Despite its much-publicized, American-installed democratic system, Iraq has proven to be no less vulnerable to street protests than other countries in the region. Since early February, a continuous stream of relatively modest protests has unfolded. Although in a democratic political system citizens are supposedly able to put pressure on the government and hold it accountable by relying on institutional channels, Iraqis appear to have concluded that—like people in authoritarian countries—they will not be heard unless they take to the streets in number. 

It is not surprising that they had reached such a conclusion because, for well over a year, Iraq has been consumed by pure politics devoid of policy: a fierce battle for electoral votes and, even more brazenly, nine months of jockeying by politicians about who would form the government and who would get what, with little regard for the problems of the country or the needs of its citizens. Even the government formed in December remains focused on politics without policies; witness the large amount of legislation that has been accumulating in parliament without being passed.
Protests so far have engendered plenty of rhetoric but no significant corrective action on the part of the government. Political repercussions, however, have been significant. The demonstrations have further undermined the already tenuous governing alliance, as parties seek to blame each other and several politicians reconsider their relationship with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. In addition, they have led to the resignation of several provincial governors and to new tensions between the central government and provincial councils. While Maliki’s government does not yet appear seriously threatened, it has been shaken.

In the same period, protest has also broken out in Kurdistan, although it has been largely limited to Suleimaniya. While all demonstrators in Iraq share some similar concerns—particularly about economic hardship and government corruption—protests in the two parts of the country have followed different paths and engendered different government responses. Indeed, the protests highlight the degree to which Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq function separately from each other. Protesters in each part of the country organize independently, and there is no discernible spillover effect from one to the other.

Maliki Turns to Carrots and Sticks

Protests broke out in Iraq on February 4 and continued in the following days with rather small-scale demonstrations in Baghdad, Mosul, Basra, Ramadi, and Diwaniya. Protesters voiced discontent with the government’s failure to improve services—electricity shortages being a major complaint—and the de facto cutbacks (because of unavailability) in the food rations the government had been distributing since well before the U.S.-led invasion. The government’s response was remarkably swift, showing that it was aware—after weeks of protests elsewhere—that small incidents can mushroom into upheavals and that economic demands have political implications. 

First came the economic promises. The parliament’s financial commission declared the government would create 288,000 jobs once the budget was approved—which Maliki confirmed officially several weeks later—and Maliki announced the government would give 15,000 dinars (about U.S.$12) monthly to each citizen to make up for the decrease in food rations. He also promised that electricity shortages would end by winter. 

Then came the political steps, which were modest in terms of substance but belied the government’s fears. In a populist gesture, Maliki immediately declared that he would cut his own salary—believed to be over 41 million dinars (about U.S.$350,000) a year—in half, putting pressure on other officials to do the same. On February 5, he announced that he would not run for a third term—a strange promise because a prime minister does not “run” for office—and that he would seek a constitutional amendment imposing a two-term limit on the position. Meant to allay concerns that Maliki intended to become prime minister for life, the promises showed that he saw himself more as a president with a popular mandate than as a prime minister responsible to the parliament. Maliki and other government officials, including Parliament Speaker Osama Nujeifi, also hastened to reassure the public that, because the government was being responsive, protests need not escalate. 

As protests continued in the following days, government officials made more concessions, at times appearing to compete with each other to demonstrate that they considered the public’s demands justified and would do their best to implement appropriate reforms. Speaker Nujeifi pledged that the parliament would make sure the electricity shortages would be addressed and that the food supplies needed to service the ration cards would be available. Maliki exhorted ministers and governors to mingle with the protesters and listen to their demands and grievances.

But the government also used force to end the protests. When demonstrators in Wasit province set the governor’s house and a section of the governorate building on fire—allegedly after waiting for hours for an official to open the door and hear their demands—security officials reportedly responded by firing live ammunition, killing at least one person. Maliki called for an investigation, but the governor called the protesters thugs with no justifiable demands. Baghdad Operations Command denounced all protests as a Baathist plan to create chaos, while the Baghdad Provincial Council accused al-Qaeda of being behind the demonstrations. 

