International Order & Conflict

A Collapsing Order

State Pillage and Social Protest in Post-Saddam Iraq
The biggest question now is when the system will collapse completely—and equally important what comes in its wake—should the kleptocracy refuse to redistribute its power and wealth.

Due to the political corruption and state capture of the ruling elite, as well as U.S. policies in the early years of occupation, post-Saddam politica order has failed to produce a polity based on social justice, citizenship and a functioning democracy. The youth-led October uprising of 2019 has shaken the system to its core but is facing daunting challenges in committing the elites to real reforms or changing the regime. The system is decaying but the kleptocracy is resilient. Should the ruling elite refuse to redistribute wealth and power, the political order will collapse completely.

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“There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen.”

-Vladimir Lenin


Hard-won “Post-ISIS” stability and reconstruction opportunities in Iraq have been systematically undermined by the ubiquitous and endemic corruption of the post-2003 ruling elites. Despite ISIS’s barbaric rule and the atrocities it committed—during its heyday from 2014-2017 when it controlled a third of the country—the real problem and chief obstacle to the development of the nascent Iraqi democracy is not the terrorist organization. Rather, systematic state capture by powerful parties and militias is Iraq’s true Public Enemy Number One.

Politically sanctioned corruption is built into the political system through the so called Muhasasa Ta’ifia (or simply called Muhasasa), namely the “sectarian” apportionment of government posts from ministries to mid- and low-level positions. As a result, the Muhasasa model has turned state ministries and institutions into party and family fiefdoms, tarnished the legitimacy of the post-Saddam ruling elite, and enraged and radicalized a desperate and frustrated population.

What started as small demonstrations of unemployed and underemployed youth on October 1, 2019, have transformed into the largest social and political protest movement in the modern history of Iraq. The violent response of the government and Iran-backed militias resulted in more than 600 dead and more than 22,000 injures, mainly to youth.1Saadoun, M. (2020, January 6). Are Iraq’s PMU militias planning to put an end to protests? Al-Monitor. Retrieved from The accurate and exact figure of dead and injures are not known yet. The previous government of Adel Abdul Mahdi did not publish one full list of the fallen victims. The government of Mustafa Al-Khadimi said it is committed to conducting a transparent and credible investigation into the events during the October protests. An adviser for the new government announced that the governmental committee is working on compiling and publishing one complete list of the dead and injures.2American University of Iraq – Sulaimani. (2020, June 17). Accountability after Iraq’s protests: The path forward to address violence and human rights violations [Zoom webinar]. Sulaimani, Iraq: American University of Iraq – Sulaimani. Retrieved Unlike previous demonstrations that demanded better public services, electricity and government jobs, the current protest movement is calling for “regime change” and change of the entire ruling elite.

The protest movement has achieved considerable gains. First and foremost, on the level of moral and societal values, it brought down the wall of fear, political and social red lines towards the most influential, conservative authorities, including the populist Shiite cleric, politician and militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr3Mansour, R., & Robin-D’Cruz, B. (2020, February 12). After latest turn, is Muqtada al-Sadr losing influence in Iraq? London, England: Chatham House. Retrieved from
, Iran-backed powerful politicians and paramilitary leaders, and even the revered highest Shiite authority Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.4Twitter thread. (2020, February 7). Retrieved from
5Khalaf, S. (2019, November 4). Iraq: The fire threatens the government, religious authority and Iran [English title translated from Arabic by Google Translate]. Jadaliyya. Retrieved from In doing so, it reconstructs state society relations based on new narratives and values that replace blind respect for sectarian solidarity, and fear of religious and political authorities, with rights, social justice, national solidarity, citizenship and dignity discourses. Second, on the political level, it forced the prime minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi to submit his resignation (something that happened for the first time since 2003), rejected all prime minister candidates of the ruling elite, and pushed the government and powerful parties to revise the electoral law to make it more fair and representative and change the election monitoring authority that is currently controlled by party cronies.

Vladimir Lenin’s adage “There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen” helps us to understand and unpack the rapid and complex nature of the changes Iraq is going through. Given the violent crackdown by the government and militias, the fragmented nature of the political system, the Iranian influence and the impact of ongoing U.S.-Iran conflicts on the protest movement, these are crucial changes that were brought about in a matter of five months (at the time of writing). These moral and political gains show the resilience of a new social movement led by youth and students.

