The Potential of Nationalism in Iraq: Caught between Domestic Repression and external Co-optation

Maria-Louise Clausen, Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS)

Since October 2019, Iraq has experienced prolonged protests that focus on the limited capacity of the Iraqi state to deliver basic services, unemployment, and rampant corruption.[1] The 2019-2020 protests have been larger, more widespread and of longer duration than previously. Most importantly, the protestors call for an end to the ethnic and sectarian quota system that has defined Iraqi politics since 2003. They reject a sectarian division of Iraqis into Sunnis and Shias and instead couch their protest in the language and symbols of Iraqi state-based nationalism.[2] The fact that the political elite has responded to largely peaceful protest with violence has further deepened the crisis of legitimacy in Iraq.

The appeal to nationalism is double-edged. The protestors have used the notion of national identity to challenge the internal Iraqi elite. Simultaneously, they use it to call for respect for Iraqi sovereignty. This is both a rejection of domestic politicians who have sought external patronage to bolster their internal power as well as a direct rebuff of external actors, who have exploited the weakness of the Iraqi state to increase their influence over Iraqi politics. The refrain often heard that the Middle East is characterized by its permeability to external powers aptly describes an Iraqi reality where regional and international powers, primarily Iran and the US, have played a key role since 2003.[3]

This paper focuses on how debates about sovereignty and hierarchies at an international level are reflected in and interact with domestic politics. Questions of equal sovereignty and (un)equal access to power interact with domestic struggles between those seeking to maintain the status quo and those seeking change. The notion of transition underscores the insecurity that follows from being located in a time of potential change. In a slight re-write of Gramsci, the current status is one where the old is fighting back as the new struggles to move beyond a rejection of the old.[4]

Anarchy and hierarchy in a penetrated region

Many theorists argue that the Middle East is particularly conducive to realist explanations of international politics which maintain that whereas hierarchic elements within the international structures may limit the exercise of sovereignty, the larger system is anarchic and not hierarchical.[5]  This notion of the international as a realm of sovereign states co-existing under anarchy has been challenged by critical and post-colonial scholars.[6] Pinar Bilgin, for instance, has pointed to underlying inequalities that result from unequal access to shape dynamics of world politics and to define what counts as legitimate actions in the international realm.[7] Raymond Hinnebusch’s upgraded version of structuralism focuses on patterns of global economic inequality as undergirding a hierarchy divided between core and periphery. The core and periphery exist in a relation of asymmetric interdependence or, in other words, a system of clientelism where the periphery remains dependent on the core.[8]

The American targeted killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani underscores the dilemma of how to reconcile a system of formally “like units” with the role of great powers as upholders of international order.[9]  The United States justified the killing as a response to “an escalating series of attacks” by Iran on US forces and interests in the Middle East and thus legally permissible under “The Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq”.[10] Although targeted killings have become a permanent feature of American foreign policy in places such as Yemen and across Africa, the assassination of Soleimani was unique as he was a high-ranking official of a recognized state and it was done on the territory of another sovereign state without asking the permission or notifying that state beforehand.[11] The US designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) in April 2019 which is the first time the United States has designated an arm of another government, rather than a non-state actor, as a FTO.[12]

The attack also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, founder of the Kataib Hezbollah and the de facto leader of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). Where Soleimaini was the face of Iran’s network of militias operating abroad, Muhandis embodied the Iraqi state’s inability to assert a monopoly of legitimate use of violence. The weakness of the Iraqi state has left Iraq vulnerable to domestic threats as well as direct military intervention.[13] The killing of Soleimani and Muhandis had immediate implications for domestic Iraqi politics, not least the trajectory of the protests. They can thus be read as an example of how issues of conflict and order among states are inseparable from issues of conflict and order within states.[14] Iranian-backed actors in Iraq, who had been unable to tame the independent protestors, took the opportunity to try and seize control over the demonstrations by redirecting them towards a shared foreign enemy, the US. The Iraqi parliament narrowly passed a non-binding resolution urging the government to end all foreign-troop presence in the country and cancel its request for assistance from the US-led coalition against Islamic State. However, the independent protestors refused to rally behind political forces such as Muqtadr al-Sadr and continued their dual demand for domestic reform and respect for Iraqi sovereignty.

