Violent protests in Iraq earlier this week were met with international concern about the stability in the region, or lack thereof. Rumors of Embassy evacuations and differing numbers of fatalities have regional partners closing borders and international partners wondering what this might mean for gas prices and the possibility of another war erupting on the planet.

To be fair, Iraq hasn’t been stable since the toppling of Saddam Hussein. But this recent public violence, coupled with questions over the alleged stability in the region, has the world paying attention again.

The conflict within Iraq is complicated, like most Middle Eastern conflicts. However, it has the same underlying bad bedfellows: politics and religion. So let’s look at the layout and what it might mean for the rest of us.


For those who may have forgotten, let’s take a trip down memory lane for a spell. Many issues marked Saddam Hussein’s reign, but he was fundamentally known for his oppression of the Shiite Muslim population of Iraq. 

In 2003 we removed Hussein, a Sunni, which then flipped the political order in the country on its head. Since then, there has been unrest in the country over the usual culprits; political corruption, oppression, and economic woes.

In October of this year, the Iraqi Nationalist Shiites won the largest share of parliamentary seats. However, they were unable to secure an overall government majority. The leader of this group of Shiites, Muqtada al-Sadr, had a hard-line stance of no negotiations with the Iranian-backed Shiite group.

Not unlike our own country, this had caused a governance stalemate. Early this week, Mr. Sadr announced his resignation, bringing us up to date.

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Disinformation, The Beginning

It’s been my experience that when information is murky coming out of a conflict, it’s merely the beginning of what will become a much larger confrontation. So, for example, when the violence started this week, there was news that we had started to evacuate our embassy in Baghdad.

With the anniversary of our botched withdrawal from Afghanistan causing those scenes to be fresh in our minds, this had many abuzz over how bad this conflict could get. It turns out we didn’t evacuate our embassy… yet (at least, according to the government.)

According to National Security Council Coordinator John Kirby:

“There’s no evacuation going on at the embassy and no indication that’s going to be required at this time.”

However, The Netherlands did have to evacuate its embassy and relocate to the German facility. Foreign Affairs Minister Wopke Hoekstra reported:

“There are firefights around the embassy in Baghdad.”

The supporters of Mr. Sadr had stormed the Presidential palace on Monday and had taken over some of the headquarters belonging to the rival Iranian Shiite-backed group in the southern provinces of Iraq.

The Calm Before The Storm?

Mr. Sadr pleaded with his supporters to stand down, which appears to have worked for now. The protesters have withdrawn, and the nationwide curfew that had been imposed has been lifted. 

Hard to know if this brings any solace to people in the area. Iran had closed their border, and Kuwait had urged its citizens that were in Iraq to leave immediately.

But, as I said earlier, unrest in Iraq is not new. Two-thirds of Iraqis are Shiite, while the rest are Sunni. 

Like most dust-ups in this region, religion plays a part. Add that to the fact that there are two groups within the Shiite population: Mr. Sadr’s nationalists and the Iranian-backed Shiites.

Mr. Sadr aimed to end US and Iranian influence in Iraq. Unfortunately, memories tend to run long in the Middle East, and the 1980s war between the two countries still feels very fresh to many in the country.

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Biden’s Middle East

Now, if you believe President Biden, things in the Middle East couldn’t be better. He wrote in the Washington Post that the region was “more stable and secure” than when he took over from President Trump.

However, all signs point to the contrary. Other than the topic du jour of Iraqi unrest, there are other indications that the Middle East is just as unstable as it’s always been.

The global food crisis that has kicked off since the invasion of Ukraine caused Libya, Lebanon, and Egypt to face a wheat shortage. And Russia’s boldness to invade in the first place had some Middle Eastern leaders questioning the world order.

In April, UAE presidential adviser Anwar Gargash said that the Ukraine war has proved the international order is no longer unipolar with the United States at its helm. He said, “Western hegemony on the global order is in its final days.”

Some would argue that one of President Biden’s first acts in office kicked off this decline in western influence and thus set the tone for instability. For example, former deputy National Security Adviser to President Trump K.T. McFarland said:

“Our shambolic withdrawal from Afghanistan has turned out to be the turning point in America’s position in the world.”

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Tale As Old As Time

I’ve been a student of Middle East unrest and politics for a long time. The most extensive advice I could give a western leader is never to claim that the area is more stable than before.

This region’s feuds date back to the beginning of time, and cultural memory is ripe with grudges. It is folly to think that peace in the Middle East is attainable in our lifetimes, let alone overall stability.

The best course of action is to ensure we always come from a position of strength. But, unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be where we are now.

As Ms. McFarland went on to say regarding the Afghanistan withdrawal:

“Ever since, our friends no longer trust us, and our adversaries no longer fear us.”

Both realities will no doubt prove dangerous in the future.

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