Yet the young demonstrators face daunting political, social and geopolitical challenges. The ruling elites have shown their willingness to use lethal violence to suppress protest and they have the advantage of strong patronage networks and regional and international backing. Given these challenges, it is unlikely, at least in the short term, that the protest movement will manage to overthrow the regime or radically change the system. Nevertheless, there will be no going back to the status quo before October 1, 2019. Given its endemic corruption and the youth bulge, the post-2003 order is not sustainable. Long before the current protests, the post-Saddam “system” started its slow-motion erosion. From the first of October 2019, the post-2003 order started its swift decay. Unless the ruling elites show readiness to redistribute power and wealth in accordance with the aims of the youth-led protest movement and the general population, and accept the need to implement real reforms, the system might collapse in the medium-term.

1. Roots of Rampant Corruption

The endemic corruption long precedes 2003. During his 35-year rule, Saddam Hussein used oil wealth and brutal violence to build a totalitarian regime and destroy civil and political society. Those who opposed his regime operated from the Kurdistan region and abroad. The 13-year U.N. sanctions imposed after the occupation of Kuwait in 1990 further strengthened his rule, destroying the middle class and the very social fabric of society.6Dodge, T. (2010, January 21). The failure of sanctions and the evolution of international policy towards Iraq, 1990-2003. Contemporary Arab Affairs, 3(1), 83-91. Retrieved from To stay in power, Saddam Hussein used patronage politics that empowered and enriched party loyalists, security services, and loyal and opportunistic tribal leaders at the expense of the overwhelming majority of the impoverished population.

When U.S. troops invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime, the state had already lost its legitimacy and had hollowed out its institutional and administrative capacities. The three-week long looting of state institutions, and the resulting violence, that followed Hussein’s downfall, as well as the de-Ba’athification of the civil service, completed the destruction of the state’s capacity. The final outcome of these processes was the collapse of the Iraqi state’s authority in much of Iraq’s territory.7Dodge, T. (2007, March). The causes of U.S. failure in Iraq. Survival, 49(1):85-106. Retrieved from Then instead of becoming part of the solution, post-Saddam elites and U.S. occupation authorities became part of the problem.

The 2003 U.S.-led invasion toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein and brought previous opposition parties to power. Instead of using this unprecedented, historic opportunity to build a new state based on democratic, accountable and transparent institutions, the new ruling elites—with American support—put in place the model of Muhasasa Ta’ifia. The U.S. occupation policies, successive Iraqi governments and the entire ruling class bear responsibility for the post-2003 political and economic corruption and dysfunctionality.  

In the pre-war phase from 2001 to 2003, there were two views within the George W. Bush administration with regards to post-Saddam reconstruction of Iraq. The first school of thought was that of the Pentagon. The Department of Defense and then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld were influenced by the neoconservatives, the Washington consensus neo-liberal model, as well as the views of the two key Kurdish parties and the Iraqi opposition in exile. The Pentagon group envisioned a quick military overthrow of Saddam’s regime and transfer of power to an interim Iraqi government, after which U.S. troops would leave Iraq, all within a span of months.8Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. (2009). Hard lessons: The Iraq reconstruction experience. Washington, DC: Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. Retrieved from In this scenario, the Americans would provide humanitarian assistance and financial assistance for short-term or transitional recovery while Iraqis would be responsible for the long-term recovery of their country.

According to this thinking, what post-Saddam Iraq needed was not maximum state-building but rather minimal state reform.9Dodge, T. (2005). Iraqi transitions: From regime change to state collapse. Third World Quarterly, 26(4-5), 705-721. doi:10.1080/01436590500127982 In an interview with the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR), the independent U.S. government agency created to oversee the rebuilding of Iraq under the U.S. occupation, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell perhaps best summarized the neoliberal narrative of the Pentagon by saying:

I have no idea what CENTCOM [central command] was planning and I have absolutely no idea what the Joint Chiefs of Staff were planning. I do know that the political guidance they were getting from Rumsfeld, the NSC [National Security Council] and the White House was, “You got about three months to get [the postwar Iraqi government] up and running.10Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. (2009). Hard lessons: The Iraq reconstruction experience. Washington, DC: Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. Retrieved from

Indeed, the United States did achieve a quick military success—it overthrew the Saddam regime in less than a month—but was terribly ill-prepared and ill-equipped to deal with the post-war realities and complexities, namely the collapse of the state and economy, unprecedented looting, widespread criminality and a rising insurgency.