Transforming Iraq through state-based nationalism

Iraqi regimes have previously been able to defer internal unrest through reference to an “imaginary geopolitical boundary” that pitted the Arab world (us) against Western intervention (them). The current protests reject all forms of external interference – including by Iran or by Arab neighbors.[15] The regime’s attempts at framing the protests as foreign conspiracies have failed to gain traction and has not been able to defer attention away from the political elites unpopularity. Instead, the combination of political paralysis and violent crackdowns on the protestors have further underscored the regime’s lack of legitimacy and its inability to control Iranian-backed militias.

The protestors view the sectarian and ineffective domestic system as being upheld by an internal elite sustained by regional and international actors. The protests are therefore simultaneously a rejection of sectarianism, the domestic political system and external interference in Iraqi domestic politics.  The protestors reject sectarianism as a tool used by the political elite to divide and weaken the Iraqi people.[16] Sectarian identity was the foundation of post-2003 political order in Iraq, and institutionalized in the political quota system, referred to as the muhasasa system.[17] This system has been remarkably stable, with a comparatively small number of individuals and groups dominating Iraqi politics since 2003.[18]

The protesters are seeking to move beyond an understanding of Iraq as defined by a Shia-centric state-building project and a Sunni rejection of that project and towards an understanding of Iraqi citizenship.[19] This is seen in the proliferation of slogans that focus on Iraqi unity such as the dominant: “We want a homeland” (نريد_وطن ) and the protestors use of the Iraqi flag. The protesters demand a complete overhaul of the political system including new political representatives who have not been part of this system since 2003. The fact that the protests have taken place in Baghdad and Shia urban centers, has made it difficult for the Shia dominated Iraqi leadership to activate a sectarian counter narrative. The protests are not anti-Shia as seen in the prevalence of Shia iconography. Instead, they are Shias protesting their Shia-dominated government.[20] It is a Shia dominated movement but one that is not Shia centric.

The protestors have linked the call for a civil state to the need for external actors to respect the sovereignty of the Iraqi state. The permeability of the Iraqi state means that Iraq has become a theater for the conflict between the US and Iran, while these powers simultaneously seek to influence Iraq’s internal politics either directly or through support to proxies. The Iraqi state depends on external support, but Iraqi elite actors are tightly integrated into relations of asymmetric interdependence or, in other words, a system of clientelism. The rents that Iraqi elite actors have accrued from their foreign patrons have been used to sustain the regime and further alienated the Iraqi political elite from the Iraqi population. Hence, whereas the rejection of territorial nationalism was once linked to colonialism and the interference of external actors, it is now used to further an agenda that seeks to safeguard Iraqi society against external interference.


Iraqi state-based nationalism is used to signal opposition to the ethno-sectarian status quo and a desire for an Iraq based on unity. However, at the same time discussions on Iraqi citizenship can become an arena for discussions about who are real Iraqis and historically, this type of discussion has let to attempts at changing the demographics of Iraq.[21] The Iraqi population across ethno-sectarian cleavages share a deeply felt frustration with the political elite. But the protest movement struggle to translate a frustration with the current into a shared vision for a future state.

Transitions are periods where individuals or institutions seek to negotiate a path that moves them away from the old and towards something new. As such, transitions are ruptures where actors will struggle to formulate and/or gather support for their particular narrative. In the Iraqi case, a transition away from the current political system would affect both the domestic elite that has controlled Iraq since 2003, and their external patrons’ ability to control events in Iraq. Whereas the counterreaction to the protestors have been spearheaded by Iranian-backed Shia militias and Iranian backed political leaders, most of Iraq’s political elite has hesitated to support the protests. Consequently, the most distinct response has been a counter process where elite actors, both internal and external, are either seeking to maintain the status quo or to use the situation of insecurity to maneuver themselves into a better bargaining position within the existing structures.

