What that system fostered is chronic corruption. Indeed, the country is ranked 161 out of 168 in Transparency International’s admittedly flawed corruption index even as it wrestles with ethnic and sectarian divisions, as well as a challenge from the Islamic State. Low oil prices have not helped. Revenues from the sector were supposed to rebuild Iraq after years of war that followed international sanctions imposed during Saddam’s rule, but now, with oil prices near multiyear lows, salaries have gone unpaid and Iraq’s problems seem magnified. Emma Sky, a former civilian adviser to the U.S. military in Iraq, wrote in Politico: “The greatest threat to Iraq thus comes not from the Islamic State but from broken politics, catastrophic corruption, and mismanagement.” It is these circumstances that have resulted in massive anti-government protests and calls from Sadr for more, and presumably more honest, technocrats in Iraq’s government.
The role of anti-corruption campaigner is a relatively new one for Sadr, the son of a revered Shia cleric. The younger Sadr built his reputation in the years following the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq as an anti-American firebrand. His powerful Mahdi Army, which fought the Americans and the Sunnis, disbanded in 2008, has given way to the Peace Companies, militias that are engaged in the fight against ISIS. Sadr’s Al-Ahrar political bloc won 34 parliamentary seats out of 328 in the most recent elections, and is part of the ruling coalition. The cleric has positioned himself as less of a sectarian leader than as an anti-corruption campaigner. It is in this role that he demanded that Adabi, the U.S.-backed prime minister, name a Cabinet of technocrats, a move that, in effect, would have imperiled the quota system upon which the Iraqi political establishment is built.
In theory, the technocrats could lead to better governance and less corruption, but in practice what they will most certainly do is diminish the influence of the various parties, especially the Shia ones. Still, Abadi, who like Sadr is Shia, agreed with the demands. He named several well-respected Iraqis to his Cabinet, only to see the Shia-dominated Parliament reject the names. In response, Sadr’s supporters first began protests and then stormed the Green Zone, once impregnable, to take control of Parliament. There, they shouted anti-government slogans—“you are all thieves”—as well as chants against Iran. They left Sunday, but vowed to return if their demands were not met. Although it’s tempting to be sympathetic to Sadr’s demands—after all, who doesn’t want clean government?—the issue is made more complicated by the role of Iran, Iraq’s neighbor that is keen on maintaining Shia dominance in Iraq.
Iran supports the idea of Shia unity in Iraq, so long as it enhances Iran’s own influence in the country. Sadr, however, portrays himself as an independent Iraqi Shia nationalist. “Ultimately the deadlock has benefited Sadr’s political standing,” Marashi wrote on Al Jazeera. “By fomenting a protest movement and delivering an ultimatum to Abadi, Sadr has successfully pitted his two Shia political rivals, the Dawa Party of the prime minister, and the politicians of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) in parliament, against each other, undermining Iran’s overarching goal of maintaining a unified Shia alliance in Iraq.”