Unlike other revolts underway in the Middle East, Iraq’s uprisings have not yet escalated into a large-scale opposition movement by local populations against the central government. Rather, they remain disjointed responses by different groups to distinct local and regional-level problems. Iraqis in southern and central Iraq blame local provincial councils, alongside Baghdad, for lack of services and corruption, while populations in the Kurdish north lodge their complaints against the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Although localized, the uprisings have had important political consequences on the central government and the KRG. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s support base has eroded while the unity of the Kurdistan region has been further undermined. Relations between Baghdad and Arbil also are challenged as each political entity seeks greater control over territory and security it claims to be its own.
Indeed, Iraq seems primed to follow the path of other Middle Eastern states in turmoil. The weak central government is no more responsive to its populations than regimes in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, or Libya. Since 2005, and despite the regeneration of oil revenues, Baghdad has been unable to sufficiently restore electricity, provide basic services, or engage in necessary economic development projects that benefit localities. Iraq also retains its Transparency International ranking as the world’s fourth most corrupt country. Further, Iraqi youth have access to the social media and could mobilize masses the way their counterparts in other countries have done.
Unlike other troubled Middle Eastern states defined by decades of authoritarianism, however, the Baghdad government is relatively new and without a historical trajectory of repression. Even though the morale of democracy is undeveloped or even nonexistent in Iraq, the power-sharing system embedded in the 2005 constitution has checked the re-emergence of dictatorship by disempowering Baghdad and delegating many powers to the provinces. The regionalization of Iraqi politics, which further polarized ethnic and sectarian communities, has encouraged key political problems to be displaced from the central government to regional and local administrations.
Nuri al-Maliki also assured that the opposition would remain localized by keeping the protestors away from each other. During the demonstrations, for instance, he controlled communication services and set up road blocks so that protestors had to walk about five kilometers to reach the central square in Baghdad. These measures may not have deterred the demonstrations, but they shifted them to outlying localities. Residents in Basra, Fallujah, and Ramadi overthrew their provincial governments and burned down public buildings. Gunmen in Tikrit attacked their local government and took hostages. In Anbar, the sheikhs seek to remove the governor, provincial council chairman and operations centers commander.
The unrest has had political fallout in Baghdad. Maliki’s power base has been further undermined as Ayad Allawi and Moqtada al-Sadr have threatened to withdraw support from the government. Even some members of Maliki’s State of Law party have distanced themselves from the prime minister by forming a ‘White Block" in parliament and calling for Maliki’s resignation if the situation does not improve in 100 days. Developing alongside these political rifts is the strengthening of the position of Ayatollah al-Sistani, who has taken credit for the non-violent nature of the demonstrations without really having been involved in them.
As expected, Maliki has responded by trying to control and appease his challengers. While clamping down on protestors, he has promised political reforms and strengthened the state’s distributive function through increased allocation of revenues for public goods and services. Furthermore, he has attempted to co-opt western Sunni Arab tribes by negotiating an amnesty with the "Jihad Reform Group", an ensemble of five Iraqi resistance groups based in Syria. The tribe’s perception (and distrust) of Maliki as a Shi’a with Iranian backing, as well as its lucrative trade along the border area, will hinder Maliki’s effort to draw Sunni Arab tribes back into the state and to undermine Ayad Allawi’s tribal support base. And even though Maliki has licensed the Sadrists’ "Sit in against Occupiers" demonstration planned for April 9, he needs to assure that the event does not become violent or further erode his fragile government.
Similar events have transpired in the Kurdish north. The protests, which are still ongoing, have not only unleashed populations’ pent-up frustrations with the KRG-party apparatus but also have reinforced fractures in Kurdish politics and society. While most Kurdish populations seek political reform, only those in Sulaimani have had the opportunity and interest to openly challenge KRG and Barzani family power. Political polarization between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) was made evident after the PUK refused the deployment of KDP militia into Sulaimani, which attempted to quell a situation that its KRG partner has proven unable to manage.
New fissures also have emerged between the KRG and its challengers — Kurdish populations it now refers to as "Those Who Do Not Love Kurdistan". In fact, the entire opposition movement and protests have become highly politicized as old party feuds over leadership and control are intertwined with demands for real political reform. While the KDP and PUK accuse the opposition group, Goran, and demonstrators for being disloyal to Kurdish nationalism, Islamic parties that have joined the protestors in Sulaimani have permitted their mullahs to give sermons referring to the demonstrations as "a jihad against the KRG". These political tensions have widened the Badinani-Soran rift, or the geographical polarizations between regions, that has evolved alongside the aggrandizement of Barzani-family power and weakening of the PUK since 2006, making the possibility of a truly unified Kurdish government unlikely.
Furthermore, the protests have reaffirmed challenges between Baghdad and Arbil over political authority and territorial claims. During the initial demonstrations, for instance, Kurdish officials refused entry of four-star Iraq generals into a joint Iraqi-KRG peshmerga headquarters in Sulaimani. They also mobilized thousands of Kurdish troops to Kirkuk to securitize the city during and after Iraq’s ‘Day of Rage’, in which non-Kurdish communities raised further concerns about the KRG’s overextension of its autonomy.
Maliki and Kurdish president Mas’ud Barzani eventually negotiated the peshmerga’s withdrawal; however, Baghdad continues to insist that all Iraqi forces be kept under centralized command while the Kurds assert complete control over their militia. Iraqi President and Kurdish leader Jelal Talabani’s public speech referring to Kirkuk as the "Jerusalem of Kurdistan", as well as the PUK’s efforts to reshuffle positions on the Kirkuk provincial council to garner Turkoman support, has fueled Arab suspicions of Kurdish intentions in Kirkuk and stirred rivalries between the Kurdish parties.
This impasse between Baghdad and Arbil is just one of several issues that will mark Iraq’s political landscape after the US troop withdrawal. If further mishandled by local and outside actors, it could upset the volatile situation in Kirkuk and intensify local feuds. For this reason, some type of third party monitoring, such as UNAMI (United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq) involvement, may be necessary to help neutralize the situation and prevent the outbreak of local conflict at the trigger line.
However, given internal governance challenges, pressing demands for stability and increased oil production, and the KRG’s dependence upon external patronage for its survival, Baghdad and Arbil are unlikely to test their wills through protracted military confrontation at this time. A more likely scenario is ongoing political stalemate, whereby Iraqi and Kurdish officials begrudgingly tolerate each other and make political side-deals to quell potential unrest, consolidate their power, and assure economic gain.
Like other Middle Eastern populations demanding reform, Iraqi demonstrators will continue to pressure their leaders for better services, less corruption, and governments that govern. Maliki and Barzani, in turn, will become increasingly reliant on coercive and cooptive means of compliance to protect their power. Yet, as long as the weak federalist system is in place and Iraq is politically fragmented, this unrest will be channeled at the regional and local levels. Instead of a revolutionary outcome, Iraq’s disruptive change may come more gradually, and alongside the struggle for power in Baghdad and over the nature of the Iraqi state.
Dr. Denise Natali is the Minerva Chair at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University and the author of The Kurdish Quasi-State: Development and Dependency in Post-Gulf War Iraq (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2010) The views expressed are her own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.