When I first reentered Baghdad’s International Zone, formerly known as the Green Zone, on a winter evening in January 2014. I was struck by how many sights, objects, and things were different, in contrast to all that seemingly remained unchangeable components of central Baghdad life. But on that winter evening, one new truth loomed: there were no U.S. or Coalition forces to backup or backstop the Iraqi Army, Counter-Terrorism Services, and various police personnel at each of the IZ’s entry control points (ECP). Although Iraqi forces assumed the lead for IZ ECP staffing in early January 2009, U.S. and Coalition forces took a hands off approach to Green Zone perimeter security. As if to burnish their image and bolster their perceived competence, the regime renamed the Green Zone, the International Zone (IZ). No strangers to sophisticated “optics”, the regime sought to shed the name “Green Zone”, the very name inconveniently pointed out the practical existence of a “red zone”; i.e., all of Baghdad beyond the 18 foot high concrete T-walls. Emplaced after the 2003 invasion every six feet along all sides of the Green Zone, the T-walls formed long unbroken lines of concrete sentinels that conveyed a sense of impregnability. Until the 30th of April.
After the storming of the Iraqi Parliament building by a mob force that afternoon, the notion of IZ safety still exists, but not as it did before. While many facts remain unknown and still others will not be known outside of the Iraqi government, what is clear is that one or more IZ ECPs came under pressure from Sh’ia demonstrators assembled outside of each. While some Iraqi security forces seemed to hold off some of the assembled crowds, other demonstrators successfully forced their way through one or more breaches in the T-walls near ECP 1 on the IZ’s north side, a short distance from the Iraqi parliament. Once through the wall, Iraqi security forces lost the ability to use anything other than lethal force to turn back the onslaught. In hindsight, the specter of a bloodbath versus unarmed civilians may have been what caused Iraqi forces to step back from containing the unruly crowds.
The mob, numbering perhaps in the thousands, gained entry though a break at one or more points in the IZ’s perimeter wall then proceeded on foot to the building that houses the Council of Representatives, Iraq’s parliament. Iraqi social media recorded the forced entry of hundreds into an IZ breach and thousands more within an occupied parliament building. Dozens of cell phone videos from various What’s App and Facebook accounts captured both the fury and bemusement of Iraqis conditioned to believe the IZ was no longer an unassailable fortress. Little did the crowd realize that at that moment, and in a symbolic touch, the IZ no longer belonged to the regime. The regime must reclaim IZ security; something they are somewhat attempting today. However, the regime must take care to not push too hard lest it invoke another Tahrir Square outcome–not the one in Baghdad, the one in Cairo.
Today, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi walked through the vandalized parliament building. His expression tells the story of a deeply troubled state leader caught in the middle of forces not of his making nor within his ability to control; likely incredulous at the lack of timely, competent action–yet again, by his security forces. Despite his repeated attempts to corral rampant corruption by eliminating its sources within his government, the state of affairs between Mr. al-Abadi and a parliament unwilling to confirm cabinet replacements for those that ought to be fired is a broken relationship reflected in the shambles that is the parliament building.
These events tell us three things:
- The patience of the people and at least Moqtada al-Sadr, are depleted. These intense feelings are not new to Iraq’s Sh’ia majority nor is al-Sadr’s outspokenness. However, today’s takeaway is that Mr. al-Abadi may be along for the ride. This may not spell the imminent end of Mr. al-Abadi’s political career, but his difficulties will embolden challengers and enemies alike.
- Nuri al-Maliki’s strong identification with the Sh’ia political right may position him as the deliverer of Moqtada al-Sadr’s commission for a broken Iraqi government to heal itself when in reality, it is too broken to do that. Though a Maliki re-entrance is premature, he will quietly gain yet more strength with an eye toward deploying it after the next regime political setback, or at some later point in within this crisis.
- It is difficult to say which thing poses the greatest threat to Iraqi national security: the Islamic State or a political crisis that upends al-Abadi’s means to govern and lead the regime in its biggest battles yet to come against the Islamic State. Events in Baghdad will impact the ability of the armed forces to beat back the Islamic State; an organization that may draw encouragement by what they might perceive: a vulnerable regime in disarray.
All of these factors will act as a brake on the state’s ability to reconsolidate its authority over lands until recently controlled by Islamic State forces. Moreover, if conservative Sh’ia forces continue to pull the levers of power in Baghdad on the present scale, Kurdish and Sunni leaders will likely pull back at a time when they need to step forward to form a united operational front in the battle for Mosul. The reason for such reluctance is that the major centers of power in Iraqi society are looking beyond Mosul to the Iraqi state that may follow.
As for U.S. interests, it was in America’s interests that al-Maliki left government in 2014 and that the mantle of leadership passed to a uniter; someone with the skills to bridge some of the deep rifts in Iraqi society to mount a coherent national campaign against the Islamic State. That vision is in danger of unraveling as it is possible that Iraqi public opinion could sink yet farther and ultimately drive Mr. al-Abadi out of office on a wave of national anger at a time when Sunnis and Kurds are least able to form a counterweight to a surging Sh’ia majority.
Whereas the Iraqi military could not hold northern and western Iraq in 2014, they could be counted upon since to protect the IZ seat of regime power and embassies of its international friends. Even that confidence turned out to be misplaced. On second thought, this may not be the ideal time for regime forces to set out for a distant fight when this one is playing out at the regime’s core.
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