Iraq’s Next War

Rival Shiite Factions Could Be Headed Toward Disaster

An Iraqi protester gestures in front of the burnt Iranian Consulate in Basra, Iraq on September 7, 2018 Essam Al Sudani / REUTERS

When Iraq and the international community liberated Mosul last year, the Iraqi government declared victory: the three-year conflict against jihadist terrorists who had seized much of the country’s north was over. But the declaration was premature. ISIS remains a major threat, not only because of its own acumen as an insurgent movement but because Iraq’s ruling elites have failed to address the conditions that enabled ISIS in the first place. Their failure to address the basic needs of a deeply destitute and conflict-weary population, to remedy political and social divisions, and to forge a common national framework that unifies the country could soon pave the way for yet another devastating civil war as rival groups compete for control of the Iraqi state.

After the parliamentary elections in May 2018, Iraq was supposed to turn the page to a new, post-ISIS, even post-sectarian chapter, in which politicians would remedy the country’s polarization, endemic corruption, and violent instability. Yet things are getting worse, not better, for Iraq. Iraq’s weakened Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, who came in third in the elections, put forward a series of tokenistic anti-corruption initiatives that failed to convince Iraqis who are impatient with piecemeal, symbolic reforms. Corruption can take years to remedy, Iraq’s politicians explain—patronizing a population that has already waited more than fifteen years for reform.

Iraq has all the makings of a country that is susceptible to conflict relapse.

The elections were followed by mass demonstrations in much of southern Iraq, including Basra, where protestors burned provincial council buildings and the Iranian consulate and stormed the offices of political parties. Iraq’s security forces and government-sanctioned Shiite militias responded with deadly force and human rights abuses. Basra holds Iraq’s largest oil reserves, accounts for 80 percent of the country’s oil exports, and provides more than $7 billion a month to the government coffers. It should be Iraq’s richest province, but it is among its poorest. Like much of Iraq, the city

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