On February 21, Maliki himself, while continuing to promise to address the grievances swiftly, declared there were too many protests and accused unnamed parties of fomenting unrest to reap unspecified advantages. The next day, he accused the Baathists of being behind the Wasit protest. In another venue, he declared that people with “evil intentions” were determined to destroy the political process and bring back the days of armed groups and foreign intervention. And when protesters called for a “day of rage” on February 25, the Baghdad Operations Command responded by imposing a curfew on vehicular traffic beginning the night before the protest, in an attempt to reduce the number of participants by forcing them to walk long distances.

With the call for a February 25 day of rage, the protest took on a more political tone. It was no longer isolated groups asking for better services, but angry citizens challenging the government. As a result, politicians started positioning themselves to avoid becoming targets. Maliki declared that people had the right to protest but also said that this was not the right time to do so. He warned of infiltrators determined to create violence and appealed to Iraqis not to participate. President Jalal Talabani announced he would defer to the prime minister and kept silent. 

The ministry of interior (still headed by Maliki as caretaker minister) claimed to possess numerous documents showing al-Qaeda intended to commit terrorist acts targeting the protest. In response, eight militant groups—including some suspected of having links to al-Qaeda—announced they would suspend all activities on February 25 to give protesters a chance to demonstrate peacefully. The heads of the Sunni, Shi’a, and Christian endowment offices issued a joint statement pleading with would-be protesters to give the government time to implement the newly approved 2011 budget, which they said would address many of the problems. At the same time, though, some Shi’a religious authorities backed the protest, including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who declared through a spokesman that protest was a democratic right—and, indeed, a representative of Sistani even joined the protesters in Baghdad. 

The day of rage turned out to be a relatively minor affair, certainly compared with what was happening elsewhere. Protests took place simultaneously in many cities, but the scale was unimpressive—reports from most cities cited participation only in the hundreds of people; even in Baghdad, a few thousand people, at most, took to the streets. But the protests were definitely angrier and more political than past demonstrations, and so was the government’s response. 

In Baghdad, demonstrators took down some barriers around the Green Zone and proceeded inside, where they denounced the U.S. occupation and the police state in Baghdad. In Nineveh, protesters asked for the resignation of the provincial council and for the reform of the central government, dramatizing their demands by setting fire to the provincial council building; Speaker Nujeifi and his brother, Nineveh Governor Atheel Nujeifi, were inside. Protesters also set fire to a government building in Mosul. 

While February 25 hardly qualified as a day of rage, its political impact was remarkable. First, the protests triggered a wave of resignations, not in the central government but on the part of governors and local police officials. Second, the protests shook the already tenuous governing alliance, leading several parties to put some distance between themselves and Maliki and to reconsider their options. Third, the demonstrations affected the relationship between the central government and the provinces, as Maliki and other officials at the center sought to scapegoat provincial officials, who in turn pushed back.

Beleaguered Officials Resign

Iraq’s political system is less centralized than that of most Arab states. While a trend toward increasing centralization in Baghdad clearly exists—as does the monopolization of power in Maliki’s hands—Iraq has elected provincial councils (the provincial governors are appointed). It also has local councils, although they were formed six years ago in a nondemocratic process that mixed outright appointments with consultation and have not been renewed since. 

The relative decentralization of the system affected the protests as well. The crowds taking to the streets targeted not only issues of common concern throughout the country—from electricity shortages to corruption—but also specific local grievances, often expressed as demands for local officials to resign.

And resign many did, with surprising speed. The day of rage led in short order to the resignation of Governor Shiltagh Abboud in Basra and Governor Salman al-Zirkani in Babil, both State of Law coalition members targeted specifically by the demonstrators. A number of police chiefs and some high-ranking provincial officials around the country quit as well. 

