Hundreds of protesters stormed Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone on Saturday and entered the Parliament building, demanding an end to corruption. A day later, they began to leave. What brought on this chaos, and why did it end so quickly?
What really happened?
Images of Iraqis storming Parliament over the weekend made it seem as though a popular revolution were at hand. In reality, it was something else: partly a legitimate expression of popular anger, but partly political theater.
The episode had to be somewhat condoned by the authorities, given the ease with which the protesters were able to pass through the fortresslike security. There were reports that Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had tacitly supported the breach, although his office denied that. And a militia aligned with the protesters took over security around Parliament, suggesting a deal with the security forces.
There were reports of lawmakers’ being attacked and slapped, but no one was seriously hurt. Protesters did attack the fancy vehicles of lawmakers — the detested black SUVs that barrel through Baghdad traffic, sirens ringing — and damaged furniture, desks and wall hangings in the hall of Parliament. But all in all, it was largely nonviolent.
What do the protesters want? Who are they?
They are mostly loyalists of the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, who rose to prominence after the American invasion of 2003. He commanded a militia that fought the Americans, then took part in the grisly sectarian war of 2005 and 2006. After national elections in 2010, he emerged as a power broker.
Mr. Sadr resurfaced in February to lead protests supporting measures by Mr. Abadi to reduce government waste, tackle corruption and end sectarian quotas. The quotas have become the foundation of Iraq’s political system, apportioning government positions based on sect over merit and arguably bringing on much of the country’s dysfunction. Mr. Sadr is nominally an ally of Mr. Abadi, and the protests were seen as an effort to push Mr. Abadi’s opponents to approve a cabinet filled with technocrats rather than officials loyal to a party or sect.
But Mr. Sadr is unpredictable and cannot be seen as a reliable ally. If further attempts to pass a new cabinet fail, he has said he will push for Mr. Abadi’s ouster.
Why did the protest end so quickly?
It was a tactical withdrawal. After they jubilantly occupied Parliament on Saturday afternoon, the demonstrators moved by evening to another area of the Green Zone, a former parade ground where Saddam Hussein held military pageants. By Sunday evening, Mr. Sadr had directed an orderly end to the demonstration, saying he would allow the political class another chance to meet and approve a new cabinet. He also gave notice that he would not hesitate to use his influence among downtrodden Shiites to create havoc in the streets if his grievances were not met with government reforms.
What are the roots of the political conflict?
The deadliest fault line in Iraqi society is the divide between the majority Shiite Arabs and the minority Sunni Arabs. This is at the heart of the war between the Iraqi state — supported by the American-led coalition and Iran — and the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State.
But the political crisis in Baghdad is largely a struggle among Shiites. The American invasion upended the old order of Sunni dominance — under Saddam Hussein, under the monarchy and under the Ottomans before the founding of modern Iraq at the end of World War I — and for the first time gave the Shiites power. Yet they have never figured out how to overcome their differences and unify Iraq.
As Mr. Abadi has pushed to root out corruption, trim government and end sectarian quotas, he has been opposed by other Shiite factions. The protests — both those being led by Mr. Sadr and others that began last summer and at first were largely led by secular Iraqis — also reflect a growing anger over corruption and a failure to provide basic services.
What is the Green Zone?
The Green Zone is the name that the American military gave to the fortified heart of Baghdad that served as the seat of the occupation and the new Iraqi government.
Outside the blast walls and razor wire of the Green Zone is a teeming city of traffic jams, car bombs and daily hardships like a lack of reliable electricity and clean water. But within the zone, cars move easily between checkpoints, tanks are positioned at major intersections, electricity flows and Iraqi officials live in palaces. It is home to the American Embassy, a fortress inside a fortress.
For ordinary Iraqis, the Green Zone is a symbol of occupation and corruption that has long been off-limits. Its breach was unprecedented, and for many of the protesters it was their first time inside, reflected in pictures of Iraqis enjoying themselves. (For an understanding of the relationship between Iraqis and the Green Zone, read this piece by Anthony Shadid, a New York Times reporter who died in 2012.)
Are things better or worse for Iraqis since the U.S. withdrawal in 2011?
Far worse, by nearly every measure.
Things were not good in 2011. Al Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor of the Islamic State, was regrouping. The prime minister at the time, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, was showing himself to be an authoritarian and Shiite supremacist rather than the unifier the Americans had hoped for. And the Sunni Awakening, the American-led program that paid former Sunni insurgents to work with Baghdad, was unraveling. Still, there was some measure of hope that Iraq could lurch forward.
Now, it resembles a failed state on three basic levels: security, politics and, given the collapse in oil prices, economics.
What happens next?
For now, the withdrawal of Mr. Sadr’s followers from the Green Zone allows yet another chance for Iraq’s leaders to address the crisis and approve a new cabinet put forward by Mr. Abadi.
But Iraq has not held together as a country. The northern Kurdish region is a de facto state, with its own foreign policy, army and visa rules. Roughly a third of Iraq is in the hands of the Islamic State, including Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. The reach of the central government is limited, and Shiite militias with ties to Iran are in some cases more powerful than state security forces.