The second U.S. view was that of the State Department’s “Future of Iraq Project.” This group of U.S. diplomats did more substantive work regarding Iraq’s reconstruction needs, producing 13 volumes of detailed assessments and strategies, including warnings of the dangers of ethnic and religious clashes and the need for thorough state rebuilding. However, the Defense Department’s Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance took control of post-war planning, and high-level officials, including Colin Powell himself, never used the Project’s findings and conclusions to influence the thinking and decision-making of the White House. As a result, the Pentagon’s strategy and neoliberal paradigm prevailed and shaped post-war reconstruction planning and thinking.11Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. (2009). Hard lessons: The Iraq reconstruction experience. Washington, DC: Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. Retrieved from 12Dodge, T. (2005). Iraqi transitions: From regime change to state collapse. Third World Quarterly, 26(4-5), 705-721. doi:10.1080/01436590500127982

According to Stuart Bowen, the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, between April 2003 and March 2008, the reconstruction funds totaled $112.52 billion. Of this, $46 billion came from the United States, $50.33 billion from Iraq and $15.89 billion from other international support. Most of the money, though, was wasted. Projects were started but never completed, or were sabotaged. Corruption, particularly in Baghdad, was commonplace, resulting in misallocations and large-scale theft.13Looney, R. E. (2008, May 21). Reconstruction and peacebuilding under extreme adversity: The problem of pervasive corruption in Iraq. International Peacekeeping, 15(3), 424-440. Retrieved from Due to the rising insurgency and sectarian violence in 2006-2007, more than half of American-appropriated reconstruction funds went to rebuilding Iraq’s security forces at the expense of economic recovery, the revitalization of the private sector and the creation of jobs. The endemic problems of corruption at the top, mismanagement and waste have continued and even increased after the U.S. withdrawal in 2011.14Looney, R. (2017, July 18). After ISIS, can Iraq get reconstruction right this time. World Politics Review. Retrieved from

2. Reconceptualizing Corruption

Iraq is one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Transparency International’s Corruption Index for 2019 ranked Iraq 162nd out of 180 countries.15Transparency International. (2019). Corruption perceptions index 2019. Berlin, Germany: Transparency International. Retrieved from The figures for the corruption of post-2003 ruling elites are astronomical. While it is difficult to get accurate data about the costs of corruption, it is believed that from 2004 to January 2019, Iraq lost between $450 billion and more than $785 billion due to systematic plundering of oil revenues, waste and mismanagement.16Hussein, M. (2019, June 22). Political parties thwart Iraq’s anti-corruption efforts. Baghdad, Iraq: Iraqi Center for Policy Analysis & Research. Retrieved from

Given the top-down, intrinsic and built-in nature of state pillage by the kleptocratic ruling elites and their cronies, this chapter argues that the classical concept of “corruption,” commonly conceptualized as a result of personal greed, probably is not accurate and helpful in understanding the depth and breadth of the structural problem of the post-2003 system. Perhaps the concepts of “state capture” and “political corruption” better capture the predicament of the post-2003 state and its dismal failure to provide social justice, rule of law and public services.

These two concepts help to deconstruct, unpack and explain the erosion of the post-2003 political system. The experience of the past 17 years shows the failure of the ruling Shiite parties (also called political Shi’ism or Shiite Rule), as well as Sunni and Kurdish parties, to transition from opponents of Saddam Hussein to builders of the new state. It seems the ruling class still practices politics as if it were in armed opposition to the authoritarian rule of Saddam Hussein and therefore does not see the state as “their state”.17Amber, I. (2020, January 14). Shiite political and power plight in Iraq [English title translated from Arabic by Google Translate]. Middle East Broadcasting Network. Retrieved from
Iraq is the world’s second largest oil producer.18Carpenter, J. W. (2019, November 8). The biggest oil producers in the Middle East. Investopedia. Retrieved from Even though the oil industry has largely been rebuilt, the oil revenues have not gone to rebuilding Iraq and repairing the damage from the civil wars.19Calamur, K. (2018, March 19). Oil was supposed to rebuild Iraq: Conflict and politics got in the way. The Atlantic. Retrieved from
State-sanctioned, political corruption has spread to almost all sectors. The banking sector is a substantial source of state capture by powerful political players. In an interview in 2018, Stuart Bowen, the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction between April 2003 and March 2008, explained the systemic corruption in the banking sector:

