Report

Is Iraq’s Most Important Battle in Baghdad?

Just as the United States gains momentum against the Islamic State, Baghdad’s government is paralyzed by protesters demanding wholesale reform.

Iraqi protesters gather in the parade grounds outside the parliament in Baghdad's heavily fortified "Green Zone" on May 1, 2016, a day after supporters of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr broke into the area after lawmakers again failed to approve new ministers.
Protesters were withdrawing from Baghdad's Green Zone after breaking into the fortified area and storming Iraq's parliament in an unprecedented security breach the day before. The move, which lessens the pressure on politicians in Baghdad, came as rare bombings in the south killed 33 people and wounded dozens. / AFP / HAIDAR MOHAMMED ALI        (Photo credit should read HAIDAR MOHAMMED ALI/AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi protesters gather in the parade grounds outside the parliament in Baghdad's heavily fortified "Green Zone" on May 1, 2016, a day after supporters of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr broke into the area after lawmakers again failed to approve new ministers. Protesters were withdrawing from Baghdad's Green Zone after breaking into the fortified area and storming Iraq's parliament in an unprecedented security breach the day before. The move, which lessens the pressure on politicians in Baghdad, came as rare bombings in the south killed 33 people and wounded dozens. / AFP / HAIDAR MOHAMMED ALI (Photo credit should read HAIDAR MOHAMMED ALI/AFP/Getty Images)

When it comes to Iraq, the world’s attention has largely focused on the military campaign to uproot the Islamic State from its strongholds in Anbar province and Mosul. But the most consequential fight for the country’s future may be playing out in Baghdad’s Green Zone, not with bullets and bombs, but amid an unanswered cry for political reform to a deeply dysfunctional and sectarian state.

The Obama administration’s plan to defeat the Islamic State relies in part on maintaining a reliable political partner in the form of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who has so far struggled against vested interests to push through his plans to overhaul the government and fix what is widely decried as a sectarian free-for-all among Iraqi politicians.

“The fact that we’ve had a reliable partner in Prime Minister Abadi has been one of the reasons I think the [military] campaign has made the progress it has in the last few months,” Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Foreign Policy while en route to Stuttgart, Germany. “We’re certainly concerned about it.”

The U.S. strategy against the Islamic State also depends on helping foster an inclusive government that is representative of all Iraqis, especially the country’s repressed Sunni minority that the Islamic State has attempted to win over.

On both those fronts, the storming of the Iraqi Parliament on Saturday at the behest of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr — who has called for Abadi’s resignation after months of frustration with stalled reform efforts — poses yet another challenge to the administration’s anti-Islamic State strategy. The U.S.-trained Iraqi military largely disintegrated under the initial assault of the Islamic State, and as a result, a bevy of sectarian militias — from the Kurdish Peshmerga to Shiites to small bands of armed Sunnis — have taken on broader security roles. Restoring some semblance of national unity, experts said, is virtually a precondition for successfully prosecuting the war against the Islamic State.

“The battle against the Islamic State requires not only military action, be it airstrikes or ground forces, but also political efforts,” said Michael David Clark, an Iraq expert at the University of Cambridge.

The protesters who broke through Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone over the weekend — and in some cases were welcomed warmly by Shiite Iraqi soldiers — departed peacefully, but the standoff isn’t over. Sadr issued a statement on Sunday vowing to resume the demonstrations this Friday, and he repeated his call for the removal of Iraq’s president, prime minister, and parliamentary speaker. If their demands are not met, Sadr said, his followers will conduct a “civil disobedience or general strike.”

Sadr’s protests have targeted the Abadi government for failing to tackle widespread popular anger over corruption. Like Americans in the years after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, many Iraqi politicians live a cloistered existence inside the Green Zone, divorced from the kinds of everyday traumas that affect millions of Iraqis. The political protests have come right as Baghdad has its hands full battling not just the Islamic State, but empty coffers: Plunging oil prices have hammered the Iraqi budget, which is almost entirely reliant on the export of crude oil.

