Protests expose Iraq’s flawed system of governance

Analysis: The country needs to move away from politics based on religion and ethnicity

The protests in Baghdad pose a major challenge to the government led by prime minister Haidar al-Abadi. The demonstrators include not only followers of radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, but also Sunnis and others. They breached the heavily fortified, sacrosanct Green Zone housing parliament, ministries and embassies.

Furthermore, they demand electricity, water and an end to corruption and the ethno-sectarian regime imposed on Iraq in May 2003 when US viceroy L Paul Bremer formed a powerless "governing council" on the basis of ethnic and sectarian affiliations of its members.

This model of governance has led to domination by the powerful, Iran-allied Shia fundamentalist parties – Dawa and its offshoots – which have mismanaged the post-war administration, gutted armed forces, enriched their members, turned the Kurds against Baghdad and alienated the Sunnis.

A moderate Dawa figure, al-Abadi was meant to deliver better services, tackle rampant graft, and reconcile with marginalised Sunnis. Although he has been in office since September 2014, he has failed to carry out these existential tasks. Instead, he has been confronted by entrenched legislators who refuse to allow him to launch a serious anti-corruption campaign or share power with the Sunnis as a community.


His failures have made it all the more difficult to confront Islamic State on the battlefield and to round up Isis fighters who have fled cities and towns retaken by government forces and Shia militias. Consequently, Baghdad itself is ringed by restive towns and cities hosting Isis elements who mount attacks on Shias in the capital and the surrounding areas.

The protesters who stormed parliament and the Green Zone on Saturday demanding a new system of governance have put paid to the line that Iraq should be partitioned because it is broken and cannot be fixed, adopted by vice-president Joe Biden and influential foreign "experts". Among the latter is Ali Khedery, a US citizen of Iraqi origin who advised US officials and generals during the occupation.

Khedery has said correctly that Iraq is “ungovernable under the current construct”, which he helped fashion. His remedy was not to throw out the “construct” – the impossible ethno-sectarian model – but to partition or create a confederacy of Iraq which he contends “is a violent, dysfunctional marriage [of] fractious communities”.

He did not take into consideration that Iraqis coexisted and Iraq functioned as a country until 2003.

Partition would be the worst possible option. Although the Kurds already have an autonomous region, partition of Arab majority provinces into sectarian regions would be a recipe for a war far more deadly and destructive than that afflicting Syria. This would be a war for territory and resources – particularly oil and gas fields located mainly in Shia and Kurdish majority areas – and would lead to brutal sectarian cleansing and the flight of millions of Iraqis from their home towns and homeland.

Iraq would be carved up into fighting fiefdoms by local warlords, including Islamic State figures.

While the Iraqi protesters who entered parliament did not define the type of regime they want, it is logical for the country to revert to a secular system of governance by adopting a new constitution banning political parties based on religion, sect, or ethnicity. The current political elite would have to be sidelined and those involved in corruption prosecuted.

For this to happen, the US, which created Iraq's dysfunctional ethno-sectarian system, and Iran – which has benefited since its allies have taken power – would have to agree and be prepared to implement the transition to secular democracy.

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen contributes news from and analysis of the Middle East to The Irish Times