The US assassination of Soleimani and Muhandis at a critical time in Iraq together with the continued interference in Iraq’s domestic affairs, demonstrates how the prospects for a transition in Iraq and the path that the transition will take, needs to be analyzed in the crossroads of domestic politics, which may or may not be influenced by clientelistic relationships to external patrons, and Iraq’s position as a theater in which Iran and the US play out their conflict. The Iraqi state is under intense pressure, and there is a risk that long-standing tensions between pro-Iranian and anti-Iranian, between the political elite and the forces of change, and within the political elite itself may be exacerbated. [22]


The protest movement in Iraq that began in October 2019 exemplifies how populations are increasingly turning against alliances between their ruling elites and their external patrons. In Iraq, the result has been sustained and widespread protests that combines opposition to the entrenched ethno-sectarian formula that has dominated Iraq for decades and the sustained influence of external actors, particularly Iran and the US. Even if a combination of coercion, protest fatigue and co-optation manage to calm the situation, the deep-seated frustration with the political system needs to be addressed.

The Iranian-backed Hashd al-Shabi has played a key role in the coercive response to the protests. Whereas this, on the one hand, display the enormous power of these actors and deep integration into the security sector and political system, the events since October also underscores their limited ability to direct Iraqi politics. In the face of protests that could not easily be dismissed as foreign funded, the Iranian backed political class and militias have struggled to come up with a counternarrative to the protestors call for a civil state. The protestors, on the other hand, have struggled to pose an immediate threat to the political system. However, whereas the protests may not result in immediate transition, they can be read as part of an ongoing process of transformation where a young generation reject the post-2003 order as they try to formulate an alternative vision of Iraq.


[1] International Crisis Group (2020), Rescuing Iraq from the Iran-U.S. Crossfire, Statement / Middle East & North Africa 1 January 2020 (Last accessed 28 February 2020:

[2] See Haddad, Fanar (2019), The Diminishing Relevance of the Sunni-Shi’a Divide, POMEPS studies 35, October 2019.

[3] Brown, Leon Carl. 1984. International politics and the Middle East, old rules, dangerous game. London: Tauris.

[4] “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks

[5] Nye, Joseph, S. (2009). Understanding international conflicts: an introduction to theory and history. Edited by Joseph S. Nye. (7. ed.), Longman: United States: New York. Waltz, Kenneth N. (1979). Theory of international politics. New York: McGraw-Hill. According to Waltz being a sovereign state does imply that the state itself decides “how it will cope with its external and internal problems, including whether or not to seek assistance from others” (Waltz 1979, 95-96).

[6] Barkawi, Tarak, and Mark Laffey (2006). “The postcolonial moment in security studies.”  Review of International Studies 32 (2): 329-352. doi: 10.1017/S0260210506007054; Bilgin, Pinar (2004). “Whose ‘Middle East’? Geopolitical Inventions and Practices of Security.”  International Relations 18 (1):25-41. doi: 10.1177/0047117804041739.

[7] Bilgin, Pinar (2016). The International in Security, Security in the International: Routledge.

[8] Hinnebusch, Raymond (2011). “The Middle East in the world hierarchy: imperialism and resistance.”  Journal of International Relations and Development 14 (2):213. doi: 10.1057/jird.2010.3.

[9] Walker, R. B. J. (2002). “International/Inequality” International Studies Review 4 (2):7-24. doi: 10.1111/1521-9488.00252.

[10] Notice on Legal and Policy Frameworks Guiding the United States’ Use of Military Force and Related National Security Operations:

[11] Under Article 2(4) of the UN Charter, States are forbidden from using force in the territory of another State

[12] U.S. Department of State, Designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Fact sheet, April 8, 2019. (Last accessed 28 February 2020:

[13] