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The Long Political Transition of Iraq

Giovanni Sale, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Sun, Mar 7th 2021

1From March 5 to 8, 2021, Pope Francis will visit the troubled Land of Two Rivers, a common translation of the old name, Mesopotamia, modern day Iraq. Accepting the invitations of the Republic of Iraq and the local Catholic Church, Pope Francis is due to make an apostolic journey to the country, visiting Baghdad, the Plain of Ur, which is linked to the memory of Abraham, the city of Erbil, as well as Mosul, Qaraqosh, on the Plain of Nineveh, and Najaf.[1]

This is the first time a pope has visited that land, where the Christian community has been a presence since apostolic times, and where there are still some small communities that speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus. In recent years – particularly since 2014, when part of the country was occupied by the self-styled Islamic State caliphate – these communities have greatly reduced in number. It seems that today there are about 120,000 Christians in the Nineveh region, while before 2003, that is, before the U.S. invasion, more than a million Christians lived there.[2]

Iraq is a predominantly Islamic country (95 percent). According to some often contested estimates, 64 percent (according to others, 69 percent) of the Muslims are Shiites, while 29 percent (according to others, 34 percent) are Sunnis.[3] The religious minorities belong to different religious denominations: Christian, Yazidi, Shabak and Mandean.

In this article we will not deal with the religious theme, which we have already dealt with in another article,[4] but with the political situation of the Iraqi State which, after long years of bloody conflict, is seeking economic, social and political normalization.

The wars of Saddam Hussein

At the time of Saddam Hussein, Iraq was one of the Middle East’s regional powers; it could count not only on considerable reserves of hydrocarbons, but also on a very reliable and state-of-the-art military apparatus, financed with the huge proceeds from oil. With the Khomeinist revolution in Iran in 1979, Iraq felt threatened for political-ideological reasons and because of its geo-strategic position. In fact, a great Shiite power, declaring itself revolutionary and ready to inherit – in an anti-Saudi stance – the world leadership of Islam (beyond the intra-confessional differences), was strongly asserting itself on the Middle East political scene. This constituted a threat to the hegemony of the land of the two rivers and its Sunni leadership. There was also the fact that the majority of Iraq’s population was Shiite and in those years had been won over by Khomeini’s Islamist republic.[5]

Saddam became in a short time the ally of the West to counter Iran, as well as a fundamental pillar of Middle East strategy, useful to contain the Shiite and Islamist revival at a global level. For this reason he received the support of the U.S. and the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf in the long and bloody war against Tehran (1980-88), which cost the lives of about a million people.

In that context, in the Shiite world and soon in the Sunni as well, the long-lasting myth of martyrdom for the Islamic cause developed, which advocated salvific and purifying jihad against the infidels who sold out to foreigners and opposed an atheistic and imperialist West. Tens of thousands of young fighters devoted to martyrdom, the so-called basij, fought for the Shiite revolution, taking up unsophisticated weapons to throw themselves fearlessly against the Iraqi armies.[6]

In the following decade, Saddam’s massive military force and aggressive policy determined Iraq’s international isolation. In response to the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, in January 1991 an international coalition led by the United States conducted, with the approval of the UN, a military campaign that routed Baghdad’s armies. The Iraqi dictator believed that Kuwait was part of his national territory; in reality, he was interested in the huge oil reserves of that region, and above all he wanted to secure the coveted outlet to the sea. On that occasion, President George Bush (senior) tried not to weaken Saddam too much by forcing him out of power, for fear that Iran would take advantage of the political instability that would create in the region.

The second American war against Iraq in 2003, after the tragedy of the attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon by al-Qaeda (September 11, 2001), had different aims. What was at stake was no longer the stability of the Middle East and respect for international rules, but the primacy of the USA at a global level and the borderless war against international terrorism. 911 had blatantly humiliated the United States killing almost 3,000 people that day, the worst loss of life in a single day since Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the event that compelled the U.S. to enter the Second World War. The 2003 American attack against Saddam – accused, among other things, of having used weapons of mass destruction – conducted without the approval of the international community, was devastating and led to the fall of the regime.