Shifting Center-Periphery Relations

Resignations were only part of the story. The protests also triggered a series of changes—or attempted changes—in the relationship among federal, provincial, and local officials, who all sought to shift blame onto each other for the problems the protesters were denouncing.

Maliki sought to blame the provincial and local councils. Shortly after the day of rage, he called for early provincial council elections, as well as for the renewal of local councils. But provincial council elections had been held in January 2009, and their members, not surprisingly, were united in rejecting early elections, arguing that the dismal status of service delivery was due not to their neglect but to the sluggishness of the ministries and the central government. 

Maliki also tried to force the resignation of the governors of Wasit and Nineveh. He was successful in Wasit, where Governor Latif Hamad al-Turfa (a State of Law member) was forced to resign by the provincial council. The issue there was essentially corruption. In addition to the accusation that his mishandling of earlier protests had led to casualties, allegations of corruption against Turfa had already been referred to the independent Commission on Integrity. 

But Maliki was not successful in Nineveh, where the situation was more complex. First, Governor Atheel Nujeifi, a brother of the parliament speaker, did not belong to Maliki’s State of Law coalition. A Sunni with a strong power base in an important province bordering on Kurdistan, he had joined the Iraqiya coalition in the elections and had opposed Maliki’s bid for a second term as prime minister. Not surprisingly, Nujeifi refused to resign, stating that he would do so only in response to popular demand or if dismissed by the provincial council. 

Nothing would be remarkable in this round of totally predictable reciprocal accusations—after all, nobody wants to take responsibility for failure if he can blame it on someone else. Yet in the context of Iraq and even more broadly of the Arab world, with its highly centralized political systems, the exchange indicated something remarkable: a real degree of decentralization, with provincial governments having their own power bases and thus some independence. There was politics both at the center and in the provinces. 

It was far less clear, however, whether decentralization was also achieving what decentralization is supposed to produce in theory—namely, governance that is responsive to citizens’ demands. Governors and provincial councils have demonstrated clearly that while they will jealously protect their power and autonomy, they have yet to show a commitment to effective governance. 

Part of the shift in center-periphery relations was the renewal of the discussion about forming new self-governing regions like Kurdistan. In early March, twelve of the 28 members of the Najaf provincial council signed a petition demanding the transformation of Najaf from a province into a region similar to Kurdistan. The petition was particularly significant because the signatories belonged to different parties, including the Sadrist Trend, State of Law, Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), and former prime minister Ibrahim Jaafari’s Reform Party—all Shi’i parties, to be sure, but Najaf is a heavily Shi’i province.

The Iraqi constitution recognizes the right of provinces—individually or as part of a group—to demand recognition as regions, allowing them to enjoy the autonomy and self-government that is present now only in Kurdistan. If at least one-third of a provincial council’s members demand the formation of a new region, the government is obliged to consider it. No such petition had been submitted until the Najaf initiative; an early discussion about the possibility of forming a mega-region comprising nine predominantly Shi’a provinces in the south and center of the country was quickly abandoned. Proponents of a Najaf region claimed that they wanted Najaf to be recognized as a region because they believed it would bring larger financial transfers from the central government to Najaf. Protesters saw this as a political maneuver to avoid responding to their demands and angrily rejected the idea.

Rethinking Alliances

Probably the most important effect of the protests to date has been the shaking up of Iraq’s governing coalition. The government set up in December 2010 after nine months of wrangling following the March 7 parliamentary elections was, from the outset, based on a fragile grand alliance of parties brought together not by a common ideology or a common governing program, but by expediency. Neither Maliki nor Iraqiya leader Iyad Allawi had been able to forge an alliance that provided the required majority of parliamentary seats but excluded their rival. Shi’a parties that had initially rejected Maliki’s bid to remain as prime minister—particularly ISCI and the Sadrist Trend—had not been able to coalesce around an alternative candidate. All parties were thus forced to come together, but they did so without much enthusiasm or conviction. 

