Iraq’s missed economic opportunities fueling strife

On October 25, Iraq’s Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi said that Iraq is facing with a “systemic crisis”, and then promised to make sweeping reforms. Since then, protestors hold their positions in the streets as the death toll rises every day. Economic situation is disastrous.

Iraqi civil society
Iraqi civil society asks for freedom and peace, protesters want their motherland back.

Years of economic mismanagement, corruption and runaway spending has fueled an uprising in civilian protests in Iraq that has killed scores of people and without deft handling risks spiraling into full-fledged civil war. There is nothing new under Baghdad’s sun, Iraqis took the streets in 2018 for the same reasons.

Iraqis are angry that even after sixteen years since the U.S.-led invasion which overthrew Saddam Hussein and which gave birth to aspirations that prosperity could finally reign after years of sanctions and war, they have little to look forward to. Almost nothing, in a matter of fact.

According to the former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Douglas Silliman, the biggest risk facing Baghdad’s today is that nearly one million young Iraqis are not being provided economic opportunities and are unable to find work. “Unless the government makes it easier for Iraqis to open their own businesses, they will have no place to find jobs inside of Iraq,” said Mr. Silliman. “This will increase poverty and put pressure on society.”

Leave alone job creation and economic opportunities, the Iraqi government is failing to even provide water and electricity to the public. Unless these issues are resolved protests in the country is likely to continue. The people of Iraq are lacking a sense of encouragement that largely stems from the government blocking entrepreneurship through corruption, centralized economic decision-making and tough regulations. “That will have to change gradually before Iraqis can begin to have pride in their own country and are successful,” said Silliman.

Nothing has been done to improve civilians’ lives

In a news report by Reuters filed earlier this month, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) concluded that Iraqi authorities committed serious human rights violations and abuses in their response rising anti-government protests which led to the death of 149 civilians. UNAMI found evidence of mass arrests and excessive forced being used by security forces as well as denial of medical treatment to protestors. The root cause of these protests can be traced to missed economic opportunities, high unemployment, corruption and poor public services. Even two years after the defeat of the Islamic State, Iraqi politicians have little to show in improving the lives of civilians.

“UNAMI’s interim findings indicate that serious human rights violations and abuses have been committed in the context of the demonstrations in Iraq,” reads the report in its conclusion. “The number of dead, the extent and scale of injuries inflicted on demonstrators, all suggest that Iraqi security forces have used excessive force against demonstrators in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq.”

As part of its focused on issues that are the focal point for Iraqis, which include missed economic opportunities, high levels of corruption, UNAMI conducted 145 interviews between October 1 to16 with civil society activists, human rights monitors, family members of killed demonstrators, journalists,  protesters, and others.

According to journalists who covered the protests, told UNAMI, they were subjected to threats, arrests, intimidation and even harassment. Human rights activists stated, they received  death threats not to participate in demonstrations. Over 70% of deaths in the protests have been caused by shots to the head or chest, with even evidence of sniper fire targeting protesters, reads a government report.

Although Iraq has an educated population the government lacks the infrastructure, governance and the private sector to provide economic opportunities and meet the needs of the populace.

In 2018, Iraq’s population crossed 40 million, with nearly two thirds being born after 1990 and around about half of those born after the 2003 invasion, observed Silliman. He went on to add, “Between now and 2020 there will be about 850,000 young Iraqis graduating from secondary school or university every year who expect to be employed”.

Saddam Hussein’s regime had to a large extend created an identity that purportedly sought to improve the equality of men and women, albeit at a very high price.

“It brought people from different ethnic groups and empowered them in a way that is not happening now,” said Silliman. “The cost of that was the repression of the Baath regime.”

Given the years of missed economic opportunities, civil strife, war and repression, Iraqis will have to find within themselves the courage of patriotism, and the strength to deter foreign powers from pursuing their own agendas in the country; if Iraq is ever to become an independent state, it will have to strengthen the state’s institutions, and diversify its economy. “It’s important for Iraqis who care the future of Iraq, and especially for those in charge of government policies, to help and empower young Iraqis to change the way the economy runs,” said Silliman. It sounds like something that could be said about Lebanese people too.