It is being the case since 2003, since the reforms implemented by the U.S., that the [Iraqi] dinar has had a fixed rate, and that had led to a process of daily auctions [by the central bank] generated by a false market, generated by an exchange rate that is pegged above what the market would determine. Taking it off the fixed peg would be a giant step towards reducing the abuses of the auction process. Hundreds of billions of dollars have been lost to Iraq, taken abroad improperly.20Enabling Peace in Iraq Center. (2018). Iraq Matters, Edition#34: Corruption and reconstruction – Lessons learned [SoundCloud audio recording]. Interview with Stuart Bowen, Special Inspector-General for Iraq Reconstruction from 2004 to 2013. Retrieved
According to the head of Iraq’s border crossings authority, the annual revenues generated from customs on imported goods amount to $10 billion. However, only $2.4 billion goes to the treasury in Baghdad. Due to corruption at border crossings and a weak federal government, it is believed the remaining $7.6 billion goes to powerful parties and paramilitaries.21President of border ports authority: 75% of revenues of the ports are wasted by corruption [English title translated from Arabic by Google Translate]. (2019, September 2). Al-Mada. Retrieved from

The corruption in the education sector summarizes the overall crisis of the system. According to an economist, 80% of the education budget has been wasted due to corruption and lack of planning.222,000 clay schools in Iraq: Where are the billions of dinars allocated to the education sector? [English title translated from Arabic by Google Translate]. (2020, January 29). Retrieved from School curricula are changed constantly simply to justify reprinting all the books.23Nateq, L. (2019, March 10). Curricula in Iraq: A view of the scene of ruin [English title translated from Arabic by Google Translate]. Daraj. Retrieved from
  24Twitter thread. (2019, August 5). Retrieved from
Corruption in the “Project Number One” led to the disappearance of $200 million that was supposed to be used to build 1,700 schools. As a result, the government decided in 2019 to allocate $1 billion to complete the unfinished project. The acting minister of education announced in 2019 that the government aims to build 6,000 schools in the next three years.25After years and billions: Another trillion dinars were wasted to revive the number one project in Iraq [English title translated from Arabic by Google Translate]. (2019, August 4). NAS News. Retrieved from
Yet it remains to be seen whether this ambitious plan will be realized given the structural corruption in the education sector. Most schools lack proper infrastructure and public services. According to one report, there are 2000 mud schools in the southern provinces alone.262,000 clay schools in Iraq: Where are the billions of dinars allocated to the education sector? [English title translated from Arabic by Google Translate]. (2020, January 29). Retrieved from Powerful political parties are accused of establishing private universities that are not recognized by the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research. When students graduate from these institutions, their certificates are often not recognized by the government, and thus these colleges and universities produce an army of unemployed and underemployed graduates that add to the unemployed graduates of official universities and colleges.27Private colleges in Iraq: A front for science or shops for financing political figures and parties [English title translated from Arabic by Google Translate]. (2017, October 4). Baghdad Today News Agency. Retrieved from
Special privileges such as extra/higher grades given to children of victims of the regime of Saddam Hussein and those of Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) who fought against ISIS have stacked the deck against hundreds of other students, preventing their admission to certain university studies such as medicine.28Special privileges deny hundreds of Iraqi Students the right to university admission [English title translated from Arabic by Google Translate]. (2019, October 9). Mawazin News. Retrieved from Demands for the application of the compulsory education law: Human rights announces terrifying statistics on the dropout of students [English title translated from Arabic by Google Translate]. (2019, April 18). Al-Mada. Retrieved from Overall, corruption, mismanagement, lack of planning and poverty impacted the quality of education and increased dropout rates.29A global report: A serious decline in the ranking and level of universities in the [Kurdistan] region and Iraq [English title translated from Arabic by Google Translate]. (2019, August 4). Newsabah. Retrieved from 30Middle school exam results reveal a decline in the level of education [English title translated from Arabic by Google Translate]. (2019, July 15). Al-Mada. Retrieved from
A household socio-economic survey conducted by the World Bank in 2017 revealed alarming figures:

