Iraq’s historic opportunity

Fifteen years after US-led invasion, Iraq continues to face a multitude of problems. Iraqi citizens are tired of it and, increasingly, they are blaming the country's politicians. Demands are growing for political reform and a serious effort to tackle corruption. 

In an article originally posted on the Niqash website, MUSTAFA HABIB argues that a new sense of unity, plus the relatively calm state of Iraq's international relations, provides a rare opportunity to break with the past.

By Mustafa Habib 

"It is not about electricity, water, or health," one old man shouted at the camera during the recent protests that have swept southern and central Iraq. "Give me back my country and to hell with oil and money. I want my Iraq," he said. It’s just one example of many emotional scenes in Iraq these days and in many ways it reflects the feelings of many locals. 

It is time for Iraqi politicians to realize the magnitude of the challenges the country faces, to understand the new state of national unity and to make good use of international support.

There are many challenges in Iraq: a stagnating economy, recovery and reconstruction after the security crisis caused by the extremist group known as the Islamic State, drought, corruption and mismanagement. But to the optimists among Iraqis, all these challenges could also be a historic opportunity to improve the situation, especially as Turkey and Iran, the two neighbours of Iraq, are busy with their own internal problems.

For the first time in years, there is a rare state of national unity brought about because locals had to unite during the security crisis. The sectarian discourse and the exchange of insults between Sunnis and Shiites are not as common any more and it is not strange these days to read friendly and respectful comments, exchanged by residents of Anbar, Basra, Mosul, Dhi Qar, Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan. The ongoing demonstrations have revealed the growing awareness of Iraqis, who now know that the country’s problem is not its people, but its politicians.

Iraqi politicians must respond to these developments before it is too late. There are more protests on the way. And they will be bigger and lead to more chaos, Iraq’s highest Shiite Muslim religious authority, Ali al-Sistani, warned Iraqi politicians last week.

Since the federal elections held in May this year, Iraqi parties have been living in a state of anxiety. Negotiations to form a government are happening under pressure as demonstrators seem to be watching closely. Politicians appear to be afraid of going with Iraq’s long-used quota system to form the government, as it would go against the reform the protestors are calling for.

"Our country is going through a historic stage, and all political forces should improve their relationships with their citizens, respond to their demands and allow the country to move forward,” Burhan al-Mamouri, a member of the political alliance led by cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, which proved most popular in the elections, told Niqash.

Al-Mamouri’s alliance, Sairoun, has also now abandoned its demands for senior positions in the next government and for the prime minister’s job. The alliance actually campaigned on an anti-corruption and reformist platform, having been behind earlier anti-government protests. Last week, al-Sadr, the leader of the alliance, announced his proposals to bring the country out of crisis. He would agree to the selection of a new independent prime minister and he wants cabinet ministers to be technocrats. Al-Sadr also said that if other parties do not agree to these conditions, that he would remain in opposition and in the parliament and that he and his people would join the demonstrations. Given that al-Sadr commands tens of thousands of followers, this would cause significant problems.

Senior cleric, Ali al-Sistani, has also demanded the selection of a strong prime minister with the courage to fight corruption. He has said that he approves of the formation of a technocratic government and declared his support for the continuation of popular protests to keep pressure on politicians.

Sunni MP Abdul Qahar al-Samarai told Niqash: "We should have a government with new standards and we should avoid secret deals on how ministerial positions are decided. The only solution to save the country is a technocratic government capable of ending corruption and destruction.”

Another factor: For the first time in years, Iraq has comparatively calm diplomatic relations with its neighbours, who have for long time used the country as an arena for settling scores. Today it seems the Europeans and the US are waiting for a stable government before spending more money on development in Iraq. They want to ensure that any money they offer, or projects they support, are not just for the benefit of corrupt politicians.

It really is time for Iraqi politicians to realize the magnitude of the challenges the country faces, to understand the new state of national unity and to make good use of international support.

Last Monday, Iraqi MP Mishan al-Jibouri wrote on his Twitter account that "recent developments have seen Shiite demonstrators in southern Iraq praise Iraq’s former President Saddam Hussein and his regime. This means that things have reached a unprecedented low level. And it requires changing the entire rules of the political process, otherwise, everyone will be in danger.