Iraq: Protests and the Future of U.S. Partnership

Mass protests and state violence against some protestors have shaken Iraq since October 2019, with more than 260 Iraqis reported dead and thousands more injured in demonstrations and isolated clashes in Baghdad and southern Iraq. Protestors and some prominent political figures have demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abd Al Mahdi and his cabinet, channeling nationalist, nonsectarian sentiment and a range of frustrations into potent rejections of the post-2003 political order. Current protests are reiterating past demonstrators' concerns (with louder critiques of Iranian interference in some cases), but the scope and endurance of the protests are unprecedented in Iraq's recent history. U.S. officials have not publicly taken positions on the demonstrators' specific transition demands, 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.

The nature, duration, and response to the protests are deepening 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 the 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 what Iraq's future governing arrangements will be or how change might affect U.S. interests.

Iraqi Perspectives and Proposed Solutions

The prime minister and some Iraqi officials acknowledge shortcomings in the current political system, but express concern that a period of potentially violent uncertainty could accompany a sudden transition. Other Iraqi officials, Iran's Supreme Leader, and Iran-aligned Iraqi militia leaders contend 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, an Iranian diplomatic facility, and some security forces and militia personnel. Iran reportedly is working to delay and shape transition arrangements to preserve its interests and those of its Iraqi partners.

Leaders of Iraq's Shia Muslim religious establishment have expressed solidarity with the protestors, called for officials to enact reforms, urged demonstrators to reject violence, rejected foreign interference, and condemned killings of civilians. 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 limited the spread of protests to areas of western Iraq predominantly inhabited by Sunni Arabs.

The prime minister and Iraqi legislators have approved a range of measures in response to protestors' demands, but protestors largely have rejected the measures as insufficient, with many insisting on a sweeping transition. President Barham Salih has proposed revisions to the electoral system followed by elections and has acknowledged the prime minister's willingness to resign if dominant political blocs agree on a replacement. Amendments to Iraq's electoral law will require parliamentary approval, and legislators may be disinclined to offer support, having won their seats in May 2018 elections. New elections under a revamped system could introduce new political currents and leaders, but fiscal pressures and the limited capacity of some state institutions may present lasting hurdles to reform.

Some 2019 polling suggests that many Iraqis may share protestors' stated concerns about the status quo, but close observers of Iraqi politics express some skepticism that the leading political forces will find consensus easily on transition arrangements. Iraqis continue to differ over implementation of key provisions of the existing constitution and have formed successive governments since 2005 only after extended and contentious negotiations among elites and establishment groups. Many elite stakeholders are targets of protestors' ire, but they remain the likely arbiters of proposed remedies to the protestors' demands. Iran and the United States previously have used pressure and mediation to shape negotiations among Iraqi elites, but now are contending with new dynamics introduced by the nationalist protest movement.

U.S. Responses and Outlook

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. As Iraqis debate their political future, Congress may seek the Trump 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.

On November 1, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said "the Government of Iraq should listen to the legitimate demands made by the Iraqi people who have taken to the streets to have their voices heard." He reiterated that the U.S. government has "called on all sides to reject violence" and called for restrictions on the press and expression to end. On November 6, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad said in a statement, "There is no path forward based on suppression of the will of the Iraqi people."

Leading Iraqi officials endorse the continued presence of U.S. military forces in Iraq, in spite of calls from some 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 cut 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.

Many Iraqis appear to view incremental change as unlikely to resolve their concerns, but they also appear to differ in their preferences for the scope and pace of systemic change. Systemic reform might present new opportunities for U.S.-Iraq partnership, but also might further empower Iraqis who seek to minimize U.S. influence and/or weaken bilateral ties.

Maintenance of the political status quo despite Iraqi domestic opposition also presents risks. If, for example, the United States continues to cooperate with an increasingly unpopular Iraqi governing elite that remains unresponsive to citizens' demands, then options for pursuing U.S. interests could become more limited or costly. Confrontations resulting from continued paralysis or repressive measures could jeopardize Iraq's hard-won security gains.