About 33 percent of the youth between the ages of 15 and 29 are illiterate or only semi-literate, 33 percent have completed primary school, 28 percent have finished middle or high school, and only seven percent have completed post-secondary education.31Bandiera, L., at al. (2018). Jobs in Iraq: A primer on job creation in the short-term (Jobs Working Paper Issue No. 22). Washington, DC: International Bank for Reconstruction and Development/The World Bank. Retrieved from
The previous health minister submitted his resignation in September 2019, after he acknowledged that he failed to implement his reform plan aimed at combating corruption in his ministry due to blackmailing and opposition from powerful political groups. It was reported that “medicine mafias” of powerful parties that control medicine and medical equipment contracts obstructed the minister’s plan to bring an end to the corruption in the health sector. The former prime minister Adel Abd-Mahdi refused his first resignation letter submitted in May 2019.32Medicines contract mafias topple the Minister of Health and force him to resign again [English title translated from Arabic by Google Translate]. (2019, September 15). Al-Mada. Retrieved from A member of Parliament stated (without specifying who they are) that “mafias” control 70% of the medicines trade, and they smuggle medicines into the country through border crossings without any oversight or checking by relevant authorities.33A deputy accuses “mafias” of controlling the pharmaceutical sector and warns of the danger of their entry routes into Iraq [English title translated from Arabic by Google Translate]. (2020, March 1). Baghdad Today News. Retrieved

As part of the project “Baghdad the Capital of Arab Culture” in 2013, the government allocated $517 million for the restoration and development of major theaters, cinemas, an opera house, galleries and other cultural facilities, all to be completed in 2014. An investigative report in 2019 revealed that due to corruption in the awarding of contracts as well as the lack of oversight and failure to legally prosecute those responsible for corruption and mismanagement of the funds, $112 million was spent on nonexistent and bogus projects, and the remaining amount of $405 million was wasted. The Opera House was never built, and the iconic Rashid Theater was never restored.34Saqr, A. (2019, June 28). Iraq: $112 million wasted on fake cultural projects [English title translated from Arabic by Google Translate]. Daraj. Retrieved from

3. Political Schizophrenia: A System Impervious to Change

Ostensibly, the ruling class and key powerful players recognize the corrupt nature of the political system and therefore continuously call for structural reforms. Yet in reality, the overwhelming majority at the very least lack the political will to not be part of the corrupt kleptocracy or to try to develop an alternative vision and alternative politics that have the public good at heart. The foundational principle of the system at present is that in order to be part of government and hence gain or keep access to privileges and benefits, those with power must maintain clientelistic, nepotistic networks and therefore they prevent real reforms. Lack of statesmanship and a sense of responsibility towards the public good cuts across the overwhelming part of the political landscape, including those leaders who say they want change, such as Muqtada al-Sadr. The end result is a schizophrenic system that to date has managed only to reproduce itself.

The best way to observe this political schizophrenia is to watch an interview with Iraqi leaders, during which they will talk eloquently about the ills of the system, condemn the Muhasasa for being the “mother of all problems” and call for an end to it. One would be forgiven for thinking these politicians and leaders are in opposition to, and not responsible for, establishing and maintaining the very kleptocracy they are speaking against.35Amber, I. (2019, July 28). Iraq: The political crisis cannot be fixed by the opposition slogan [English title translated from Arabic by Google Translate]. Middle East Broadcasting Network. Retrieved from
Given the blurred boundaries between formal and informal politics, the fragmentation of the political landscape and multiplicity of power centers, and the presence of powerful paramilitaries led by or close to key parties, it is difficult to identify who is responsible for systemic state capture and who should be held to account. Simply put, the “system” has no “single head” that could be held accountable, but rather is led by “multiple heads.” As a result, accusations and counter-accusations between major political players about corruption charges is the order of the day. This systemic chaos has tarnished the trust of the population in politicians and created a sense of hopelessness that the “system” is unreformable and irredeemable.

