Iraqi Freedom Confronts Iranian Domination
(Bilal Wahab, December 10, 2019)
Transcript available below
About the speaker
Dr. Bilal Wahab is the Nathan and Esther K. Wagner fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where he focuses on governance in the Iraqi Kurdish region and in Iraq as a whole. He has taught at the American University of Iraq in Sulaimani, where he established the Center for Development and Natural Resources, a research program on oil and development.
Dr. Wahab earned his Ph.D. from George Mason University. He received his M.A. from American University, where he was among the first Iraqis awarded a Fulbright scholarship. His master’s thesis was on How Iraqi Oil Smuggling Greases Violence. He earned his B.A. from Salahaddin University in Erbil. He has also taught at Salahaddin University in the Political Science and English Language Departments. Along with numerous scholarly articles, he has written extensively in the Arabic and Kurdish media.
Dr. Wahab has contributed recent analyses on the subjects of: Kurdish Reactions to Their Abandonment in Syria; As Protests Explode, Iraq Must Get Serious About Reform; and Iraqi Kurdistan’s New Government. He speaks Arabic, Kurdish, Persian and Turkish.
As you know our speaker tonight is Dr. Bilal Wahab from The Washington Institute for Near East Policy where he focuses on Iraq, the northern Kurdish area, Iran, and other local problems.
He’s taught at the American University of Iraq in Sulaimani, and he earned his PhD here from George Mason University, an MA from American University. [He was] one of the first Iraqis to come here on a Fulbright grant to study. He earned his BA at Salahaddin University in Erbil where he also taught.
He’s written prolifically on subjects regarding the region, including most recently Kurdish Reactions to Their Abandonment in Syria; As Protests Explode, and then out just this week at the American Enterprise Institute What will it take to Repair Middle Eastern Economies? This evening Dr. Wahab will be addressing us on the subject of, “Freedom in Iraq versus Oppression from Iran.” Please join us in welcoming Dr. Wahab.
Dr. Bilal Wahab:
Thank you Bob for that very kind introduction and thank you all for being here. It’s an honor. Thank you for inviting me. It’s good to meet all of you and to see some old friends. Iraq and the U.S. I think have a history together now. We are kind of bound whether we like it or not. The United States tried to forget Iraq, get away, escape. It actually did it in 2011 and it completely withdrew and somehow Iraq managed to pull the United States back. It looks like a scene from The Godfather movie.
For better or for worse, the United States – we can debate the logic, the rationale for the invasion. Someone was asked about his assessment of the French Revolution and he said that is too soon to call. I think it is very soon to call what the United States did in Iraq.
It is the big elephant: I am Kurdish so my views of it are one of liberation from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein. Iraq was a big prison and the future was bleak. We did not even have the space and the freedom of looking at the future. Now, I also sympathize with other segments of the Iraqi society that were perhaps less harmed by the regime or perhaps even benefited from that regime.
So I think as a Kurd who survived chemical attacks, I lived my childhood in a refugee camp because my family had to flee Saddam’s oppression, I should have the right of calling getting rid of Saddam Hussein a liberation, but I also give someone else who did not benefit as much from the invasion whatever other description they have. That is my introduction to the discussion of freedom and liberty and that is the gift that removing Saddam Hussein, the opportunity that removing Saddam Hussein gave us.
Now, we can engage in blame games as I said. That is a history that is still being written and the story is not finished, but Iraq is one place where you can have free debates. Iraq is a place where you have different political parties; in fact, too many political parties if you ask me. You have competitive politics, but because of the weak nature of the state, it was very easy for a corrupt elite with the help of an outside force, a nefarious neighbor, Iran, to take control of the government and then try to use it not for the interest of the public, and the masses, and the citizens but for other interests, which I will refer to and probably elaborate on a little bit more.
Well, that opportunity of Iraqis having agency – it is a Middle Eastern cliche to blame anything and everything that happens on someone else, you know, the part of the world where the most elaborate conspiracy theories are concocted, but what we see today in Iraq, particularly with this protest movement that is going on and that is what I am here to talk mainly about, I think the Iraqi youth in particular, 60% of Iraqis do not know Saddam Hussein, they never lived under Saddam Hussein, they are not familiar with that regime, so they are not really looking backwards, they are looking forwards. To that young, web-connected, globally aware youth, this Iraq does not really make sense; an Iraq that for 2019 alone the budget was $100 billion dollars, that is with a b, a country that is the second largest OPEC oil producer. It spent over a trillion dollars since 2005 when the Iraqi government regained sovereignty.