By the time the protests started, government formation was still incomplete. Many cabinet posts were occupied by caretaker ministers because the parties had been unable to agree on specific nominees. Most important, Maliki was personally acting as minister of defense, interior, and national security, and he appeared to be in no hurry to cede the posts to permanent appointees. While sources close to the prime minister indicated that the delays were due to the lack of a consensus on the candidates by the various coalitions, Maliki was more blunt, stating that he did not see a consensus developing. And the National Council for Higher Strategic Policies, a mechanism that Maliki had agreed to form as a means to bring a reluctant Allawi into the government, had not yet been set up because there was no agreement about its role. Allawi, slated to head the council, argued that it must be a powerful executive body that could curb the prime minister’s power, but Maliki insisted it would simply be an advisory council. As a result, legislation languished in the Council of Representatives. 

Once the protests started, the rival parties in the governing coalition became more interested in accusing each other of having caused the problems than in working together to find a solution. Most Iraqi politicians probably did not want to see the government fall, but their attempts to deflect the public’s anger from their party by pinning it on another one undermined the government. 

Moqtada al-Sadr was the first important figure to distance himself from the government, declaring on February 14 that Iraqis had the right to demonstrate for better services and against the occupation. The Sadrists were in a difficult position: Having chosen, in the hope of gaining popularity, to control ministries that delivered services to the public, they now risked losing support if blame for poor performance was directed at them.

Criticized by Maliki and others in the State of Law coalition for attacking a government of which he was a part, Sadr did not desist. He announced that his party planned a referendum of sorts on people’s views of the state of services in the country, but he also pleaded with the protesters to give the government six months to address their grievances. If the government did not perform, Sadr said, he would fully support the protesters. 

Not surprisingly, when the survey results were published in mid-March, they indicated that the vast majority of the 3.8 million Iraqis from across the country who allegedly participated agreed that services were in bad shape and that they would support protests if services did not improve in six months. Less flamboyantly, the ISCI and its leader, Ammar al-Hakim, also criticized the government’s handling of the protests and expressed support for the protesters’ demands.
After the February 25 protests and the crackdown by security forces across the country, other members of the National Alliance—the coalition of Shi’i parties that Maliki had succeeded in cobbling together through months of efforts—tried to distance themselves from it without causing a complete break. Allawi announced that he was giving up the leadership of the still-to-be formed Strategic Council (effectively ending his cooperation with Maliki) and traveled to Najaf to meet with Sadr. The Iraqiya spokesman announced that the organization was beginning to coordinate with the Sadrist Trend. 

Desertions also took place inside Maliki’s own State of Law alliance. Safiya Suheil, one of the few women in the organization, resigned shortly after the protests began and declared her independence. And Jaafar Baqir al-Sadr, a son of the late Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, resigned from the Council of Representatives. Jaafar al-Sadr had run for parliament as an independent on the State of Law slate and received the second-largest number of votes in Baghdad. He quit the parliament on February 17, claiming that a few individuals were monopolizing decision making in the State of Law coalition, that the parliament was ineffective because of sectarianism, and that neither the parliament nor the government could devise policies or had a vision for the future. 

Adding to Maliki’s woes, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani openly backed the protesters. He sent a personal representative to participate in the February 25 day of rage and subsequently praised the participants for peacefully asking for their rights. The highly revered religious leader also called for concrete reforms, warning of dangerous ramifications if the government continued down its current path. 

At the time of this writing in mid-March, it was still too early to judge whether the cracks appearing in the governing alliance would widen to the point of causing a collapse. Certainly, tensions were increasing: the distrust of Maliki that delayed for months the formation of the National Alliance had resurfaced; Allawi was sulking; and factions were emerging in Iraqiya. But no party was confident that it would be any more possible to form an alternative governing coalition today than it was in the past. All factions were testing how far they could push each other without provoking a break and causing the government to fall. 