Despite repeated promises to bring to justice the perpetrators of violence against peaceful protestors who have been demonstrating since October 2019, to date not a single military officer, paramilitary commander, political leader or government official has been tried and convicted. In total, nine investigative committees were formed by the government and parliament to probe the killing of peaceful demonstrators. So far not a single report has been released and no perpetrator has been identified and brought to justice.369 government and parliamentary committees stumble to reveal the killers of the protesters: The task is not easy! [English title translated from Arabic by Google Translate]. (2020, February 26). Al-Mada. Retrieved from Not only that, the authorities have not shown any political will to implement arrest warrants against military leaders accused of being responsible for the killing of demonstrators.

In late November 2019, security forces opened fire on protestors in Nasiriya, the capital of the southern province Dhi Qar, killing 42 and injuring 429 demonstrators in a matter of three days. Families of the victims filed 200 lawsuits against Jamil al-Shimary, the military commander responsible for the massacre. The court issued an arrest warrant against al-Shimary. The outrage over this massacre led to the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdil-Mahdi. In a flagrant disregard for the rule of law, instead of being arrested and tried, it turned out that al-Shimary was reinstated to his previous position as the head of the National Defense University for Military Studies.37The Iraqi foreign minister falls into a “trap” wanted by the judiciary [English title translated from Arabic by Google Translate]. (2020, January 21). Yes Iraq. Retrieved from
To date, the ruling elites have not shown the slightest political will to move away from Muhasasa. In the midst of mass protests in October 2019, the parliament decided to appoint the head of the Federal Service Authority and Iraqi Media Network on the basis of the Muhasasa model, against which Iraqis have been protesting, and hereby doing business as usual as if there hadn’t been any protest at all.38Hassan, K. (2019, November 3). Hassan talks prospects of Iraqi demonstrations. Interview of Kawa Hassan, EastWest Institute Vice President, Middle East and North Africa Program, by Al Araby TV on November 2. Retrieved from

Despite the promises of the authorities and then-Prime Minister-designate Mohammed Allawi to hold early elections, it is not certain these will be held before their due date in mid-2022. The political parties and members of parliament have no interest in holding early elections, fearing they might lose seats and privileges. Furthermore, a dispute between the Supreme Judicial Council and the Federal Court will likely delay early elections since the Federal Court is the competent authority tasked to approve election results. Demonstrators believe this is a political trick by the authorities to delay elections.39Sattar, O. (2020, February 25). Why is holding early elections a nearly impossible task in Iraq? Al-Monitor. Retrieved from

In its annual report for 2019, the Commission on Integrity announced it had issued 2,472 arrest warrants, of which nine were against ministers, though the names of the ministers were not mentioned. The overwhelming portion of the arrest warrants and law suits were filed against low and mid-level officials. In addition, it stated it managed to return close to $3 billion of embezzled money.40[Integrity] commission releases its annual report for 2019, confirms it returned Iraqi dinar 3 trillion [English title translated from Arabic by author]. (2020, March 19). Retrieved from The commission did not announce the names of accused minters and other high-level officials, nor is it clear if the judiciary announced legal proceedings against them. Thus, it is unclear whether or not these decisions were implemented. A member of the High Council for Combating Corruption said they tried to return $15.6 billion that had been taken abroad illegally, and that six people were extradited to Iraq. However, he didn’t reveal the identity of the extradited people, nor who was responsible for the capital flight, nor if they were convicted in a court.41Governmental action to recover more than $15 billion of the country’s looted funds abroad [English title translated from Arabic by Google Translate]. (2020, March 1). Newsabah. Retrieved from

4. October Uprising: Post-2003 Generation Confronts Post-2003 Order

Against this backdrop, something had to give. On October 1, 2019, desperate unemployed and underemployed youth took to the streets to demand jobs, better public services and accountability. The extremely violent reaction of the government and paramilitaries transformed the protest movement to become the biggest social and political grassroots movement in the modern history of Iraq. The movement now calls for “regime change” rather than reforming the system. This is a radical, revolutionary rupture from previous protest movements and therefore constitutes an existential threat to the power and privilege of the ruling elites. The desperation of the young demonstrators is reflected in the preeminent slogan that has come to define the movement: “We Want a Homeland.”