Iraq Does Not Make Sense
So this Iraq does not make sense. Baghdad is constantly voted one of the worst cities and capitals to live in. Basra, which accounts for 80% of Iraqi oil does not have potable water. Last year seven thousand people were hospitalized because they drank contaminated water. There has not been reliable electricity, 24/7 electricity, in a country where the heat in summer is above 120° Fahrenheit. The country does not make sense. They look at Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, anywhere else you look. If you look at the country’s own past, it does not make sense.
The star of this protest movement is this three wheel cart that they call tuk-tuk. It is basically a three wheel tricycle that has a cover and it is used for transportation between one part to the other and it is called the revolution of the tuk-tuk because those tuk-tuk actually functioned as ambulances, so it has become a symbol of the protests. But just think of that for a second. Why should the capital of a country that produces about five million barrels of oil a day not have trams or metro systems or double-deckers, which was the hallmark of Iraq in the 1970s and ’80s, but rely on tuk-tuk for public transportation?
In the past, if people did not know what they were missing, okay, oppression could have worked, but in this day and age where people look at how the Emiratis live and how the Qataris live and how the Saudis live, this young Iraqi generation is not happy, is not satisfied, and also when it looks into the future where the political elite is taking the country, they are not happy with it. They want to take matters into their own hands.
I go back to the question of agency. They are not saying this is America’s fault because America toppled Saddam Hussein. That is not the message you hear. Now, that does not mean they like America, not necessarily. They look at Iran. Yes, they blame Iran. They blame Iran very much for a variety of reasons that I will get to, but let me conclude the point about agency. They look at the political elite and they are not happy with them, but they are not waiting for the Americans to come and get rid of the regime as, for example, my generation or my father’s generation were waiting for some miracle, someone to come and get rid of Saddam Hussein.
They are not waiting for someone to come and do that for them or like ISIS comes and takes a third of the country and then you are waiting for some international coalition to come together and then help you get rid of ISIS. They are taking matters into their own hands. They are blaming those who have a hand in their suffering and they burn the consulates of the countries behind them, but other than that they are not waiting for some savior. They say this is our country, we need to take it back. We appreciate any help, but we are not going to wait until it comes, and to me that is the main point of this protest movement.
By the way, I can say the same thing about the Lebanese protest movement. This is new in the Middle East. We saw glimpses of it in the Arab Spring, but this is different than the Arab Spring. The Arab Spring was the societies that wanted a government that represents them, but the Iraqi government is, I would posit, quite representative. What does representation mean? Is it elected? Yes, it is an elected government. Does it have Kurds? Yes. Does it have Shia? Yes. Does it have Sunnis? Yes. Does it have religious minorities? Yes, it is a representative government. What is missing is it is not an accountable government. It is not a government that is accountable to its own citizens.
It is a government that is accountable to – and I have a laundry list – it is accountable to the parties because it is the political party that ensures that a politician is elected into parliament so when the parliamentarian goes into parliament, he is a representative. He does not feel accountable to a constituency, but accountable to a political party, so therefore his daily mission is to appease that political party, which put him or her there and will ensure that he or she stays there. That is one.
But also there is the question of fear of militias. For the longest time the challenge for Iraq has been for the Iraqi state and the Iraqi Army to control the unruly militias and put all of the arms under the state’s control. But with time, especially with the war against ISIS and the horrendous tragedy of $15 billion dollars worth of American equipment and some 60,000 Iraqi soldiers just running overnight and leaving a third of the country to a ragtag terrorist group in pickup trucks. That was a huge embarrassment for the Iraqi Army for the state.
Then the militias came and they stopped the onslaught of ISIS, but then they really milked that help that they had given, and it was a positive role that they played in fighting ISIS. By translating that into the largest bloc in the Iraqi Parliament, translating the military victory, the role that they played in the military victory – Iraq alone could not have defeated ISIS without the help of the international coalition led by the United States because that kind of warfare requires air support, which the Iraqi military does not have. But nonetheless, they take credit and they are due credit for participating in liberating the third of Iraq that fell to ISIS.