Protests in Kurdistan

Kurdistan has also been shaken by protests initially triggered by a combination of domestic grievances and the so-called demonstration effect of events in Tunisia and Egypt. But the separation between Kurdistan and the rest of the country is so wide that there were no linkages between protesters in the two areas. Protestors in Kurdistan followed their own path as popular discontent about corruption and other problems was superseded by the rivalries among Kurdish parties and blunted by a nationalist appeal by the leadership trying to deflect the protest away from itself.
Kurdistan has long been dominated by two political parties, representing two political families and two different sub-regions. The largest party—the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP—is linked to the Barzani family. It controls the presidency of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and alternates with the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, in naming the KRG’s prime minister. The PUK, linked to the Talabani family, is dominant in Suleimaniya; it also controls the presidency of Iraq, and, currently, the position of prime minister of the KRG. Since 2009, the PUK has been losing support to a new party, Gorran (Movement for Change), which was founded by former PUK member Neshirvan Mustafa. The protests became part of the partisan politics of the regions and the competition among its major political parties. 

Unrest started in Suleimaniya on February 17. The demonstration was called ostensibly as a show of solidarity with the youth of Tunisia and Egypt, but before long the protesters started marching to KDP headquarters, calling for reform and reportedly chanting that “the corrupt must face justice.” It is unclear who took the initiative but it was Gorran, the upstart party, which took the blame for the anti-KDP demonstrations—although it denied playing any role. 

Presumably in response to the protests, Gorran’s headquarters in Irbil were set on fire, as were the headquarters of KNN, a television station owned by Gorran’s leader Mustafa. At the same time, units of the peshmerga, Kurdistan’s defense force, were moved from Irbil to Suleimaniya to avert any possible escalation. The next day, Gorran offices in another northern city, Dohuk, were looted. Journalists sympathetic to the protesters or linked to Mustafa’s media company, Wusha, were also subject to attacks and harassment. Small-scale protests also took place in a few other towns but quickly died down. 

The KDP and PUK tried initially to handle the protests as a security issue. Without naming any organization, they claimed that the protests had been planned deliberately to destabilize Kurdistan. But when protesters started calling for the resignation of Kurdistan Prime Minister Barham Saleh, a PUK member, the two parties changed tactics. Betraying how worried it was about the unrest, the PUK leadership announced that it supported holding early elections and forming an enlarged government, presumably with Gorran’s participation. KRG officials also set up a special committee to study the demands of the protesters and opposition in order to address the problems. 

The promises did not mollify the opposition, however. On March 3, Gorran and two smaller opposition parties boycotted the session of the Kurdish parliament. Clearly alarmed, Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani immediately called for a dialogue with the opposition to devise a reform program. Most recently, he said he would step down if the reform program failed, though his pledge was made only after the nine Kurdish parties—including PUK, KDP, and Gorran—signed an agreement not to mobilize the street against each other. 

Barzani also called for early elections, denying that he intended to remain as president for life. Prime Minister Saleh, a fairly reform-minded member of the PUK, then expressed his willingness to step down if the parliament called on him to do so—probably an empty gesture because the parliament is dominated by the KDP and PUK and thus unlikely to ask for his resignation. Taking advantage of the major parties’ moment of weakness, Gorran continued to push for faster change, rejecting the president’s promises as insufficient and calling for the government to step down without waiting for new elections. 

The Kurdish leadership also played another card to end the political crisis: it sought to unite all Kurds around an issue on which they agreed—the annexation of the disputed town of Kirkuk. On February 27, Barzani ordered two peshmerga units to deploy around Kirkuk, claiming that terrorists had infiltrated the city to organize protests and that the deployment of the peshmerga was necessary to protect residents. Despite calls by Maliki, Arab and Turkoman residents, and even by the United States to demobilize, the KRG refused to withdraw the peshmerga—former KRG prime minister Neshirvan Barzani even threatened to deploy more troops if the situation did not improve. In a totally unexpected move that called into question his allegiance to Iraq as a whole, Talabani on March 8 declared that Kirkuk was “Kurdistan’s Jerusalem” and called for a Kurdish-Turkmen strategic alliance against the “terrorists and new occupiers” of Kirkuk. 

