In Iraq, Protesters Are Sick of Corruption and Foreign Influence
The firing of a wildly popular general who led the fight against ISIS has set off demonstrations that could threaten the country’s stability.
Few Iraqis relish widespread recognition and support as much as Lt. Gen. Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi. Though he’s relatively unknown outside of Iraq, Saadi’s contributions to fighting terrorism in Iraq have been highly significant in ridding the country of the Islamic State. Suddenly, late last month, Saadi was unceremoniously stripped of his position in the Iraqi Army and transferred to an administrative role in the Ministry of Defense. The demotion of the celebrated general outraged his many supporters and triggered some of the deadliest protests seen in Iraq and the Middle East in recent years.
A tall, slim, and graying figure, Saadi has a commanding presence that appeals to many Iraqis. The three-star general was appointed to lead Iraq’s Counter-Terrorism Service, a highly trained unit dubbed the “Golden Division” for its recognition as Iraq’s elite force. The service, initially created through support from U.S. Special Forces, developed a reputation for being filled with nonsectarian and multiethnic nationalists. The unit has continued to receive training from U.S. forces throughout the war against the Islamic State. Prior to the Mosul offensive in 2017, 300,000 Iraqis applied to join the unit, with only 1,000 making it through the joint U.S.-Iraqi training academy.
The Golden Division was tasked with being on the front lines throughout the military campaigns in Mosul, fighting under only the Iraqi flag, compared to the mainly Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) frequently fighting under sectarian banners. Such differences resulted in the banning of the PMF by then-Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi from operations in Mosul and Tal Afar. Being visibly on the front lines, ridding Iraq of a hated enemy, resulted in Saadi gaining a cultlike hero status among Iraqis, especially when compared with the politicians occupying Baghdad’s Green Zone, who are widely perceived as corrupt and paralyzed. A statue of Saadi was even erected in Mosul commending his role in its liberation.
The fact that Saadi and his division frequently received training from coalition forces likely ruffled some feathers among Iraq’s pro-Iranian elite. Unlike the Golden Division, the PMF, under Hadi al-Amiri, received their training from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Gen. Qassem Suleimani.
The concerns about Saadi’s close relationship with the U.S. military were exacerbated when Saadi was found to have visited the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Saadi said he “had one visit to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad to get a visa to speak about terrorism at Harvard.” It’s a plausible claim, as he had spoken at the university a year earlier on a similar panel. Despite continually risking his life to combat the global threat of terrorism, Saadi, as an Iraqi citizen, is limited to yearlong U.S. visas only and must reapply annually.
The mounting apprehension of Saadi’s relationship with the United States—and likely pressure from Iran—resulted in the dismissal of Saadi from his position in the Counter-Terrorism Service and his transfer to a desk job. The move could indicate the effective dismantling of the Iraqi Army as the PMF seeks to increase its influence across the nation, possibly by putting forward a pro-Iranian general to replace Saadi. Mindful of Saadi’s military strength, Iraq’s government could have viewed his widespread public approval as a worrying sign of the prospect of a military coup.
Protesting his innocence, Saadi—in an unusual move for military personnel—took to Iraqi satellite media to reject his dismissal. Saadi, describing his treatment by the Iraqi government as an “insult” and “punishment,” lost some empathy from supporters as he publicly protested a direct order from Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi.
The cult status of the general, however, meant Saadi’s dismissal resonated among Iraqis, and Iraqi youth responded by taking to the streets and social media to air their disapproval. Numerous social media posts endorsing the general can be found across Iraq’s social media, with messages of support trending across Iraq’s internet. At the protests, many held posters of the ousted Army official.
The protests have had a markedly strong Shiite presence, with slogans commemorating Shiite religious figures being chanted throughout the streets of Baghdad, indicating a strong resentment toward Iranian interventionism in Iraq by the Shiite community—similar to the sentiments expressed by protesters who attacked the Iranian consulate in Basra last year.
Now, Saudi Arabia is seeking to stoke these tensions. Seeing an opportunity to topple what it perceives as a pro-Iranian Iraqi government, Riyadh has begun to use social media platforms to perpetuate the violent protests in Iraq. Creating bots to target Western media outlets, tweets from pro-Saudi users asking to “save the Iraqi people” and push “Iran out” were posted despite an internet blockade in Iraq. Saudi Arabia, which has a long history of using social media influence to crack down on dissidents, is now attempting to spread anti-Iranian sentiment in Iraq.