But then they managed to translate that military victory into a political victory at the ballot box in the 2018 elections, and won the second largest bloc in parliament. It ended up being formed by the parties that had militias, and then they were in the process of building the third leg of the stool of power, which is economic power, by then holding on to contracts in a ministry or a part of the government, and that would have been the future. I think the Iraqi youth, the Iraqi citizens, saw right through that, that that is the game plan.
That is not a fictitious game plan. That is basically what the IRGC does in Iran. It is a militia. It is there to protect the regime and they have basically a parallel economy, and therefore they are almost separate from the state. They are not accountable like the state is. If they are in danger, they have their own guns and their own weapons to protect their own interests. This is while a fifth of the Iraqi population lives in poverty and all of those lack of services that I talk about.
The Nature of Iraqi Corruption
Let me also make a point about corruption. Corruption in Iraq is quite detrimental. Usually in a country when you talk about corruption, it is about, you know, the police officer asking you for a bribe or you needing to grease some palms to get, you know, a business license processed. I mean usually that kind of thing is as bad as it gets, but that is not the kind of corruption that Iraq suffers from.
The kind of corruption that Iraq suffers from is a matter of national security. Let me go back to the example that I gave earlier. How come the Iraqi military with all the U.S. training and the U.S. equipment could not defend a third of the country, which it lost to about 3,000 ISIS fighters on the back of pickup trucks? What happened there? Well, if I were a security expert or a military expert, there would be military explanations and I have colleagues who have written about that.
The book that you kindly alluded to actually has a chapter about Middle Eastern militaries. My friend Ken Pollack has a very good book called Armies of Sand that talks about why Middle Eastern armies lose despite the training, and the technology, and the aid and all that. But beyond that, one of the answers of why the Iraqi Army, why Iraq lost a third of the country so quickly, the answer actually lies in political corruption.
So let me take a step back to actually explain how corruption in Iraq works. The government is formed on a sectarian political or ethno-sectarian basis. Iraqis have a nice word for it. It is called muhasasa. Muhasasa basically means dividing or divvying up shares. Everyone gets a share. What that basically means is we have an election, Iraq has over 200 political parties, everyone who manages to have a few seats in parliament therefore has a seat (literally) at the table. They sit down and say okay, let us carve up the government. Here is a big cake. It is a $100 billion dollar cake. Quite literally, right? That is the budget.
Okay, so how do we do that? Alright, so that political party has 40 seats, that political party has 30 seats, that one has two seats. Alright, so we come up with a formula. It is almost like a back of a napkin formula. So every ten seats is a ministry, every five seats is a deputy minister. If you have two seats, that is like a director-general. And then that trickles down all the way to the level of school principal. So imagine governing in such a system. If you’re a minister, who are you catering to? Who are you serving? Do you have time to serve a constituency or the public?
The Nature of Petro-States
At the end of the day, this is an oil state. Let me make another academic point. This is an oil state. You have all heard about the resource curse. My revenue is completely isolated – me, the acting minister – is completely isolated from the citizens. In a country like this one if I were a congressman, I would say I went to China on your dime. What I am referring to is you pay your taxes, you fund my government that allows me to be a diplomat or an army officer or you know a bureaucrat or a schoolteacher or a sheriff, right? It is your tax money that allows the government to run.
That is not the case in these petro-states. I sell oil and my revenue comes from oil, and now you are asking me for a piece of that oil money that I made by signing a contract or by selling the oil. So in a way instead of me looking at you as the source of my income and therefore I am accountable to you, the view just naturally – the view of a leader in a petro-state toward the citizenry is you are all leeches. I am in government, I am selling the oil, I am making the money, I could take it all, but now I have to spend some of it on you.
Now, if you are a dictator, that is what you do, right? You spend 20%, 30%, 80% whatever on some government operations and you pocket the rest because at the end of the day you have to govern, you have to appease the society, you have to gain legitimacy to win over segments of your society.
That is basically the model of the monarchy, right? That is what happens. It is a social contract in which I provide you with free everything, free healthcare, free education. You do not even have to work that hard because I am bringing outside workers from around the world to do the work for you, and in return what I am asking from you is to just shut up and let me rule.