In recent weeks and months, U.S. officials and diplomats, from Secretary of State John Kerry to Vice President Joe Biden and Islamic State point man Brett McGurk, have tried to prod Abadi and other Iraqi politicians into agreement. U.S. officials on Monday underscored their support for Abadi, and the importance of political reforms, but also were at pains to stress that Iraq, as a sovereign nation, has to solve this problem itself.

The White House press secretary, Josh Earnest, said at a briefing Monday that creating a more politically inclusive country is a “legitimate national security priority” for Iraq and that “ultimately, the reforms have to be responsive to the Iraqi people.”

On Monday, State Department spokesman John Kirby rejected accusations that the Obama administration has focused too much on the military dimensions of the war against the Islamic State at the expense of Baghdad’s political problems.

“I don’t think that anybody can reasonably look at the level of engagement, both in terms of frequency and how high up it goes in our government … to argue that we’ve turned a blind eye to supporting Prime Minister Abadi,” Kirby said.

But while stressing U.S. support for Abadi, Kirby emphasized that Washington cannot dictate Iraq’s politics as it could after it overthrew Saddam Hussein.

“Iraq is a sovereign country, and Prime Minister Abadi is the head of that government, and these are decisions that he has to make,” he said.

Ironically, as America’s Iraq policy endures another crisis, Sadr, one of Washington’s bogeymen from post-invasion days, could end up forcing Iraq to make the necessary tough choices in order to ultimately be better able to deal with external threats like the Islamic State.

The cleric came into prominence during the early days of the U.S. occupation of Iraq when he directed his Mahdi Army militia to resist, and in some cases, kill, U.S. soldiers. After engaging U.S. forces in bloody fights in cities like Najaf in 2004, Sadr’s militiamen — especially after a series of internal splits within the group — were responsible for some of the most gruesome violence in the mid-2000s as they murdered and tortured Sunnis with electric drills and other deadly weapons.

But after leaving Iraq to study theology in Qom, Iran, in 2007, Sadr began a gradual rebranding of himself as a nationalist hero fighting for good governance and anti-corruption reforms. Analysts differ about whether his ascendancy in Iraqi politics will lessen or inflame the sectarian tensions among the country’s Sunni, Shiite, Kurdish, and Christian populations.

Clark said that Sadr might be “a less than ideal person” to help unify the country, given his bloody past. But, in recent years, Sadr has shown more willingness to reach across sectarian divides. “He has been part of numerous intersectarian political alliances from early 2012,” he added. “So it depends, of course, on which aspects and periods of his political history you want to stress.”

Easing the sectarian tensions — which means, at a minimum, reaching an agreement on wider reform to the Abadi government — could be vital to the fight against the Islamic State. The United States has trained about 20,000 Iraqi troops since last year, after spending more than $25 billion to train that same army between 2003 and the American withdrawal in 2011.

“The Iraqi military ceased to function as a coherent force in 2014 under pressure from ISIS,” said Kimberly Kagan, founder and president of the Institute for the Study of War and longtime advisor to the U.S. Defense Department. “Today, there is still no unified Iraqi security force that is responsive to the prime minister’s directive,” she said, adding that there’s a “wider security apparatus” including the Shiite militias, some of which “function under a chain of command that goes to Iran.”

A political crisis in Baghdad could also pose a number of practical problems for the anti-Islamic State effort. Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said that if the situation deteriorates even more, “military commanders and top units might have to relocate back to the capital.” He also noted that a political implosion could “more plausibly threaten efforts to stabilize Mosul after ISIS is defeated,” as the government lacks the bandwidth to deal with serious policy problems outside the capital.

Later this week, Sadr and his protesters will push Iraq’s political standoff a little closer to the brink, with potentially huge consequences for the country’s future and for the fight against the Islamic State.

“It’s clearly a critical week in the way ahead for Iraq — no doubt about it,” Dunford said.

Photo credit: HAIDAR MOHAMMED ALI / Getty Images

John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson

Dan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. @dandeluce

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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