Storming Iraq's Green Zone: Wake-up call for political reform?

The protests had a staged quality, but they speak to Iraq's entrenched inequalities – and the popular thirst to address them.

Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters
Followers of Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr left the Green Zone in Baghdad Sunday.

Iraqi protesters delivered a visceral wake-up call to politicians they accuse of corruption and dysfunctional government by breaching the walls of Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone and storming the parliament building on Saturday.

Loyalists of the maverick Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr – whose speech Saturday morning called for a “great popular uprising … to stop the march of corrupt officials” – had largely left the area by Sunday. The event, however, profoundly shook Iraqi politicians, some of whom were reportedly chased from the chamber.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, after inspecting the damage, declared that “intense” meetings to appoint technocratic ministers would occur in coming days, as part of long-promised reforms that have so far been largely blocked by lawmakers.

That may have limited effect.  “Even if you have the best ministers in the world, there are mafias and powerful businessmen and political parties who are entrenched in the ministries," says Hayder al-Khoei, an analyst at the Chatham House think tank in London, who last visited Iraq two weeks ago. "It’s not just the minister."

It is far from clear if the weekend wake-up call will translate into a reformed and more responsive politics that could rein in endemic corruption and take on interests and parties that have increasingly entrenched themselves, virtually since American forces toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.

But even as the ongoing wrangling over politics threatens everything from the bitter mood in the street to the battle against the self-declared Islamic State, few who know Iraq are predicting political collapse. Iraqis, who have suffered far worse in recent decades than political gridlock, have shown themselves to be expert survivors.

“Some say this is the end of Iraq, but Iraqis have already seen the worst days,” says Luay al-Khatteeb, a London-based fellow of Columbia University's Center on Global Energy Policy. “It is behind them, the years of sanctions and wars, years of sectarian and civil unrest and uprising, and the fight against IS and the number of times the Iraqi Army has collapsed since 2003.

“Iraq is moving toward a recovery phase, but how long it will take? It could take some time,” he says. “As we approach to a very hot summer, the situation could become more complicated.”

Street protests have been an episodic fact of life in Baghdad, and rise in scale and fury with the scalding temperatures every summer, when electricity shortages are common. But breaching the Green Zone has sent a message louder than most, for a political caste whose members include politicians who have served more than a decade.

The deepening political crisis comes as Iraq has been hit by a perfect storm of problems: The low price of oil is shriveling the budget, while costs that range from fighting the Islamic State and caring for several million internally displaced, to a government payroll that has swollen from 2 million to 7 million people, have dug deep into state coffers.

A good target

Besides calling for an end to corruption and mismanagement, the protesters also called for an end to a sectarian quota system that, ironically, has allowed parties such as Sadr loyalists – who have their own parliamentarians – to lock in their control of certain ministries, thus contributing to the political problem.

“You can’t have one foot in the government, and the other one riding a wave of antigovernment protests,” says Khoei, noting the contradiction.

Yet the Green Zone target could not have been a better populist choice for a Shiite cleric who once led his Mahdi Army militia to fight American forces, then took time out from politics to upgrade his religious credentials in Iran, and now is stepping up his presence again in Iraqi politics. 

A fortress guarded by high concrete blast walls, layers of coiled razor wire and a small army of security guards, the Green Zone has for years symbolized the magnitude of corruption and been the luxurious home of a leadership elite, physically separated from the grim daily realities faced by most ordinary Iraqis. On Saturday, lawmakers were pursued and sometimes reportedly assaulted by crowds who took over the parliament chamber, taking selfie photographs in the relatively plush space.

“The Green Zone created a very negative sentiment in Iraq since its formation to be a safe haven for politicians, for corrupt politicians, for failed politicians, while leaving the rest of Iraq as a Red Zone,” says Khatteeb. “It really pushed people to a point of no return."

That difference between Iraq’s few “haves” and its legions of “have nots” was evident in the parliament sacking, though it appeared almost choreographed and done with some level of collusion of security guards, says Khoei. He notes that while there was a mob-like mentality, protesters went straight for the parliament building. Most appeared never to have been inside the Green Zone, to see for themselves its better paved roads, manicured grass, and even some outdoor trees that appeared to benefit from air conditioning.

“Their honest, spontaneous reactions were fascinating,” says Khoei, referring to videos posted by protesters on social media. “These people were stunned: ‘In here, even the trees get AC, and we have to suffer with the heat and lack of electricity.’ Everybody knows of this disconnect between politicians and those who live outside, but for these people it really rose to the surface, that these politicians are living on a different planet."

Please follow Scott Peterson on Twitter at @peterson__scott  

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