Unlike the American war in Afghanistan (October 2001) against the Taliban, who refused to hand over the perpetrators of the Twin Towers attacks – a war conducted by a large coalition of states and supported by the UN – this attack seemed “unjustified” under international law to many countries, both Western and Arab.[7] There was not, in fact, any convincing evidence that Saddam’s regime had actively supported Osama Bin Laden and his terrorist organization. This war “conducted alone” (but in fact with the support of the U.K., Australia and Poland) according to many analysts was at the origin of the subsequent upheavals and deadly conflicts in the Middle East.

Iraq’s sectarian divisions in the post-Saddam period

The power vacuum of the post-Saddam period, the Coalition Provisional Authority leader by American Paul Bremer and deep fragmentation of the Iraqi political fabric, exacerbated the existing sectarian divisions in the country, dragged Iraq into a bloody civil conflict. Ethnic-religious and tribal tensions continued even after the final withdrawal of U.S. troops (2011), requested by the Iraqi government in order to heal the sectarian conflicts in the country. Supported by the U.S. anti-Sunni strategy, the Shiite Arab Prime Minister, Nuri al-Maliki (in office 2006-2014) for years pursued an actively pro-Shiite policy, isolating Sunni leaders from the management of the state. This fomented sectarian strife and has plunged the country into chaos.

The fractures in Iraqi society exploded in all their dramatic proportions in June 2014 when the jihadist formation called “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” (ISIS), already active for some time in Sunni-majority areas of the country, in which it sowed terror and death, took over the country’s second city, Mosul. Its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the “Black Caliph,” in the historical city mosque of al-Nouri, proclaimed himself caliph of the reborn universal Sunni caliphate, calling the true Muslims to a holy war against the apostates, the infidels and the new “crusaders”[8].

The jihadists grew in numbers extending their sphere of action to Syria and symbolically eliminating all borders between the two countries.  The financial support received, especially in its first phase, from Sunni donors from all over the world and the huge oil and financial resources that the jihadists had taken possession of, especially in the Mosul area was decisive.

ISIS subsequently consolidated its positions in Iraq, even threatening the area near the capital and the autonomous region of Kurdistan in the summer of 2014. Both domestic and international pressures led Premier al-Maliki to resign, despite having won the April 2014 general election. In August 2015, he was succeeded in the post by Haider al-Abadi. The new government somehow managed to curb the sectarian strife and confrontations between ethnic-religious groups that were driving the country towards collapse. But the new prime minister was not able to re-establish relations of cooperation between national authorities in Baghdad and the regional – independent-minded – authorities of Kurdistan, nor was he able to secure the collaboration of some of the Arab-Sunni world actors. Thanks to the support of important international powers – such as Iran and the United States – who returned to Iraq to fight ISIS, he managed to achieve victory against the Islamic State. A decisive factor in these victories was the contribution of the Kurdish military force, the Peshmerga, who not only defended their territory, but also managed to snatch important strategic positions from the supporters of the Black Caliph.

In the aftermath of the victory against ISIS, Iraq started a difficult process of reconstruction and reconciliation between the different ethno-religious components of Iraqi society, which until then had been locked in a bitter conflict. The outcome, however, remains uncertain.

From an institutional point of view, Iraq has a federal structure which provides for important forms of autonomy: for example, the Kurdistan Regional Government has its own executive and parliament, and the Peshmerga. In 2005, on the initiative of the British and Americans, representatives of the country’s major ethnic groups drew up a Constitution, which laid the foundations for the creation of a federal state. Among other decisions, it recognized Islam as the source of national legislation. The new fundamental charter was then approved by popular referendum. Immediately afterward, political elections were held – partly boycotted in protest by Sunnis, but with great popular participation – in which Shiite parties, as was predictable, were victorious.

