May 2, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: Red Lines and Green Zones

• For the first time since it was established in 2003, the ‘Green Zone’ in Baghdad was partially overrun by protestors 

• Protesting the political quota system that was designed to ensure baseline representative governance—but which has instead perpetuated corruption—hundreds of supporters of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr stormed Iraq’s Parliament

• The government of Haider al-Abadi has been paralyzed by attempts to replace sectarian seats with non-sectarian technocrats—an effort supported by the protesters but opposed by entrenched powers 

• For the majority of Iraqis, abysmal governance, crumbling infrastructure, and a distressed economy are more pressing daily threats than the Islamic State.


The rowdy but relatively peaceful breaching of the barriers around Baghdad's 'Green Zone' on April 30 was 13 years in the making. The hundreds of protestors who toppled some of the concrete barriers separating the Green Zone from the rest of Baghdad are not the first to protest the country’s terrible governance; they are simply the first to force their way into not just the fortified zone, but Parliament itself. That they did so without massive bloodshed suggests that the security forces in the targeted area were sympathetic, or were ordered to stand down; likely both are true. Public outrage has been building for months over the refusal of the government to weed out seats tied to sectarian quotas and replace them with less partisan technocrats. While politicians played parliamentary games to preserve their lucrative patronage, thousands of supporters of the influential cleric Muqtada al-Sadr repeatedly took to the streets to demand change. Various blocs and sectarian forces may be behind recent developments, but the main driver of the outrage is more straightforward: the Iraqi political system is broken.

From the beginning of the post-Saddam Hussein era, the Iraqi government has walled itself off from the people it ostensibly serves. The average Iraqi has little connection to Baghdad, but recognizes how different the infrastructure and electricity supply is in the Green Zone than in their own neighborhoods, towns, and cities. The current government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi came to power almost two years ago, following the collapse of the Maliki government and the rise of the so-called Islamic State. For those Iraqis outside of the Islamic State's control, the most pressing concerns are the daily indignities and frustrations of being ill-served by Baghdad. In a country deeply divided by sectarianism, dissatisfaction with the government is a common bond, though one that has not proved unifying enough to force actual change.

While the Iraqi government is focused on militarily defeating the Islamic State, the aggravating conditions that enabled the group's rise and resilience are the same ones that protesters have demanded action on for years. Collapsing oil prices have stripped away the government's ability to use subsidies and payouts to perpetually delay needed reforms. A hot summer with limited electricity and air conditioning—outside of the Green Zone—likely played a role in aggravating the recent crowds.

The unrest may distract from the fight against the Islamic State in the near term. However, for the many Iraqis outside of the Islamic State's grasp, combatting poor governance is not a distraction, but the main fight, and the single most effective defense against persistent extremism. The U.S has tried to train and equip the Iraqi army for a decade without lasting positive impact because the political system has not seen lasting positive reform. The coming months in Iraq will be more tumultuous than usual, even for a country experienced in sustained turmoil. It is important that the political revolt remain relatively peaceful and that it actually lead to reform. While the coalition helps the military fight the Islamic State, Iraq will need to fight the dysfunctional governance that has made all gains temporary and costly.


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