Iraq's generational shift begins

The early actions of a new leader hint that youthful protests for a secular, clean, and independent Iraq are bearing fruit.

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kahdimi

Iraq’s new prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, has been in office less than a week and he’s already turned one of the world’s youngest democracies into a model for listening to young people. Here’s what the former journalist, human rights advocate, and intelligence chief has done so far:

He ordered the release of all protesters not involved in lethal violence who had been detained since October, when young people began mass demonstrations against a corrupt political elite.

He pledged compensation to the relatives of the more than 550 people who were killed during the five months of protests. He also plans to identify and prosecute militias involved in the violent attacks. In fact, after one protester was killed in the city of Basra on Sunday, the new government quickly arrested at least five men from a local militia held responsible for the shooting.

He reinstated a popular general, Abdul Wahab al-Saadi, to lead the counterterrorism service. Famous for his role in defeating Islamic State in 2017 and inspiring Iraqi unity, Mr. al-Saadi was removed by a previous government last year, helping trigger the protests.

He started to bring Iraq’s many militias – known as popular mobilization units – under government control. Some of the militias are beholden to Iran or corrupt politicians.

He vowed to implement electoral reforms and hold early elections to give voters a chance to end a system of governance that now allocates power – and spoils – among religious and ethnic groups, breeding corruption.

These initial actions by Mr. al-Kadhimi reflect a generational shift in Iraq. More than 40% of Iraqis were born after the 2003 war that ousted Saddam Hussein. Many demand a national identity as Iraqis rather than being exploited by politicians as solely Sunni, Shiite, or Kurd. Those divisions were responsible for the rise of Islamic State, which controlled one-third of Iraq from 2014-17.

The protesters, who have been quiet during the coronavirus outbreak, are still unsure whether to trust the new prime minister. He is a product of a compromise among Iraq’s parties. He is also supported by both the United States and Iran. Distrust runs high among young people toward traditional parties and foreign powers.

The mass demonstrations, marked by their nonviolence and calls for clean government, have changed Iraq for the better. As COVID-19 fades, the protests are starting to resume. They have already forced politicians to select a prime minister who might end the country’s divisions. In just a few days, he has begun to win back Iraq’s idealistic youth.

As a rare democracy in the Middle East, Iraq needs to show that it is possible to have a secular and sovereign state that respects civic rights. So far, Mr. al-Kadhimi is helping to pass the baton from one generation to the next.

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