The situation is quickly deteriorating, and Iran is not the only target. A diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that rockets were fired into Baghdad’s Green Zone and landed near to the U.S. Embassy during the internet blockade, indicating these protests are against any foreign interventionism in Iraq, be it Iranian, American, or Saudi. These protests have had a strong sense of Iraqi patriotism, with the activists referring to the movement as a “civilian movement,” suggesting a post-Islamist movement in Iraq growing from the “traumatic experience of sectarian violence,” as the researcher Zahra Ali put it.
Given the rising tensions and corruption in Iraq, the relative lull in violence since the collapse of the Islamic State should never have been seen as more than a momentary pause in conflict. Writing for Foreign Policy last year, I predicted that should underlying grievances persist, further outbursts of violence could be expected. Now, the unifying factor of a common evil in the Islamic State no longer exists, and Iraqi patriotism does not continue to extend to include support of the government, deemed to have achieved nothing for the people of Iraq. The root causes of grievances in Iraq have never been addressed; when heavily armed and trained fighters return home to a lack of jobs and housing in a country suffering from widespread corruption, that is a recipe for civil unrest.
Saadi’s cause proved to be the final straw for Iraqis. It provided the outlet for Iraqis to revolt against the ruling elite in their central government. With many countries functioning at a deficit, Iraq’s government budget recorded a surplus between 2018 and 2019 of 8 percent of its GDP. But such economic progress has not translated to improved public services, job opportunities, or security for the majority of Iraqis, as corruption is heavily discernible throughout Iraq’s ruling elite, consigning Iraq to being ranked the world’s 13th most corrupt country.
Reforms privatizing many of Iraq’s industries have continued to devastate Iraq’s public sector and have not promoted job opportunities in Iraq, as Iraq’s employment rate dropped to a record low of 28 percent in 2018. One in four of Iraqi children continue to live in poverty, while families struggle to find stability. The abundance of Iraq’s natural resources has failed to support its citizens, producing a lack of electrical infrastructure, access to clean water, and effective health care. In some parts of Iraq, 90 percent of school-aged children are not in the education system.
Similar to the protests of the Arab Spring, this largely Shiite-led movement lacks any well-defined direction, leadership, or a clear set of demands, leading Abdul Mahdi to refer to the protesters as “rioters” and belittle the legitimate grievances of Iraq’s citizens. The fact that members of the powerful Iran-backed PMF, who could potentially instigate a civil war, have not yet become involved suggests that Iran disapproves of the protests and, to its benefit, continues to support the status quo. Protests in Sunni-majority cities in Iraq have yet to come to fruition, as their inhabitants are either living in camps or fear stigmatization as terrorists.
Iraq’s government under the premiership of Abdul Mahdi, just short of a year old and heavily influenced by the political wing of the PMF, has responded violently. Applying both curfews and internet blockades, the government’s clampdown has resulted in about 100 deaths and thousands of injuries in the protests.
Further polarizing the Iraqi protesters, Abdul Mahdi said on Facebook that he vows to “to learn the reasons” behind the protests, despite his government being the source of grievance, as protesters exclaim, “The people want the collapse of the regime.” Abdul Mahdi’s immediate violent response to the protests, compared with former Prime Minister Abadi’s response to protests, suggests that this government fears the civil unrest could topple its leadership.
For too long, Iraq has been a playground for regional influence and interests. The protests should remind the government whom it is ultimately accountable to, after having become far too complacent over recent months, basking in the post-Islamic State world of ostensible security.
The ruling elite have been detached from the harsh realities of everyday life in Iraq. The grievances that paved the way for Iraq’s sectarian violence in 2007, the civil unrest of 2011, the rise of the Islamic State in 2014, and the Basra protests have yet to be addressed. Coupled with rising U.S.-Iranian tensions, the effective dismissal of Gen. Saadi should serve as a reminder that the solution for Iraq is major reform to counter corruption and support public services for an increasingly frustrated population.