Moqtada al-Sadr’s return

Krishnadev Calamur writes: The man who went from being described as a “pest” to “the most dangerous man in Iraq” is back — though Moqtada al-Sadr and his supporters are likely to say he never went anywhere in the first place. The Shia cleric’s supporters stormed Baghdad’s supposedly secure Green Zone on Saturday and took over Parliament, demanding improved public services and an end to corruption. They left Sunday, on Sadr’s orders, after ISIS attacked an Iraqi city. Their departure avoided further destabilizing the predominantly Shia government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, but the protests not only raised questions about whether the government can stand, it also showed that Iraq’s turmoil has sources beyond Sunni-Shia sectarian divisions.

The roots of Iraq’s current parliamentary crisis lie in the quota system set up in 2003, after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, which guarantees some minimal level of representation to each major ethno-sectarian faction. The idea was such a system would prevent any one of Iraq’s various ethnic factions from dominating the others. Iraq is majority Shia, but has a significant Sunni minority, as well as a large number of Kurds and others. Under Saddam, the Sunnis dominated government and many Shiites and others complained of discrimination. The new system was designed to curb such divisions, but, as Ibrahim al-Marashi, an assistant professor at California State University, San Marcos, wrote on Al Jazeera, “the quota system … empowers politicians based solely on their ethno-sectarian background.”

What that system fostered is chronic corruption. Indeed, the country is ranked 161 out of 168 in Transparency International’s admittedly flawed corruption index even as it wrestles with ethnic and sectarian divisions, as well as a challenge from the Islamic State. Low oil prices have not helped. Revenues from the sector were supposed to rebuild Iraq after years of war that followed international sanctions imposed during Saddam’s rule, but now, with oil prices near multiyear lows, salaries have gone unpaid and Iraq’s problems seem magnified. Emma Sky, a former civilian adviser to the U.S. military in Iraq, wrote in Politico: “The greatest threat to Iraq thus comes not from the Islamic State but from broken politics, catastrophic corruption, and mismanagement.” It is these circumstances that have resulted in massive anti-government protests and calls from Sadr for more, and presumably more honest, technocrats in Iraq’s government. [Continue reading…]

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