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[Research Reports] Iraq's Challenges and the New Prime Minister's Initiatives

Akiko Yoshioka (Senior Analyst, The Institute of Energy Economics, Japan)
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‘Middle East and Africa’ Research Group # 5
The "Research Reports" are compiled by participants of research groups set up at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, and are designed to disseminate in timely fashion the content of presentations made at research group meetings or analyses of current affairs. The Research Reports represent their authors’ views. In addition to these Research Reports, individual research groups will publish “Research Bulletins” covering the full range of the group’s research themes.


In June 2020, a new Iraqi government headed by Mustafa Kadhimi was inaugurated. The resignation of former Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi in the face of a series of daily casualties caused by anti-government demonstrations in the capital Baghdad and in southern provinces since October 2019 was the first non-election change of government in Iraq since 2003.

There have been numerous anti-government protests in Iraq since the mid-2010s. At first, they were mainly triggered by economic dissatisfaction with, for example, the lack of minimum public services such as electricity and drinking water, and by unemployment issues. Although the large-scale demonstrations that began in 2019 still featured such economic demands, there were more calls for political and administrative structural reform, including measures against corruption and reform of the political system. This can be seen from the fact that the protesters chanted "nurīd watan" ("We want a homeland").

The political structure in Iraq has a parliamentary system in which the prime minister is appointed by members of parliament; the prime minister then selects cabinet members and obtains parliamentary approval of the new cabinet to oversee administration. However, in the case of Iraq, a system has been established based on the "consociated democracy" in which almost all major political parties become ruling parties, obtain ministerial posts and acquire certain interests. Since there is no opposition party to monitor the power, major political parties have secured politically available resources as vested interests. The power of the Shiite parties at the heart of government authority is especially significant. There are more than five major Shiite parties, and many of them are actually party coalitions, so there exist various other party organizations underneath. Many of these parties' distribution of benefits/interests to their supporters have helped eat up oil revenues by increasing the salaries of public servants. In addition, the fact that each party intervenes in various ways to benefit from projects for economic reconstruction, impairing efficient administration, is hindering economic development.

Another problem is that many of the major political parties have armed forces that, while formally part of the police or security forces, are in fact exercising their military power quite freely, and any of the prime minister, defense minister or interior minister does not have the power to control them. In terms of the power structure, there is a large gap between the official and the actual. Therefore, the intentions of specific stakeholders have a huge influence on various policy decisions, and the state has not been able to make functional decisions. The cumulative effect results in a protracted delay in recovery from the damage caused by long-lasting conflicts. Economic, social and employment environments have been left unimproved.


About six months have passed since the inauguration of the new government, but Iraq still faces many challenges. The worldwide spread of COVID-19 has not exempted Iraq; the number of infected people that peaked in September remains high, at the 20th highest level in the world as of the end of November. A bigger problem is the decline in crude oil prices triggered by the corona pandemic. Iraq, which relies on oil exports for more than 90% of its government revenue, is directly affected by falling oil prices. Although Iraq is the second largest petroleum exporter in OPEC, the government has continually failed to make timely payment of salaries to its civil servants for months.

Nearly three years have passed since the war against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) ended, but there are still many internally displaced people who have not been able to return to their homes. Although the number of terrorist attacks has declined and the overall security situation is undoubtedly improving, relatively small terrorist attacks are still common in areas formerly controlled by ISIS. Anti-government protests have subsided partly due to the corona pandemic, but other factors said to have dampened their momentum include the intimidation and assassination of activists and journalists reporting on those protests as well as the infiltration of forces inflaming violence among the demonstrators. In July, a prominent Iraqi researcher was assassinated, and a German teacher was abducted; she was subsequently rescued and left the country. In addition, there were about 60 rocket attacks and about the same number of improvised bomb attacks targeting the US military and the US Embassy in the nine months from January to September. In March, three British and American soldiers were killed. The Popular Mobilization Forces, a military organization mainly led by Shiites paramilitary groups, is strongly suspected of being involved in these attacks. Under particular suspicion are some core organizations having close ties with Iran that portray themselves as "resistance movements". These PMFs have been influential not only as security organizations but also in political and economic circles, representing the vested interests of the existing regime.


As anti-government protests demand drastic changes in the existing system, and political parties and PMFs with vested interests are trying to preserve the existing system, it could be said that Prime Minister Kadhimi has been aiming to improve the existing system as a reformer from within. Since taking office, the prime minister has made it clear that he wants to bring about reforms in Iraq by mainly appointing technocrat to his cabinet and cutting into vested interests. In fact, since assuming office, he has made a number of appointments of senior government officials, mainly in the security agencies, and has dispatched security forces and made frequent visits around the country to ensure thorough border control in order to transfer customs revenue to the national treasury. The prime minister has also conducted corruption investigations; heads of a national investment committee and an adviser to the prime minister have already been arrested. More importantly, the government arrested some persons who allegedly attacked US interests by searching the offices of several PMFs. However, there has been a strong backlash against such use of force, which often ends up in a fiasco with the release of those arrested. The prime minister's initiatives for reform and his intention to stifle the PMFs are more clear-cut than those of his predecessor, but it nevertheless appears difficult to make dramatic changes.

(This paper was originally written in Japanese as of November 18, 2020.)