As the year has progressed and the effects of the coronavirus pandemic have been felt across Iraq, the country has fallen into parallel political, economic, and social crises. Political instability and gridlock have kept government officials from passing much-needed economic relief and public health measures, and the resulting impasse has stoked continued protests, which have been repeatedly met with repression and violence.
Iraq’s Slow-Burning Pandemic Quandary
Iraq initially benefited from a slower curve of coronavirus infections within its borders compared to neighboring countries, but it has now emerged as one of the worst-affected countries in the Middle East and North Africa. As of December 4, Iraq had recorded over 558,000 cases and over 12,300 deaths. The country has seen a consistently high number of daily recorded cases, averaging well over 1,000 cases per day since June 10.
Mirroring the global response, the Iraqi government has tried various policies to stem the spread of the virus. The country’s borders were officially closed for several months, and domestic travel (notably between the region of Iraqi Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq) was suspended until September. During the summer, intermittent curfews and a mask mandate were introduced. However, as the pandemic has endured, mask use has become less prevalent as pandemic fatigue has set in. Meanwhile, winter has begun, and the region is starting to see signs of a second wave of infections. Iraq seems incapable of or unwilling to impose renewed restrictions.
Iraq’s Intractable Political and Economic Turbulence
Since the transitional government was installed in May 2020, Prime Minister Mustafa al- Kadhimi has strived to at least provide the perception of a functioning healthcare system. Yet Iraq has suffered greatly from years of cyclical violence and conflict, and endemic corruption has eroded any semblance of effective and operational healthcare infrastructure. Meanwhile, healthcare workers have become targets of abuse, intimidation, and violence—including at the hands of the families of some coronavirus patients.
Prior to the pandemic and the concurrent political crisis, a string of Iraqi governments had both faced off against and at times enabled the nonstate armed actors operating formally and informally throughout the country. These actors are known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a collection of militias that behave as both nonstate and quasi-state security actors. Amid the ensuing political instability and challenges to state authority and legitimacy, PMF leaders have used the pandemic to further entrench their local fiefdoms of power. In some cases, they also have provided their own actual healthcare services to the public and have taken part in public awareness campaigns about the pandemic to promote public health and safety measures across the country.
The economic emergency triggered by the collapse of oil prices now poses a long-term threat to Iraqi coffers. This economic malaise has been compounded by political paralysis, with agreements on even basic issues such as the country’s annual budget remaining elusive. One sign of a reprieve has materialized, as Iraqi legislators passed a controversial bill in mid-November to borrow $10.2 billion from domestic sources, mainly to fund government salaries—exacerbating ongoing tensions between Erbil and Baghdad.
Iraq’s Ongoing Public Protests
The compounded public health and economic challenges throughout the year have coincided with steadfast public opposition to the country’s political elite. While protest marches were initially suspended as the virus spread, bands of protesters remained permanently rooted in the squares of major cities across southern Iraq like Baghdad, Nasiriyah, and Basra. This region marks the epicenter of the Tishreen Revolution, a protest movement that engulfed the south of the country in late 2019 in response to continued economic and social disenfranchisement and marginalization by the country’s political leaders. Protesting corruption, the lack of job creation, and economic challenges, the protests have arguably been the largest and most sustained form of public mobilization in Iraq since 2003. As public anger over the country’s dire economic situation and the intensifying public health crisis worsened, protests resurfaced, driven in large part by the continued targeted assassinations of activists and civil society actors by militia groups.
The government’s nonresponse to the violence sparked a return to the streets by thousands of protesters, culminating in the one-year anniversary of the start of the protests on October 25 and officials’ decisions to clear the squares of demonstrators. As the protest movement has continued, it has devolved into a more partisan face-off between supporters of competing political factions, as well as continued violence between the state and protesters. In November, there were frequent attacks on the protest movement, including a recent confrontation in Nasiriyah.
Iraq’s interlocking crises are growing as the country’s governing bodies find themselves lacking the means and the political will to respond to the people’s needs. Iraq’s challenges will only increase in the months ahead. Baghdad’s lengthy list of urgent tasks includes tackling the pandemic, finding funds to acquire coronavirus vaccines in 2021, conducting controversial elections in the coming year, and adjusting to a challenging security environment, including a recalibrating of the country’s relationship with the United States.
Iraq has weathered several political inflection points since 2003, almost all of which have sadly plunged the country into different forms of strife and conflict. The country can ill afford any form of internal conflict, yet the risks of such tensions remain potent, and the drivers of conflict plaguing the country have only been exacerbated by the daunting additional challenges it now faces on all fronts.