As stated in the introduction, so far this youth-led new social movement has shown an impressive resilience to keep taking to the streets despite a concerted campaign of killings, kidnappings and intimidation. It is undeniable that the movement has managed to compel the oligarchy to make some significant political concessions. The ruling elites grudgingly agreed to amend the election law to make it fairer and more representative of the post-2003 generation, and to hold early elections. More than 60% of Iraq’s population is under the age of 25 years.42In Iraq, UN. youth envoy says young people are “most valuable force we have to shape a better future.” (2017, August 12). U.N. News Centre. Retrieved from
This young population that has no memory of the Saddam Hussein era is leading the October Uprising. The only reality this generation has known for the past 17 years is the dismal failure of post-Saddam elites to provide public services and establish a decent, functioning democracy.

The mass participation of students from secondary education to universities and colleges, as well as the active involvement of female students in particular and women in general in the protests, is a seismic, social upheaval in a traditional society. This young generation of protestors has a qualitative difference from the older generation of activists that led demonstrations from 2010 to 2018 in that they are social media savvy and, given their desperate situation, they have a feeling that they have nothing to lose; they therefore keep taking to the streets despite killing and intimidation. The Iraqi journalist Dlovan Barwari aptly summarized the young and revolutionary nature of this new social movement by quoting a fellow journalist and older activist who has been following the young protestors:

This is a young generation that acts very quickly. They are fast, they think differently—it is difficult for us to understand them. They act first and then think, contrary to us [the older generation]—we plan first, then theorize, only to fail in the implementation phase.43Barwari, D. (2019, October 6). Iraqi demonstrators: Who are you and who is behind you? [English title translated from Arabic by Google Translate]. Daraj. Retrieved from

Demographic trends are on the side of this new social movement. Iraq’s current population is estimated at 40 million, and is increasing by one million annually. It is projected that by 2025 it will increase to 45 million, and by 2030 will reach 50 million.44Iraq population (live). (n.d.). Dover, DE: Worldometer. Retrieved from
In a report published in 2018, the World Bank accurately asserted that Iraq faces a job crisis of unprecedented proportions unless the government implements swift structural reforms to create jobs for young people who are unemployed or underemployed as well as those just entering the job market. According to this report, in 2018 youth unemployment was 36%, meaning 2.5 million people were in need of jobs. In the coming years and decades this number will only increase. By 2030, between 5 million and 7 million young people will need jobs.45Bandiera, L., at al. (2018). Jobs in Iraq: A primer on job creation in the short-term (Jobs Working Paper Issue No. 22). Washington, DC: International Bank for Reconstruction and Development/The World Bank. Retrieved from
These figures make it abundantly clear that Iraq is sitting on a demographic time bomb. As shown over the past five months (at the time of this writing), an unemployed and underemployed, angry youth is literally ready to face death to change its desperate and hopeless reality. If anything, this generation will get more radical unless the ruling elites are ready to redistribute wealth and power, something which is not the case at the moment. In short, structural and demographic shifts and a large youth bulge make the current situation simply unsustainable.

The most revered and powerful political and religious authorities have been challenged in ways that were inconceivable until very recently. The populist and powerful Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has lost his monopolization of street politics and protest. No religious or political authority has been left unchallenged. Without falling into the trap of idealizing and romanticizing this new movement, there is no doubt that the fear factor towards traditional and powerful political and religious authorities has fallen, and as such it is safe to state a social revolution is in the making.

While there is no going back to the pre-October status quo, the protest movement faces immense challenges in its quest to rapidly transform the political system. First, the diffusion of economic, military, and political powers and the resulting lack of a centralized authority coupled with weak state institutions, the presence of powerful paramilitaries that are supported by Iran, and fragmentation between and within parties with patronage networks, gives the “system” a structural lifeline to sustain itself. 