By creating a crisis in Kirkuk, the KDP and the PUK may have succeeded in silencing the Kurdish opposition, which cannot be seen as lukewarm on the issue of Kirkuk. They have also succeeded in reviving the issue of the implementation of Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution, which calls for a referendum in which the residents of Kirkuk will decide whether they want the city to become part of Kurdistan. While beneficial in the short run to the dominant Kurdish parties in their attempt to silence the opposition, in the long run the crisis could dearly cost Iraq as a whole by renewing tensions that threaten the country’s unity. 

Already changes in Kirkuk’s political makeup are occurring as Governor Abdul Rahman Mustafa and Rezkar Ali, the head of the provincial council of Kirkuk, announced their resignations on March 15 for personal reasons. In reality, the resignations were the result of a political agreement between the Kurdistan Alliance and the Turkoman Front, which will now probably head the provincial council. This may be the beginning of the strategic alliance Talabani called for, and will put greater pressure on Maliki to implement Article 140.


The success of protest movements in Tunisia and Egypt in overthrowing two unpopular presidents and launching a process of political transitions has created expectations that other Arab countries would go down the same path. Conversely, when the governments of Yemen, Libya, and Bahrain employed force to suppress uprisings and reestablish control, many observers jumped to the conclusion that the Arab spring was over. Iraq and Kurdistan suggest a different conclusion, namely that protests in each country follow different dynamics, dictated by that country’s specific political situation.
Undoubtedly, similar conditions exist in Arab countries that foment protest, and a demonstration effect encourages citizens of one country to follow the example of those in another country. All Arab countries are experiencing a youth bulge; all, including the wealthier ones, have high unemployment rates, particularly among the young. And everywhere, regimes—even those that respect at least some of the forms of democracy—are authoritarian and unresponsive to their citizens. But even if similar factors spark protest, what happens next is driven by different political circumstances.
In Iraq, popular protest has been quite limited—although persistent—bringing into the streets crowds that rarely exceeded more than a few hundred people. In a country with an authoritarian, monolithic regime, such protests would have hardly mattered. They probably would have been swiftly dispersed by the authorities, without political consequences. Only much larger protests would have persuaded the government to make concessions. 
But Iraq has a different kind of political system. While Maliki has displayed clear and worrisome authoritarian tendencies, he does not preside over a monolithic regime. The governing coalition is divided and, hence, is internally vulnerable. Furthermore, separate centers of power exist at the provincial level. The system is not democratic, but it is pluralistic. As a result, protests that would have had few, if any, repercussions in more monolithic political systems shook the governing alliance in Iraq and affected the relationship between the central government and the provinces. This outcome is not necessarily positive for citizens who want the government to address their problems. The protests, in fact, had the opposite effect: reigniting a political competition devoid of policy content, thus keeping the authorities from addressing the country’s concrete problems.
In Kurdistan, popular protest was quickly hijacked, under circumstances that are unclear, by the political parties. Protests thus became a tool that the ruling parties in Kurdistan tried to use against the opposition. When that maneuver failed, the Kurdistan government managed to overwhelm the protests in a wave of Kurdish nationalism. That succeeded in uniting the Kurds but dividing Iraq—with the risk of igniting serious conflict.
The story of popular protest is still unfolding in both Iraq and in Kurdistan. It would be unwise to predict the outcome, but it seems safe to conclude that the political circumstances in both regions will preclude either the Tunisia/Egypt scenario or the Yemen/Libya/Bahrain scenario from unfolding. In the end, the outcome will be determined by the political dynamics in Iraq and Kurdistan.