I mean in a way that is a very crude version of many of the rulers of the petro-states, but Iraq is a democracy. We wanted to be a democracy. No one has that kind of central authority and central power like Saddam Hussein did or like a king does or like an emir does to do that, so then how do you rule when some of that money has to actually trickle down into maintaining those those forty, fifty, or thirty seats or the two seats that you got.
So how do I do that? If I am a king and I live in a monarchy, I just have an army, right? And I provide all those free services. The free services should co-opt – it is called co-optation and coercion – should do the job, should appease large swathes of the society.
At the end of the day, what do people want? They want to have a living, they want to have good schools, and if you can provide that, you can gain legitimacy because you are providing for your people, and that is one of the reasons that the petro-states, the petro-monarchies, are quite stable countries. They managed to weather the Arab Spring and they do not have the kind of legitimacy challenges that other countries have, other countries as in republics have.
But in a place like Iraq – and of course, for the few that are not happy with the system, they can either escape or run away and get asylum somewhere or there is a security apparatus that is going to ensure that dissent does not escalate. That was basically what Saddam Hussein did. Like if you lived under Saddam Hussein and you laid low and you did not really ask for freedom of speech or political freedom or religious freedom, life was not all that bad. I mean unless you were Kurdish, which did not matter. The poisonous gas did not really differentiate between who is pro-Saddam and who is not pro-Saddam.
But this new Iraq is different: no one has that kind of military power to maintain control over the entirety of the country. So if you cannot rely on force and coercion, then you have to basically spend more of your money on wielding this patronage network, on appeasing people, on winning over hearts and minds, quite literally. That is what has been happening. So every political party has a TV. When they get a ministry, they hire their cronies – that is where the word cronyism comes from – all of their supporters into that ministry, and then the contracts of that ministry go into companies that are owned by party leaders, and that is how you literally grease the wheel.
So how much can that trickle down? Not much because at some point the money is going to stop. At some point you have to actually build roads. Because you can give people jobs and Iraq is one of the countries that has a creation called ghost employees. The ghost employee is someone who earns a paycheck without actually showing up to work.
When I tell that to my American friends, they say oh, that is beautiful. But how many ghost employees can you hire? I have a friend who manages a bank and he says he has more people on his payroll than actual chairs in his bank. Why? Because someone comes and gives him a roster. You have a hundred additional employees that you have to hire and pay.
A System Running Out of Steam
But that system has run out of steam, right? Because the Iraqi education system – just sheer population growth – right? I do not have the number on the top of my mind, but I believe it is 700,000 people who graduate from universities every year. Now, the government needs to create 700,000 jobs every year just to break even. Now, at some point the government is going to run out of chairs. Even if your oil production increases or doubles, you are not going to be able to manage because it is not a small Gulf state, it is actually a large country.
So running out of steam, you have this large swathe of society that feels left out, and that is why they are on the street. They basically say this system might have worked for a decade, a decade-and-a-half, but we look into the future and there is no way that this is sustainable. So we do not want a country that caters to political parties, a country that caters to sects, and to our very basic identity. We want a country, literally, and that is the main slogan: ‘we want a homeland’. That is the main slogan of the protests.
Now, there is another slogan which is quite popular, which is ‘Iraq is free and Iran get out’. Why is that anger targeted at Iran? Now, if you watch some of the Iraqi TV stations and again, part of the patronage is you hire people, you have the contracts, and then you have a TV station that makes you look good, and anywhere you go there is a report about His Excellency or His Highness did this and did that so that way you are always on people’s minds.
Now, as I said that system has run its course. There are not enough jobs and the people look around and fifteen years has really done little in terms of public services and accountability. They look into the future, they do not see any hope because the trends are negative. The trends are negative. Corruption is becoming increasingly endemic and militias are becoming stronger than the actual state because remember I said they are capitalizing on the failure of the Iraqi military to defend Iraq when ISIS came. They tried to ignore how the Iraqi military actually regained its stature by liberating those areas. So they keep focusing on the failure, but not acknowledging how the Iraqi military regained its strength and its valor.