All this did not help to normalize the situation, nor to make the new government capable of exercising its functions without having to resort to the protection of the U.S. military, which was increasingly seen by the civilian population as an invader.[9] This system of government, only formally democratic, has always functioned on a consociate basis. That is, the high offices of the state were distributed according to the various confessions: the role of President of the Republic has always been assigned to a member of the Kurdish community; that of Prime Minister to a Shiite Arab; that of President of the Parliament to a Sunni Arab. The same dynamics were repeated at the governmental level, as regards the division of ministries on an ethnic-confessional basis.[10]

A late-blossoming ‘Arab Spring’

The first general elections in Iraq after the defeat of the Islamic State were held in May, 2018. The turnout at the polls was quite low (45 percent), due to popular discontent with the political class in power and the serious economic situation the country had been in for years. The new executive was created after months of exhausting negotiations between the political forces, that is, between the list led by the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr (who had a relative majority of votes) and the coalition led by Hadi al-Amiri, political leader of the pro-Iran Shiite militias. In the end a compromise was reached, which involved choosing as prime minister an independent, Adil Abd al-Mahdi, who, however, also due to the lack of political cohesion between the major Shiite parties, was not able to lift the country from the economic crisis, create new jobs for young people and guarantee security for citizens.

The first popular protests began in July 2018 in the southern Iraqi oil city of Basra. The protesters complained about the lack of clean water, electricity and jobs for young people. They attacked oil facilities and eight people died in clashes with police. At the end of July, the protest spread to the country’s major cities, especially those in the Shiite-majority south. They protested against political corruption, unemployment and lack of essential services. The protests then continued throughout the summer and intensified in September 2018. On September 25, human rights activist Suad al-Ali was killed in Basra during street fighting.

Then in 2019 the protest against the government and the ruling political class became general , involving all components of civil society, regardless of religious or ethnic-tribal affiliation. On October 1, 2019, thousands of Iraqis took to the streets in Baghdad and other cities, occupying and garrisoning the famous Tahrir Square in the center of the capital. They demanded an end to a political system based on ethnic and sectarian quotas, which had proved unable to eliminate corruption and ensure essential services for all citizens.

The protesters slogan was “Neither with Washington nor with Tehran,” and many young wore T-shirts with the slogan  The people, in short, were asking for an independent Iraq, with no more U.S. military protection (presently there are about 5,000 U.S. military in the country fighting radical terrorism) or Iranian political impositions.[11] “This would have repercussions throughout the area,” wrote one analyst, “because it would become such an exemplary model as to inspire other countries in the Middle East.”[12]

The security forces, often supported by the pro-Iran militias, responded violently from the beginning; they attacked with every available means, using snipers, blocking the access to the square and blowing up some bridges on the river.[13] In the end the number of victims was significant: about 600 people were killed, while tens of thousands were wounded. In autumn and winter, the protest spread like wildfire throughout the country. Iraq experienced, nine years later, its own “late-blooming Arab Spring.”[14]

At the beginning of January 2020, the protesters – who in the meantime had organized themselves, but without creating a political party or movement – demanded that the government accept their basic demands: early elections, a new electoral law, a premier independent of sectarian forces, an end to corruption and the distribution of political offices on a sectarian basis. A few days later Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, who led the largest bloc in parliament, withdrew his support for the protest, although he had called on his supporters to remain in the square. This decision created within the movement many divisions and mistrust, so that, with the passing of months, it has been weakening.

According to some, it was the infiltration of pro-Iran militias that gradually emptied the square of the “Iraqi Spring” protest. In November 2020, only 17 tents (of political activists) were left in Tahrir Square of the 220 that had been there a year earlier.[15] However, the persistence of anti-government demonstrations – the most massive in the history of Iraq – led in early December to the resignation of Prime Minister al-Madhi, but not to that of the executive, which still remained in office to ensure an orderly transition.[16]

In February 2020, the President of the Republic, Barham Salih, appointed Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi as the new Prime Minister, with the task of leading the country toward new political elections and promoting economic reforms demanded by protesters. However, he was unable to hold the confidence of parliament – both Kurdish and Sunni parties said they were not sufficiently represented in the new executive – and on March 1 he submitted his resignation to the Head of State.

The post then went to Adnan al-Zurufi, but once again with negative results. On May 7, 2020, after five months of political stalemate, in a confidence vote parliament appointed Mustafa al-Kadhimi (a former intelligence chief), who said he wanted to focus on three key elements: security, stability and the rebirth of Iraq. In addition, he promised to vigorously address the country’s economic and financial challenges, tackle corruption, combat the Covid-19 health emergency and ensure Iraq’s autonomy from “external pressures.”[17] The next general elections have been set for July 6, 2021. But in the meantime, many things in the country may change.

