com/2019/11/5/20947668/iraqs-protests-baghdad-mahdi-tehran-explained, Accessed on December 4, 2019

[4] The Economist, “Iraq’s government seems powerless to halt protests in the Shia heartland,” The Economist, October 10, 2019. URL https://www.economist.com/middle-east-and-africa/2019/10/10/iraqs-government-seems-powerless-to-halt-protests-in-the-shia-heartland, Accessed on December 7, 2019

[5] Maria Fantappie, “Widespread protests point to Iraq’s cycle of social crisis,” International Crisis Group, October 10, 2019. URL https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/gulf-and-arabian-peninsula/iraq/widespread-protests-point-iraqs-cycle-social-crisis, Accessed on December 5, 2019

[6] Harith Hasan, “Iraq Protests: A new social movement is challenging sectarian power,” Carnegie Middle East Centre, November 4, 2019. URL https://carnegie-mec.org/2019/11/04/iraq-protests-new-social-movement-is-challenging-sectarian-power-pub-80256, Accessed on December 11, 2019

[7] Amr Hamzawy, “An expiry date for despots?” Carnegie Middle East Centre, December 4, 2019. URL https://carnegie-mec.org/diwan/80455, Accessed on December 11, 2019

[8] Transparency International, Corruption Perceptions Index (Berlin: Transparency International, 2018). Available on the internet.

[9] Amr Hamzawy, “An expiry date for despots?” Carnegie Middle East Centre, December 4, 2019. URL https://carnegie-mec.org/diwan/80455, Accessed on December 11, 2019

[10] Kirk Sowell, “Iraq’s Democracy under a cloud,” Carnegie Middle East Centre, October 30, 2019. URL https://carnegieendowment.org/sada/80237, Accessed on December 13, 2019

[11] Harith Hasan, “Iraq Protests: A new social movement is challenging sectarian power,” Carnegie Middle East Centre, November 4, 2019. URL https://carnegie-mec.org/2019/11/04/iraq-protests-new-social-movement-is-challenging-sectarian-power-pub-80256, Accessed on December 11, 2019

[12] Harith Hasan, “Iraq Protests: A new social movement is challenging sectarian power,” Carnegie Middle East Centre, November 4, 2019. URL https://carnegie-mec.org/2019/11/04/iraq-protests-new-social-movement-is-challenging-sectarian-power-pub-80256, Accessed on December 11, 2019

[13] H.A Hellyer, “The conditions that created ISIS still exist,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, October 28, 2019. URL https://carnegieendowment.org/2019/10/28/conditions-that-created-isis-still-exist-pub-80219, Accessed on December 15, 2019

[14] “Why are Iraqis protesting against the government: Inside Story,” YouTube Video, 24:10, posted by “Al Jazeera English,” October 2, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m5d4qodBtNs

[15] Natasha Turak, “Hundreds of ISIS prisoners are escaping from camps in Northern Syria amid Turkish offensive,” CNBC, October 14, 2019. URL https://www.cnbc.com/2019/10/14/isis-prisoners-are-escaping-from-camps-in-syria-amid-turkish-offensive.html, Accessed on December 20, 2019

[16] Frederic Wehrey et al, The Iraq Effect, (RAND Corporation, 2010), 21. Available online at https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7249/mg892af.9, Accessed on December 17, 2019

[17] “Iran in Iraq: Radius of influence,” YouTube Video, 5:45, posted by “TRT World,” April 3, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NdPYJbHQq6k

[18] Maria Fantappie, “Widespread protests point to Iraq’s cycle of social crisis,” International Crisis Group, October 10, 2019. URL https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/gulf-and-arabian-peninsula/iraq/widespread-protests-point-iraqs-cycle-social-crisis, Accessed on December 5, 2019

[19] Hari S Vasudevan et al, ed., The Global Politics of the Iraq Crisis and India’s options” (University of Michigan: Aakar Books, 2004)

[20] Embassy of India, India-Iraq Bilateral Brief (Baghdad: Republic of India, 2019). Available on the internet.

[21] Vappala Balachandran, “The Modi Government’s Handling of Iraq Kidnapping Was a Fiasco From Start to Finish,” The Wire, March 27, 2018. URL https://thewire.in/diplomacy/the-modi-governments-handling-of-iraq-kidnapping-was-a-fiasco-from-start-to-finish, Accessed on December 25, 2019

[22] Huma Siddiqui, “Are the Indian companies ready to tap the Iraqi market?” Financial Express, December 12, 2018. URL https://www.financialexpress.com/economy/are-the-indian-companies-ready-to-tap-the-iraq-market-huge-opportunities-for-indian-companies-in-iraq/1411989/, Accessed on December 24, 2019

[23] Press Trust of India, “India on track to achieve 10% cut in crude oil import by 2022: Pradhan,” Business Standard, November 6, 2019. URL https://www.business-standard.com/article/pti-stories/india-on-track-to-cut-oil-import-dependence-by-10-pc-by-2022-pradhan-119110600687_1.html, Accessed on December 26, 2019

[24] Press Trust of India, “Crude oil imports from US jump 72 per cent, Iraq is top supplier,” The Hindu BusinessLine, September 27, 2019. URL https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/markets/commodities/oil-imports-from-us-jump-72-per-cent-iraq-is-top-supplier/article29531296.ece#, Accessed on December 23, 2019

[25] Sam Meredith, “OPEC cuts oil demand growth forecast for a third consecutive month,” CNBC, October 10, 2019. URL https://www.cnbc.com/2019/10/10/oil-prices-opec-downgrades-2019-oil-demand-growth-forecast.html, Accessed on December 27, 2019.

[26] Holly Ellyatt, “‘Huge fears’ about demand — not Middle East tensions — are weighing on oil markets, Helima Croft says,” CNBC, October 9, 2019. URL https://www.cnbc.com/2019/10/09/demand-fears-weighing-on-oil-markets-helima-croft-says.html, Accessed on December 27, 2019