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OPINION

Iraq’s ‘October Revolution’ may open door to reform

By BOBBY GHOSH | Bloomberg Opinion | Published: October 2, 2020

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“October is a time for revolutions.”

The slogan on posters appearing all over Baghdad last week was a statement of intent from the young Iraqis whose street protests last fall rocked the Iraqi political system and brought down a prime minister, but failed to deliver the change they wanted. Now they are back. And this time, their best hope of success may be to throw in with the prime minister, rather than throw him out.

The protest movement, known as the October Revolution, was undermined — by violence and political perfidy as much as the coronavirus pandemic. More than 550 protesters were killed, many by Iran-backed militias and others by Iraqi security forces. A populist cleric-politician who had initially backed the movement switched sides at a critical moment.

Any remaining momentum was lost in the lockdowns imposed after COVID-19 cases spiked in the spring. The resumption of the revolution was hindered by the hottest summer on record as well as the government’s inability to control the pandemic.

On Thursday, the protesters returned to the public square, determined to complete their movement’s unfinished business. Their demands remain unaltered: a thoroughgoing reform of the sectarian political system, an end to the endemic corruption that permeates the state, the cessation of foreign interference in the country’s affairs and perhaps most important, economic opportunity.

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s chances of keeping his job — and his promises of political and economic reform — may hinge on his ability to coopt the October Revolution, and use it to overcome resistance from politicians in Baghdad and the puppet-masters in Tehran.

The protesters and the prime minister need each other. Lacking both a leader and an armed cohort, the revolution remains vulnerable to the machinations of politicians as well as the muscle of the Iran-backed militias. They may be suspicious of al-Kadhimi — he is a product of the political elite they despise — but the protesters need the protection of his security forces from the bullets and blackjacks of the militias.

In turn, they can provide al-Kadhimi with a political shield against the forces behind the militias, or beholden to them, who are determined to preserve the current system of apportioning power along sectarian lines. Remember, the prime minister has no mandate to rule: He was the third choice of the very elite that resists reform. Strong support from the protesters might give him just enough legitimacy to push through his agenda before elections next June.

He has to earn it, though. Al-Kadhimi has made the right noises about the revolution. He has released some detained protesters. But he has not kept his promises to investigate the killing of protesters, to punish the perpetrators and pay compensation for their victims.

The resumption of the October Revolution gives the prime minister a chance to demonstrate his sincerity. He should deploy his security forces to protect the protesters, and speed up investigations into the previous killings. He should then press parliament to pass the new electoral law designed to end the sectarian system. It was approved in principle late last year, but many details need to be ironed out. The election commission needs a budget, and the federal court that must validate results of the vote doesn’t yet have a quorum.

Al-Kadhimi will need to persuade the protesters to give him more time to clean up the Iraqi government: The corruption is connected to the system of sectarian patronage; uprooting it will require the implementation of political reforms. Reviving the economy and creating the jobs that the protesters need will be harder still. The pandemic continues to ravage the country, and low international oil prices make it hard for Iraq to comply with production limits imposed by OPEC.

The protesters will also require convincing that al-Kadhimi is not beholden to foreign powers. They are as suspicious of American influence as they are hostile to Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs. The Trump administration can help by dialing down its demands of the prime minister, and easing up on the threat to shut down the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Washington should recognize that the embassy — and American interests more generally — will be better protected by a prime minister working with the protesters.

Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.