I did not finish how it was a question of national security because it is part of that patronage, the former Prime Minister of Iraq, Maliki, appointed political loyalists as commanders not on a meritocratic basis, not capable military leaders, but loyal military leaders. Now, if you are there and you are in charge and you have all of the stars and you never fought a day in your life and someone says ‘boo’, the first thing you are going to do is run because you do not know how to fight. When the commander runs, what do soldiers do? So that is why I said earlier that corruption in Iraq is not a matter of greasing palms, it is a matter of national security.
Corruption is Deadly
I can tell you examples and examples. I will give just one more example. By the way, who has been to Iraq? Have you been through a checkpoint in which a soldier would like walk by your car with a machine like something with a wire to a battery and has an antenna walking up by your car like this? Has anyone seen that? Okay, you have seen that. Basically, it is a little, black thingy with a wire antenna and they walk by your car like this, and that is supposed to be a bomb detector. That is supposed to be a bomb detector. You know that tens of thousands of Iraqis died during the height of the sectarian war and the terrorism at the hand of Al Qaeda and other militias, and the main tool of death were car bombs.
An official imported those machines as bomb detectors. I think it cost like $1.2 billion dollars and they were deployed throughout all of these checkpoints in Iraq as bomb detectors. Now, these cars passed through these checkpoints, the dude with the thingy would walk by, and car bombs kept blowing up. Those were not bomb detectors. Those were golf ball detectors. They were painted black and sold to the Iraqi government as bomb detectors. It is not just someone making a buck out of some bogus machine. It is someone making a buck at the expense of thousands of innocent Iraqis. When I say corruption is a matter of national security, that is what I am talking about, and that is the kind of corruption that these young protestors are protesting.
Today, over 400 people have been killed and over 15,000 injured and yet today anywhere else people would have been home and would have said enough is enough. Today was the largest protest in Iraq yet. It started on October 1. Within a week there were 152 people killed. Today, it is over 400 people and today it was the largest protest. The question was whether they would storm the Green Zone or not, so one has to respect their resilience. One has to respect the valor, the courage of the Iraqis who basically say the only way forward is through and they want to practice democracy, the freedom they have found, not because it is an American invention, not because America wants them to, not because Germany wants them to, or the UN wants them to.
Actually, they want to reshape Iraq on their own terms and they want a government that is responsible to them, and they are angry at Iran because Iran does not want that and it is the one that is most actively trying to undermine the protests. That is why the first week of protests were all about jobs and services. Then Iran and pro-Iran militias started shooting at people, literally sniping them from rooftops, and then the second most popular slogan after ‘we want a country’ is ‘Iraq is free and Iran must get out’, so wish Iraqis luck. I look forward to your questions. Thank you.
It is easy for groups to say that they do not like the government that is there, but I have not heard anything about what they do want.
That is fair enough. What does ‘we want a country’ mean? That is a slogan, that is not a plan, and that is right, and I have been thinking about that a lot at my day job. It could be frustrating at times because the brutality of the crackdown and the lack of clarity of what the protestors actually want. Obviously, it is in favor of the better organized part. But it is December 10 and these protests started October 1, so these guys are up to something. I do not know what, but they are up to something.
They are not giving up. It means that they have an eye on the prize, and perhaps the prize is reshaping this dynamic, reshaping that social contract. It is not enough for you to represent me, you have to be accountable to me. It is about reshaping the electoral system. Some of the main asks are this government must go and we hate political parties, and anyone who ever served in an Iraqi government since 2003 must not be Prime Minister. Give us a fresh face, someone that we do not know.
And now one of the demands is to form an electoral system in which individuals can run, not political parties, but individuals. If you are popular in your neighborhood, you should run. Now, as political scientists we can debate the merits of that and how that would work, but basically, they know what they do not want. It is a revolt against the current system, it is a revolt against all of these parties who are in these big tent governments, everyone is in it together and no one is accountable for anything.
I describe the Iraqi system as a system that offers many hands and rings to kiss, but no face to punch when things go wrong. They do not know who to blame. So now they are basically saying, alright, curse on all houses. Literally, last year in Basra they went and torched one party office after the other. It is not because we hate this one and not that one. They say you guys are all in it together, and you go and curse each other, and now that we are losing, we are going to basically all unite against you.