The paradox of Basra

The fact that the tents in Tahrir Square have largely disappeared does not mean that the anti-government demonstrations are over. On the contrary, they have flared up again in recent months, especially in the Shiite regions of south-central Iraq.[18] It has been said, “these [demonstrations] are rekindled periodically, especially in combination with “ecological” crises, due to the scarcity of essential services: lack of drinking water, high temperatures, natural disasters. In this context must be mentioned the attempts of pro-Iran militias to restore order, an order favorable to Tehran and its Iraqi clients.[19]

Regarding the first aspect – the ecological crises – it should be remembered that the street protests began in 2018 in Basra, and recently they have reignited there. This city is at the center of a region that includes the most important oil fields in Iraq, and is experiencing a truly disastrous situation today.  It is the richest region in the country, but it also has the highest number of unemployed young people and is one of the most polluted areas in the Middle East.[20] In this place, once rich in greenery and crossed by great rivers – here, in fact, the Tigris and the Euphrates meet – there is a shortage of drinking water, and most of the aquifers are polluted; often electricity is taken away from civilians to reserve it for the big oil industries. The problem is that huge water reserves are needed to drill for oil, which causes waste and water pollution. “Basra’s canals are full of garbage and sewage. Protests had already broken out in the city in the summer of 2018, after about 120,000 people ended up in hospital because of drinking contaminated water.”[21]

Although the Basra region produces almost half of all Iraqi oil, according to the United Nations High Commissioner’s Office, its poverty-rate is very high. The UN agency reports 40 percent of the  population is living below the poverty line, the national average (also due to the aftermath of Covid-19) is 31.7 percent. This situation that has occurred in such a wealthy city, which is considered the economic capital of Iraq, poses a threat to the entire country.[22]

The second aspect – the one concerning the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraqi soil – is an old issue, debated and not resolved by successive U.S. administrations. Trump repeatedly called for the withdrawal of U.S. soldiers from Iraq, as he had promised during the election campaign. There had also been talk of reducing their numbers to 3,000. The Pentagon and U.S. intelligence services opposed this solution, which they considered very risky both for Iraq and, above all, for American interests in the region. President Biden has not yet expressed himself on the matter, but it is likely that he will adopt the decision of the generals and strategists of the Pentagon.

In Iraq, neither the Kurds (historical allies of the U.S. in the fight against ISIS) nor the Sunnis look favorably on an eventual U.S. withdrawal. The former would consider such a move as a sort of betrayal of their national cause by Washington. Their demands for independence from the central state – especially with regard to the disputed territory around the city of Kirkuk – are likely to become more persistent. As for the Sunnis, they still need the presence of the U.S. military to keep pro-Iran Shiite militias under control, which during the war against the Islamic State established themselves in Sunni strongholds in the central-northern regions of the country, such as in the province of Nineveh.[23]

Nor should it be forgotten that the Islamic State, in recent months, has strengthened its presence in Iraq, in the region of Diyala, on the border with Iran. This is evidenced by recent attacks against tribal leaders and government forces.[24] This indicates that the jihadist threat in Iraq is only dormant, and that local government forces are not able to counter it, due to a lack of resources and operational capabilities. Iran, for its part, exploits this climate of uncertainty to justify funding militias in Iraq. By doing so, it can also manipulate Iraqi domestic politics. Therefore, in this situation, it seems that Iraq needs international support more than ever to help secure stability in the country and aid its recovery so that it does not become a battleground between external actors.

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 5, no. 3 art. 8, 1020: 10.32009/22072446.0321.8

[1].      Cf. M. Muolo, “Il Papa dal 5 all’8 marzo in Iraq”, in Avvenire, December 8, 2020.

