Sadrists’ short-lived occupation of Baghdad’s Green Zone last weekend may succeed in temporarily jump-starting Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s halting reform process, but it is unlikely to engender lasting change without U.S. support. The Obama administration has been loath to expand its intervention in Iraq beyond a heavily circumscribed military role, but it is becoming increasingly clear that long-term stability in Iraq cannot be achieved without significant political reform—and that such reform won’t be possible for Iraq to achieve on its own.
For Washington, Muqtada al-Sadr’s attempts to leverage popular discontent to force political change in Baghdad have been a frustrating distraction from the mission to liberate Mosul from the Islamic State (ISIS). During his trip to Riyadh last month, U.S. President Barak Obama warned that “now is not the time for government gridlock or bickering” in Iraq. It could be argued, however, that the turmoil in Baghdad presents an opportunity to right a political system whose dysfunction is a leading cause of the ongoing violence and instability in Iraq.
Iraq’s political system has utterly failed to deliver basic services to its citizens, despite raking in hundreds of billions of dollars in oil revenues in the last 13 years. Now, Iraq is overwhelmed by a financial crisis sparked by plummeting oil prices, the costs of the war against ISIS, and the toll of providing for 3.4 million internally displaced people. What little investment had once filtered through the cracks to pay for improving infrastructure and service delivery has dried up.
Although commentators generally separate the broader public discontent behind the protests against political ineptitude in Baghdad from the Sunni-specific grievances that have helped fuel the ISIS rampage, the distinctions are not so clear-cut.
In fact, Sunni anger about discrimination is exacerbated by the corrupt and dysfunctional Iraqi administrative apparatus. For example, the arbitrary imprisonment of young men is one of the Sunni community’s key grievances. For Sunnis, such jailings feel like collective punishment. But it
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