It is like the prisoner’s dilemma. The good version of it is there were two can soups companies that were running ads against each other. One was saying, that soup has that ingredient and that causes cancer, and the other can soup company comes and says that soup company has that ingredient that causes heart disease. While the population, the people, watch these ads, what happened? People started avoiding canned soup because it turns out that canned soup is bad whether it is that company or the other company.
So that is what has been happening because with this competitive environment, these guys have been telling on each other, on each other’s bad behavior and corruption, so there is a lot of transparency, but they did not know who to hold accountable. And accountable for basically saying you, we want you to fix this because you go to the Prime Minister, you say I am just put here by these parties.
Usually, in a parliamentary system – just to kind of give you the epitome of lack of accountability – in a parliamentary system, who becomes the prime minister? Usually, the head of the largest bloc in parliament. How many Members of Parliament does the current Prime Minister of Iraq have? Zero because they could not agree on who should be Prime Minister so they just brought this politician, who is actually quite capable but he did not manage this crisis very well. They put in a Prime Minister who does not have any constituency in the Parliament, the very essence of unaccountability and powerlessness, while all those nefarious activities, all those contracts, all of those shady businesses go on.
So they want a face. Sometimes when they talk about what they want, it comes across as they want someone with whom the buck stops, and that sounds like authoritarianism, like a dictator, and it makes sense because that is the only form of government that works in the Middle East somehow, right? And then they catch up and say no, we tried that, that did not really work because that is what Saddam Hussein was.
Yes, he started out well – I mean do not get me wrong, Saddam Hussein almost built every hospital in the country, but the problem with people who linger in government and in power – and there is a merit to these term limits – is that if they stay too long, they live long enough and they stay in power long enough to see all of the hospitals and roads that they built all destroyed, and that is literally what happened to Saddam Hussein.
So they go back and correct themselves. But I think for now, the Iraqi political elite are having a Marie Antoinette moment in which [they ask], why are people protesting? Are not they happy that they are the Shia, and they are happy. They can go and do Arba’een. Is not that enough?’ And the Iraqis say no. Is not it enough that Saddam Hussein is gone? Who is Saddam Hussein? We do not know Saddam Hussein. Well, open your eyes, you guys have been running the country.
So in a way they think that this too shall pass. And I think before we understand what is the plan, it is important for the political elite to wake up, that business as usual is not sustainable. This is not just one of those summer protests that will start with a heat and will go away as soon as the weather changes.
This is serious and the people require change, and that awakening is happening because for the first time Grand Ayatollah Sistani, who usually tries to be secluded and apolitical, he is under pressure from the street because ultimately he is not accountable to a political party, he is accountable to the Shia population. That is where he gets his eminence, his stature, and he has been increasingly interventionist. And he is the one who finally called for the resignation of the Prime Minister.
So that is one part of the story, one part of the answer, but the other is the more nefarious part. The protestors do not have the luxury to organize because the minute they organize, there will be faces to punch. And even now, you saw that the State Department actually issued statements about it. Those who emerge as civil society leaders, as activists, as people who have a say within the protest movement, unfortunately they either get kidnapped, many of them have been assassinated – there is footage of many of them being assassinated – so even if there is organization within the movement, within the protest movement, they are afraid of coming out.
So it is all about being leaderless and being grassroots. And they are afraid because it is kind of a double-edged sword. So they have to keep the momentum because if leaders emerge, those leaders will be targeted. And again, activists have been targeted and assassinated, including young girls who just go home from Tahrir Square and they get picked up by motorcycles and cars.
So it is all about keeping pressure on the government to basically convince them that business as usual is not sustainable, and getting the attention of the international community – for example, the United States – is not much but it sends the right signal, has sanctioned recently, last week four Iraqis, three militia leaders and a very corrupt businessman – basically to encourage other countries, but also to encourage Iraqis to see a different incentive structure.
The incentive structure in Iraq for a politician is if I do the right thing, there is no one out there to help me, and protect me, and support me, but if I do what Iran says, even if it goes wrong, Iran is going to come and protect me, so the incentive structure is do what Iran asks you to do. This protest movement is changing that incentive dynamic and there is an opportunity for the United States but also for Europe and other actors to go, intervene, and change that incentive structure, so Iraqis can actually behave in the best interests of Iraq and the Iraqi citizens.
What are Iran’s intentions in Iraq? What are the prospects for a better life for the Kurds?