[2].      Cf. P. Rodari, “Il viaggio del Papa in Iraq per i cristiani ‘un messaggio di pace’”, in la Repubblica, December 8, 2020; A. Spadaro, “Beyond the Apocalypse: starting again from Baghdad,” in Civ. Catt. English Edition, February 2021,

[3].      See “Iraq”, in the CIA Factbook,

[4].      Cf. G. Sale, “L’emigrazione dei cristiani mediorientale nell’epoca contemporanea”, in Civ. Catt. 2015 IV 3-17.

[5].      Cf. Id., Islam contro Islam, Milan, Jaca Book, 2013, 95.

[6].      See ibid., 102.

[7].      Cf. F. Rampini, Quando inizia la nostra storia. Le grandi svolte del passato che hanno disegnato il mondo in cui viviamo, Milan, Mondadori, 2018, 63.

[8].      Cf. G. Sale, Isis, Islam e cristiani d’Oriente, Milan, Jaca Book, 2016, 11.

[9] .     Cf. G. Sale, Stati islamici e minoranze cristiane, Milan, Jaca Book, 2008, 186.

[10].    Cf. “Iraq”, in Atlante geopolitico 2020,  Rome, Treccani, 2020, 297.

[11].    The U.S., today as yesterday, seems to have no interest in changing the political situation in Iraq, and will never support a new intifada of the Iraqi Shiite south against the central government, as they did in 1991 in an anti-Saddam strategy. “This is why Premier Mustafa Kazemi,” writes one political commentator, “is considered as much a man of Iran as of the United States. As viewed by external, regional and international forces, Iraq does not need to be reformed. The system of local and national governance must not be transformed in order to meet the legitimate needs of a good part of its citizens, but, on the contrary, it must remain frozen in order to allow external actors to preserve their hegemony” (L. Trombetta, “A 30 anni dalla guerra del Golfo, l’Iraq resta un paese in cerca d’identità”, in

[12].    P. Del Re, “Iraq, tra i giovani ribelli di Baghdad che sognano un Paese mai visto: ‘Fuori americani e iraniani’”, in la Repubblica, January 26, 2020.

[13]. In addition to occupying Tahrir Square, the protesters after a few days took control of the so-called “Turkish Restaurant”, a skyscraper of 11 floors (abandoned in 2003), which had become a strategic location for Iraqi snipers, to shoot at the crowd that was in the great square. It later became the headquarters of the protesters and the symbol of the uprising. Cf. ibid.

[14].    Ibid.

[15].    Cf. Z. al-Jezairy, “In piazza Tahrir a Baghdad sono sparite le tende dei manifestanti”, at

[16].    Cf. P. Del Re, “Il premier Abdul Mahdi si dimette, ma le violenze continuano”, at

[17].    Cf. “Iraq: via libera al nuovo governo ‘di soluzione’”, at

[18].    On the anniversary of the October 1, 2019, demonstrations, many young people returned to the streets to demand that the government implement its promises to the country. They are trying to organize themselves into a permanent protest movement. Cf. “Il movimento si ricompone”, in Internazionale, November 6, 2020, 32.

[19].    “A 30 anni dalla guerra del Golfo, l’Iraq resta un paese in cerca d’identità” at

[20].    It should not be forgotten that Iraq, more than other countries, has to deal with global warming of the planet. About 90 percent of its territory is desertified. “Formerly lush waterways, such as the Tigris and Euphrates, have reduced their flow by at least 40 percent, due to drought and indiscriminate construction of upstream dams in Iran, Turkey and Syria” (R. Sahakian, “L’esempio degli iracheni”, in Internazionale, February 21, 2020, 49).

[21].    Ibid. Oil production in Iraq in recent times has almost doubled. The country is, after Saudi Arabia, the second largest crude oil producer in the World Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec). In the summer of 2019, it reached a new record, producing around five million barrels per day, largely in the large fields located in Basra and the surrounding region. Nevertheless, unemployment, especially among young people, is very high, per capita income is low, and public services, such as health, schooling, etc., are very poor or non-existent.

[22].    Cf. Z. al-Jezairy, “In Iran Bassora ha raggiunto il culmine della povertà”, in

[23].    Cf. A. Glioti, “Washington e il dilemma di Baghdad”, at

[24].    Cf. E. Bobbio, “Stato Islamico”, at

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