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Iraq's Militarized Politics Keep the Country in Turmoil

Abbas stood in front of the state television station when the first bullet whizzed by. The thirty-something had been deployed there alongside hundreds of other soldiers from the prime minister’s special division, charged with protecting the government quarters known as the Green Zone. He instinctively reached for his gun, only to remember he didn’t have it.

It was August 29, 2022. Iraq had been on edge since a parliamentary election was held eleven months prior, paralyzed by political deadlock between rival Shia parties, the threat of clashes between their military wings hanging in the air. Influential Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose party had won the elections, had withdrawn from the political process after failing to form a government. The long-feared possibility of an intra-Shia war seemed to inch closer when reports circulated that the cleric’s followers, the Sadrists, were planning to take power by force.

Iraq was being run by a caretaker government headed by then-prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. The day before the fighting began, the commander in charge of the prime minister’s special division ordered an entire battalion to the gates of the state television station, called Iraqiya, located on the edge of the Green Zone. Word among the soldiers was that the Sadrists would overrun the seat of government and storm Iraqiya to proclaim a coup d’état. “A state falls through the media. If Iraqiya fell, the government would fall as well,” Abbas later told me.

Abbas knew the special division had the military capability to defend the Green Zone from an incursion by Sadr’s zealous but poorly trained, ragtag militia. After all, his was a well-trained elite unit entrusted with the lives of the prime minister, visiting heads of state and even Pope Francis when he came to Iraq in 2021 in what now seemed a distant moment of peace and unity. The division consisted of thousands of soldiers who were equipped with U.S. weaponry, including 125 Humvees and 27 Abrams tanks.

Abbas and his fellow soldiers would have had no trouble foiling a potential coup attempt. There was only one problem: they had been told not to fight.

Upon Kadhimi’s orders, the special division in charge of protecting the Green Zone had been disarmed weeks prior. “They took away our weapons and told us it was forbidden to shoot. They said, ‘Whatever the Sadrists do, if they enter the Green Zone, if they talk badly about you, if they provoke you, if they steal, you don’t get involved. The matter doesn’t concern you,’” Abbas recalled. The soldiers put their U.S.-supplied M16s in storage and stood in the streets like scarecrows in a corn field, their military uniforms a mere mirage of the state Iraq had become since 2003, with institutions hollowed out by two decades of corruption, incompetence, and poor leadership.

Unarmed, Abbas felt utterly powerless as he watched throngs of Sadr’s militia, formerly known as the Mahdi Army and later renamed Saraya Salam, pull up in dozens of machine gun-mounted pickup trucks bearing mortars and other heavy weaponry. They stopped just a few yards away from the TV station, in front of the first gate of the Green Zone, near the Ministry of Defense, from where they tried to breach the fortified perimeter. Abbas and his unit huddled together and agonized over what they’d do if the Sadrists attempted to storm the building. Without weapons and orders, there was no point in resisting. “We told ourselves, ‘The government has fallen. It’s over. We have no more value,’” Abbas said.

While Abbas and the rest of the government forces stood unarmed watching the Sadrists flood the Green Zone, thousands of soldiers from the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), an umbrella of mostly Shia paramilitaries whose political allies competed with Sadr for power, braced for their arrival. They too were dressed in black. They too belonged to a well-trained elite unit. But unlike the prime minister’s special division, this force was heavily armed and had clear orders: protect the PMF’s institutions with lethal force.

Read entire article at Boston Review