Recent skirmishes in Kurdish region between PKK fighters and Peshmerga soldiers heighten fears of full-scale conflict.
Baghdad, Iraq – It was 1am on January 3, 2020, when news arrived that an American drone had targeted a convoy of vehicles in Iraq’s capital, in which a top Iranian general was believed to have been killed.
Before the hour was up, Iraqi state television corroborated what many had suspected: Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani was among the 10 victims of the deadly strike, which the United States later said was part of a wider strategy to deter enemies.
By the time the country woke up that morning, the news had sent shockwaves across the globe, with some Iraqis comparing their disbelief to what they felt when Saddam Hussein was toppled.
“It was something you couldn’t believe – Soleimani was thought to be invincible but he died,” said a man from Baghdad, who did not want to reveal his name.
The world was just three days into the new year. The killing of an Iranian general largely responsible for Tehran’s regional influence would soon become the first of a long list of events that would shake Iraq in 2020, the widely criticised leaked draft of the troubled country’s 2021 state budget being the latest.
As the year comes to an end, the provisional budget document lays bare the government’s plans to devalue the local currency and cut public employee salaries, sparking anger among Iraqis.
In a country where approximately 90 percent of government revenue comes from oil, plummeting prices this year paved the way to a liquidity crisis.
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in October warned that the oil crisis coupled with COVID-19 risked increasing inequality in Iraq, while a World Bank report in November estimated that up to 5.5 million Iraqis were at risk of falling into poverty.
This year, more than four million civil servants faced salary crunches and delays. But with little in the way of a private sector, many Iraqis are forced to depend primarily on the state for their livelihoods.
In the northern Kurdish region, frustrations over payments reached a boiling point this month when deadly clashes broke out between local security forces and public employees who took to the streets to protest against non-payment of salaries.
“Iraq’s current predicament is irreversible,” said Christine van den Toorn, president of the Iraq Fund for Higher Education, a nonprofit dedicated to creating new education and employment opportunities for Iraqi youth.
The country has “a massive youth population, a hugely bloated public sector whose revenue is unable to even support current payroll, much less hire even a small percentage of the hundreds of thousands entering the workforce every year due to decline in oil prices”, van den Toorn told Al Jazeera.
“There is only one solution to this – to educate, train and enable Iraq’s youth to be able to access and obtain other jobs.”
Despite the emergence of e-commerce businesses and investment groups, Iraq’s private sector has struggled in a political climate where entrepreneurs are continuously challenged by poor governance and corruption.
As long as the private sector remains weak, millions of Iraqis will remain at the mercy of the government as it follows through with a plan to slash salaries in a bid to offset the country’s financial deficit.
Meanwhile, the devaluation of the dinar from 1,182 to 1,450 against the US dollar is set to decrease people’s buying power and render some salaries worthless.
All this has been met with widespread frustration as Iraqis brace themselves to step into the new year amid deepening financial woes.
This, said Iraqi analyst Mustafa Habib, is likely to escalate popular anger “until it becomes irreversible”.
In late 2019, the government’s failure to save Iraq’s flailing economy and provide services and employment opportunities fuelled mass protests that swept through the country.
With youth unemployment expected to surpass 36 percent and the poverty rate to expected double to 40 percent, according to the World Bank, social unrest could become inevitable in 2021.
What began as peaceful demonstrations in October 2019 quickly turned into deadly clashes between the security forces and protesters.
At the height of the uprising, anti-riot forces and militia members were using live ammunition, tear gas grenades and torture. By January, the death toll exceeded 600.
“Accountability for the perpetrators of protest violence and reparations for victims or their families is the most important priority for the government,” Ali al-Bayati of the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights told Al Jazeera.
To date, no one has been held accountable for the killing, wounding and disappearing of civilians.
Despite the deadly crackdown, protesters continued to demand employment, services, an end to Iranian and US intervention, and the dismantling of Iraq’s corrupt political system.
In November last year, Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi resigned. He was replaced in May by Mustafa al-Kadhimi. Some hoped the new US-backed prime minister could be the answer to the increasingly emboldened Iran-backed militias.
Seven months after al-Kadhimi’s swearing-in, Iran-linked security elements and rogue militias continue to operate with impunity.
An attempted show of force by the government in June saw the arrest of 14 members of Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah for allegedly planning an attack on the Baghdad airport, only for 13 of them to be swiftly released.
“The Iraqi government has struggled with upholding the rule of law for some time now, and events in 2020 showed the scale of the challenge,” said Sajad Jiyad, an Iraq analyst and fellow at New York-based The Century Foundation think-tank.
“Militias have proliferated, continued attacks against diplomatic missions and government facilities, and used murder, violence and kidnappings to silence critics,” said Jiyad.
In July, renowned analyst and government adviser Hisham al-Hashemi was shot dead by unknown gunmen in Baghdad. No arrests have been made, but the finger has been firmly pointed at Kataib Hezbollah.
“Despite the prime minister’s promise that justice would be served swiftly, it is unlikely that his killers will actually be caught,” said Jiyad.
“The government has already said that the culprits have left the country, so the chances of an investigation actually leading to results look slim.”
In less than a month, the new Joe Biden administration in the US could see a thaw of relations between Washington and Tehran.
This, in turn, could ease US-Iran tensions inside Iraq and enable Baghdad to focus on other pressing security and humanitarian issues, such as an increase in ISIL (ISIS) attacks, the expected withdrawal of 2,500 US soldiers in January, and the reintegration of more than 60,000 displaced people who until recently were housed in camps.
Human Rights Watch this month warned that Baghdad’s decision to close Iraq’s displaced people’s camps was forcing residents into homelessness and poverty.
Prime Minister al-Kadhimi is likely to have pushed for a swift relocation of the displaced in a bid to close all camps before the June general elections.
Holding early elections was a key demand of the anti-government protesters. However, an opinion poll in December by US-based nonprofit the International Republican Institute showed “widespread pessimism over the country’s future and distrust in its political system”.
According to the nationwide survey, 52 percent said the current state of democracy was “very bad”, while 86 percent of those interviewed said the country was being governed in the interest of some groups. Sixty-two percent of those polled agreed it was important to vote.
The challenges faced by the Iraqi government in 2020 are likely to cause further obstacles in the lead-up to next year’s elections.
For now, Iraqis warily awaiting the first anniversary of the killing of Qassem Soleimani, with some Iraqi officials predicting renewed attacks by Iran-backed groups on US targets.
Earlier this month, the US embassy announced it was withdrawing some of its staff, according to media reports, and that the drawdown would continue until after the anniversary of Soleimani’s killing.
On December 16, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei renewed his promise of revenge during a meeting with Soleimani’s family, saying the US would pay for the drone attack that killed the commander.
Iraqis worry that retribution could be carried out in their country.