Mass protests and state violence against some protestors have shaken Iraq since October 2019, with at least 400 Iraqis reported dead and thousands more injured in Baghdad and several southern Iraqi cities. After security forces and unidentified gunmen killed 45 protestors on November 27 and 28, Prime Minister Adel Abd Al Mahdi publicly stated his intent to resign, which protestors and some prominent political figures had been demanding for months. Iraqi legislators in the Council of Representatives (COR) acknowledged the prime minister's offer, but he remains in office until a replacement or caretaker government is nominated and endorsed. Procedures for prime-ministerial replacement in cases of resignation are ambiguous under Iraq's constitution, and political differences among leading factions may delay a prompt resolution. Meanwhile, demonstrations and confrontations continue, as protestors demand meaningful, lasting change.
The nature and duration of the protests and the Iraqi government's responses have deepened U.S. concerns about Iraq's stability. Related future developments could complicate U.S. efforts to partner with Iraq's government as Iraq recovers from war with the Islamic State (IS, aka ISIS/ISIL) and seeks to maintain its sovereignty. Congress is considering President Donald Trump's requests for additional military and civilian aid for Iraq without certainty about the future of Iraq's governing arrangements or how change might affect U.S. interests.
The protest movement in Iraq is channeling nationalist, nonsectarian sentiment and a range of frustrations into potent rejections of the post-2003 political order. The use of deadly force against protestors by security officers and armed individuals has amplified grievances. Protesters have reiterated past demonstrators' concerns (with some louder critiques of Iranian political interference), but the scope and endurance of the current protests are unprecedented in Iraq's recent history. U.S. officials have not endorsed protestors' demands for an immediate transition, but protestors' calls for improved governance, reliable local services, more trustworthy and capable security forces, and greater economic opportunity broadly correspond to stated U.S. goals. In October and November, the Iraqi government approved a range of measures in response to protestors' demands, but protestors largely rejected the measures as insufficient, with many insisting on more fundamental change.
Leaders of Iraq's Shia Muslim religious establishment have expressed solidarity with peaceful protestors, rejected foreign interference, and condemned killings of civilians. On November 29, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani called on the COR to reconsider its support for the current government and to enact electoral reforms swiftly. Hours later, the prime minister publicly stated his intent to resign. Iraqi Kurdish leaders have recognized protestors' concerns and criticized repressive violence, while convening to unify positions on reforms that some Kurds fear could undermine the federally recognized Kurdistan region's rights under Iraq's constitution. Arrests and official discouragement reportedly have prevented the spread of protests to areas of western Iraq predominantly inhabited by Sunni Arabs, but Sunni Arab political figures are now involved in transition negotiations.
Some Iraqi officials, Iran's Supreme Leader, and Iran-aligned Iraqi militia leaders have contended that the protest movement is a foreign-backed conspiracy. These critics have pledged to defend their interests, especially in light of some protestors' isolated attacks on various party headquarters, two Iranian diplomatic facilities, and some security forces and militia personnel. Iranian leaders reportedly are working to shape transition arrangements, but, like the United States and Iraqi leaders, they also now face new dynamics introduced by the nationalist protest movement.
The prime minister's resignation offer may mark the beginning of an extended political transition period. Principal decisions now before Iraqi leaders concern (1) identification and endorsement of a caretaker prime minister and cabinet, (2) consideration of proposed electoral system reforms, and (3) the proposed holding of early parliamentary elections in 2020.
Selection of a caretaker administration may proceed according to a number of scenarios, depending on which constitutional provisions are determined to be operative. The COR is considering a new electoral law and a new law for the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC), but the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) said in November that the proposed electoral law "requires improvements to meet public demands." Early elections under a revamped system could introduce new political currents and leaders, but fiscal pressures, political rivalries, and the limited capacity of some state institutions may present lasting hurdles to reform.
The impasse in Iraq presents dilemmas for the Administration and Congress as they contemplate how best to promote Iraq's unity and stability, prevent an IS resurgence, and limit Iranian influence. In a series of statements over several weeks, U.S. officials have urged Iraqi leaders to respond seriously to protestors' demands and to avoid attacks against unarmed protestors, while expressing broad U.S. goals for continued partnership with "a free and independent and sovereign Iraq." The White House has called on the Iraqi government to "fulfill President [Barham] Salih's promises to pass electoral reform and hold early elections," while Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and other officials also have said that the Administration intends to use "legal authorities to sanction corrupt individuals that are stealing Iraqis' wealth and those killing and wounding peaceful protesters." On December 2, Assistant Secretary of State David Schenker called on Iraqi leaders "to investigate and hold accountable" individuals responsible for attacks on protestors and to reject "the distorting influence Iran has exerted on the political process."
With leadership and systemic changes under review in Iraq, continuity in bilateral cooperation is not guaranteed. New leadership and systemic reform might present new opportunities for U.S.-Iraq partnership, but also might further empower Iraqis seeking to minimize U.S. influence and/or weaken bilateral ties. The current Iraqi government endorses the continued presence of U.S. military forces in Iraq, despite calls from other Iraqis, especially Iran-aligned voices, for the withdrawal of U.S. forces. The United States has sought Iraq's cooperation in its maximum pressure campaign against Iran, but has acknowledged limits on Iraq's ability to reduce some ties to its neighbor. U.S. officials welcome Iraqi efforts to assert more state control over militias, but have not encouraged Iraqi counterparts to confront pro-Iranian armed groups forcefully.
As Iraqis debate their political future, Congress may seek the Administration's views about the prospects for different outcomes in Iraq and their possible implications for U.S. military operations, patterns of U.S. assistance, and regional security.