Waiting for Baghdad

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Karim Kadim/AP Images
The Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr giving a speech in Najaf during his first public appearance in Iraq after four years in exile in the Iranian city of Qom, January 8, 2011. Pictured on the banner behind him are his father-in-law, the late Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, founder of the Islamic Dawa Party, and his father, the late Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr. These two men are seen as the spiritual forebears of the Sadrist movement that Moqtada al-Sadr heads.

As the flames of protest leap from North Africa to the far reaches of the Arabian Peninsula, many Iraqis are feeling that history may have dealt them a poor hand. Having failed to bring down a weakened Saddam Hussein in a mass uprising in 1991, they now see that regimes led by iron-fisted longtime autocrats can indeed be swept away by popular revolt. Belatedly, they joined the chorus, organizing their own “Day of Rage” on February 25 to protest their government’s failure to create jobs, provide public services, and end corruption. But Iraq is not Egypt or Tunisia. The events set in motion by the US occupation are taking a different course.

On February 25, tens of thousands of Iraqis poured into the streets in cities across the country, angered by electricity shortages, a lack of clean water, poor health services, unemployment, and rampant corruption. The protests were widespread and appeared to represent a cross-section of the population. But Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, has shown little sympathy for the demonstrators, and the government has dealt with them harshly. During the “Day of Rage” protests, over twenty were killed and scores injured, many shot by security forces that have suffered from a recent influx of recruits who lack training and discipline.

The demonstrators’ targets in most cases were provincial governments, for example in Basra, Mosul, and Kut, that had been freely elected two years ago. By comparison, although the country has suffered for years from distressingly poor national governance, the second Maliki administration is a little over three months old. This means there is no dictator to oust, only a class of overpaid, corrupt politicians and ineffectual officials to press for better performance.

The protesters’ frustrations are understandable. Baghdad residents still have only a few hours of electricity a day, in a country in which temperatures soar to 120 degrees Fahrenheit in summer. The country’s political leaders took a full nine months to form a government following legislative elections in March 2010. In the end, the various factions were able to strike a deal, permitting Prime Minister Maliki to extend his tenure: he announced his new government in December and while some senior ministerial slots remain unfilled, he looks set to govern for at least four more years. (In February, he promised not to run again in 2014, in an effort to quell the unrest.)

The most remarkable quality about Iraq’s broadly inclusive new government is that it is based more …

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