Iraq is currently facing three crises. There is the war against the Islamic State, the humanitarian crisis caused by 3.3 million displaced, and the collapse of the economy due to the decline in oil prices. The International Crisis Group (IGC) in its latest report, “Fight or Flight: The Desperate Plight of Iraq’s ‘Generation 2000’” warned of a longer term threat to Iraq’s society. The IGC warned about the disillusionment of the nation’s youth, which represent 59% of the population. The political establishment has failed to integrate the young. They are in turn deeply cynical of the ruling elite. There are also widespread feelings that there is no real future for their generation. That has led the youth to seek out alternative sources of belonging and fulfillment with the insurgency, the Hashd or leaving Iraq for other countries.
There were several factors leading to the disillusionment of Iraq’s young ranging from politics, to the lack of opportunity, to growing cynicism, protests, and the militarization of society. First, the post-03 political system created in Iraq was based upon the ruling parties co-opting the state and doling out resources in patronage networks to garner votes and followers. Falling oil prices meant that the elite didn’t have as much money to hand out as before. Even when employed, many professionals weren’t making enough to keep up with costs. Many Iraqis also believe that politics are bankrupt and the leaders corrupt failures. The annual protests demanding structural changes in the country were a sign of these growing frustrations. Finally, the Syrian war re-militarized Iraq with people joining militias and insurgents fighting in that country. Then the fall of Mosul led to a new wave of mobilization for armed groups on both sides of the conflict, and a further hit to the standing of the government. All together, these meant that the state was not seen as legitimate anymore. It didn’t provide leadership, jobs or security.
Iraq’s Sunni community was beset by weak leaders, and the return of the Islamic State. Sunni parties always had narrow bases. Their situation was made worse by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki who played divide and conquer with them. In 2012 protests started in Anbar and quickly spread to other provinces against the central government. Older leaders and sheikhs tried to organize the protests, but complained about being challenged by the younger generation, especially those that wanted to turn towards violence. Many of them eventually joined the insurgency, and were willing to work with the Islamic State either as partners or joining the group hoping that it would bring a new order. IS also had recruitment programs in areas they conquered and used younger sheikhs to overthrow the paramount ones and co-opt tribes. The freeing of Iraqi territory will not end this problem as the collaborators have faced retaliation, killings and expulsions, which perpetuate the split within the community. Those that remain in their towns and cities may not be willing to comply with the returning leadership, which has been further discredited by their fleeing in the face of the insurgency. Either way there could be political challenges and continued violence in liberated parts of the country.
Amongst the Shiites the Syrian war and the fall of Mosul were galvanizing events. The Syrian conflict offered younger clerics and militia commanders the chance to establish themselves by recruiting new followers. Then the fall of Mosul and the Speicher massacre in June 2014 made many feel like their leaders were incompetent and that the Iraqi army was a disgrace. The mass mobilization for the Hashd al-Shaabi raised spirits and opportunities. The force created its own war economy with jobs and pensions for those that joined and died. More importantly it offered heroism, martyrdom, sacrifice and service that the political parties and Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) no longer did. The Hashd has also strengthened Shiite identity with its own symbols and propaganda plastering towns and neighborhoods across central and southern Iraq. The defeat of the Islamic State will not alleviate these issues as many of the Hashd want to compete for power with the ruling parties. Those groups will also not want to give up their weapons as that was what gave them prestige in the war, and will ensure their continued relevance afterward. They will also still be opportunities for them to fight in Syria continuing the militarization of Shiite society.
Professionals in Iraq face a different set of dilemmas. The government, which is the main employer in the country, doesn’t have the funds to offer the middle class as many positions as it once did. In 2014 for example, 16,000 new public jobs were not listed because of lack of money. Both the Hashd and the Islamic State have also attempted to recruit professionals to serve them. Together these have increased pressure on people to leave Iraq. There are simply not as many opportunities as there once were, and the positions that are open don’t offer the salary to live a comfortable life. Some do not want to work for armed groups either.
The ruling elite are attempting to adapt to these changing conditions, but are mostly relying upon their same failed practices. The main thing the parties are trying to do is maintain their patronage systems. Shiite politicians for example are trying to ally and co-opt Hashd groups to use them for their own purposes. When the government said that it would pay for the Hashd Iraqi politicians were known to have collected signatures for people to either sell to Hashd units for money or register as their own fighting forces to collect the cash. Vice President Nour al-Maliki has also aligned with the Iranian backed groups such as Badr, Asaib Ahl Al-Haq, and Kataib Hezbollah hoping to use them in his future political maneuvers. Similarly, Sunni leaders and sheikhs have organized tribal fighters and their own Hashd units to register them with Baghdad and Irbil. Parties have created charities and non-government organizations to collect money from Iraqis and international donors for the displaced and the Hashd in the hopes that they can hand out the money to maintain their base, but also to pocket some of the cash for themselves. Reconstruction projects are being jockeyed for because lists can use them to hand out contracts to their supporters and jobs to potential voters in their patronage systems. Politicians have increased their ties with foreign powers such as Iran, Turkey and the Gulf States to obtain money and weapons. Some of the Shiite parties that oppose the Hashd are hoping that the war will wear down their numbers so they will not be as much of a challenge to them in the future. Finally, Prime Minister Haidar Abadi and Moqtada al-Sadr competed to co-opt the protest movement with Sadr winning the battle, but could not answer their demands. Overall, Iraq’s leaders are so used to buying support or co-opting their enemies that they believe they can do the same with the younger generation. Only Sadr and Abadi tried to improve their personal image as being different from the establishment with their appeals to the protests, but neither could follow through with any meaningful reforms leading people to see them as no better than the rest.
The main point of the International Crisis Group’s report is that the ruling parties are failing to adapt to the challenges the youth in Iraq are facing. They are being challenged by a new set of leaders who control armed men and economic assets, and offer belonging and prestige in competition with the state. Many of these emerging personalities will compete in the upcoming elections putting more pressure on the elite. The IGC made two major suggestions to try to resolve these problems. One was to turn the Hasd into civilian groups to help with governance. That would give them the local control many desire and focus them upon the state again. The other was coming up with job programs for the young. The problem with the first suggestion is that not all of the emerging figures will be happy with just running their local councils or districts because they have national aspirations. The Hashd are held in great esteem and could easily turn that into success at the ballot box. As for the second point the IGC made, the government has no money to create jobs right now outside of the ISF and Hashd. When the Islamic State is expelled from the last towns and cities it holds a new effort has to be made on reconstruction, which will offer thousands of new positions, but again that is caught up with political patronage. IS will also remain as an insurgent force, which could derail rebuilding and maintain focus upon security issues. Most important is the fact that the elite’s main concern is maintaining their control, and they have shown no propensity to change. They would be seen in the same light by the young if they tried any of the IGC’s proposals. That could lead to new political crises or armed conflict between the parties and their competitors.
International Crisis Group, “Fight or Flight: The Desperate Plight of Iraq’s “Generation 2000,”” 8/8/16