WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on Monday that the United States would start to impose sanctions on corrupt Iraqi officials, as well as those involved in violently suppressing the protests in Iraq.
No individuals were named on Monday, but as Pompeo stated, “We will not stand idle,” while “corrupt officials make the Iraqi people suffer.”
“Today, I am affirming the United States will use our legal authorities to sanction corrupt individuals,” he continued, specifying those “stealing Iraqis’ wealth and those killing and wounding peaceful protesters.”
“Like the Iraqi people taking to the streets today, our sanctions will not discriminate between religious sect or ethnicity,” Pompeo affirmed. “They will simply target those who do wrong to the Iraqi people, no matter who they are.”
Iraq has been wracked by protests for over a month and a half. Both the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) and Iraq’s top Shia cleric, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, have called for government reforms and an end to its use of violence against the protestors.
“For the last few weeks, the United States has watched the protests very, very closely,” Pompeo said. “We support the Iraqi people, “as they strive for a prosperous Iraq that is free of corruption and Iranian malign influence.”
“Iraq’s leaders must protect human rights, as Iraqis lift their voices to secure a flourishing democracy,” he affirmed.
The demonstrations are largely a Shia protest against a Shia-dominated government. Although directed against the Iraqi government, they are also protests against Iran’s strong influence in Iraq, with those political parties and militias with close ties to Tehran particularly targeted.
Indeed, the Iranian consulate in Karbala – the holy city with the shrine of Imam Hussein and his half-brother, Abbas – was attacked by an angry crowd earlier this month.
The demonstrators are demanding an end to corruption, and they seek radically improved public services. Indeed, Iraq is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, ranking 168 (out of 180 countries) on Transparency International’s corruption index.
Those who have come of age since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein might be astonished to learn that the George W. Bush administration believed that establishing responsible, competent, and democratic government in Iraq would be easy.
Washington was, then, still steeped in the triumphalism of the collapse of communism, what Frank Fukuyama once called “the end of history.” Bush was persuaded that he could do to the Middle East, what Ronald Reagan had done to the former Soviet bloc: transform the region.
It is now clear that the demise of communism did not end what is a long-standing struggle between the liberal democracies of the west and the east’s more authoritarian regimes. And societies are not “transformed,” merely by replacing one set of rulers with another.
Sixteen years later, the US continues to grapple with how best to deal with this situation. Until these protests, Washington had generally deferred to Baghdad, regularly affirming that it supported the sovereign decisions of the Iraqi government.
However, Pompeo’s announcement suggests that may be changing, as the US looks to start a more focused effort to promote better governance in Baghdad, in support of the Iraqis’ popular demands.
Such a course, however, is not easy, and it has pitfalls. Above all, while many of the protestors’ grievances are legitimate, the protestors seem to have little idea of how to achieve what they want.
Some of the protestors have called for changing the Iraqi Constitution, but as Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s representative in Washington, asked: “In what ways?” Suggesting it would be better first to try actually implementing the constitution.
Protestors have also called for a presidential system. That would, of course, be a Shia president—who could even become a Shia version of Saddam Hussein.
“Iraq has had a history of strong men, and strong men are not going to resolve the difficulties in Iraq,” an informed source advised Kurdistan 24.
“It is a classic feature of semi-democratic polities that people cry out for a strong man and have dictator nostalgia,” he continued. “It’s unfortunate, but it’s a genuine syndrome. And that’s what we’re seeing.”
Indeed, the protestors might be careful of what they wish for. It is not impossible that Iran is actually encouraging the demand for a presidential system. And its calculation could be that a strong Shia figure ruling Iraq would make it easier for Tehran to dominate the country—the exact opposite of what the protestors want!
Editing by Karzan Sulaivany