There is no single “heart” at which protestors can strike a fatal blow; rather the system is like an octopus that simply regenerates after losing a limb. Second, the ruling elites have shown utter disregard for basic rights of assembly and peaceful protest, and time and again showed their readiness to use deadly violence to suppress protest. Third, despite sympathetic statements from key international players such as the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations, to date the popular movement lacks international and regional support. Fourth, geopolitical challenges presented by the Iran-U.S. rivalry and proxy conflict makes the task of radical change in Iraq deeply complicated. Fifth, the youth-led movement has been resilient in face of unprecedented brute violence by government and paramilitaries, and the erratic statements and attacks of al-Sadr and his followers, but the protests have not yet reached critical mass by bringing in additional sectors of society, especially given that millions of civil servants work in the state bureaucracy, are dependent on government jobs, and are therefore afraid of the unknown.46Haddad, F. (2019, December 9). Hip hop, poetry and Shia iconography: How Tahri Square gave birth to a new Iraq. Middle East Eye. Retrieved from Sixth and finally, bringing about political change hinges on the capacity and creativity of the protest movement to gradually transform from a successful social movement to viable political parties (given the diversity of the movement it might be unrealistic to expect them to form one party) that can build alliances, develop common programs or at least agree on minimal coordination and joint ideas, win elections or gain substantive seats and then try to change the system from within. On the other hand, factors in favor of the protestors are that the Iraqi elites are themselves deeply divided, and that the financial resources of the regime have been badly hurt by the COVID-19-induced collapse of world oil prices, which has slashed government revenues. It is thus a question how long this corrupt order can reproduce and sustain itself.


Iraq’s real problem is not ISIS, nor is it the Iran-U.S. regional rivalry and proxy conflict. Iraq’s key challenge is more ingrained; the politically-sanctioned corruption of the post-2003 ruling elites has whittled away at the state from within and now has it poised to crumble. Saddam Hussein’s authoritarian rule, U.N. sanctions, and Saddam’s corrupt patronage politics (aimed at keeping him in power) laid the foundation for state collapse in 2003. U.S. occupation authorities and post-Saddam ruling elites became part of the problem, presiding over a dysfunctional and corrupt state, indeed treating the state itself not as a means to govern but rather as a source of income to fight over and dispense rewards. 

Political corruption is built-in in the post-2003 order through the Muhasasa model. Ministries and other state institutions have become party and family fiefdoms. The kleptocracy suffers from political schizophrenia, which along with the diffusion of powers and fragmentation of the system, makes it extremely difficult to hold accountable those who are responsible for systemic state capture. As a result, the “system” seems impervious to change. Yet the October Uprising shook the system to its core. The youth-led protest movement has shown resilience in the face of brute violence by government and paramilitaries. On the level of social values, it has demolished the fear factor towards powerful political and religious authorities. A social revolution is in the making. Politically, it has pushed the ruling elites to make two considerable concessions, namely changes to the election law and changes to the election monitoring body.

However, the ruling class is also resilient due to its readiness to use brute violence, and because the system can reproduce itself. Provided the protestors can transform from a social movement to viable political parties, early elections—should they be free and fair—may provide a political opportunity to bring new, young blood to the political process, gradually weaken the grip of the current ruling parties and commit them to true reforms. While pushing the ruling elite to change the election law is definitely a success, yet in and of itself is not sufficient to contribute to a qualitative change in election politics and results. The parliament that is controlled by political parties of the ruling elite have failed to complete the new election law, in particular agreeing on the mechanism of setting electoral constituencies. This agreement or lack of it, in addition to what extent the elections will be free and fair, will demonstrate to what extent the ruling elite can reproduce itself and if the protest movement can challenge them at the ballot box.

Given their vested interests that span more than 17 years of holding privileges and patronage networks, the ruling elites will do all they can to buy time and delay meaningful reforms and change. However, the current status quo is unsustainable since Iraq is sitting on a demographic time bomb, the fuse of which was lit in October 2019. The post-2003 order has started its high-speed decline. The biggest question now is when the system will collapse completely—and equally important what comes in its wake—should the kleptocracy refuse to redistribute its power and wealth.

© Kawa Hassan, 2021. The definitive, peer reviewed and edited version of this article is published in NATO Science for Peace and Security Series, E: Human and Societal Dynamics – Vol. 151, From Territorial Defeat to Global ISIS: Lessons Learned, pages 11-23, 2021,

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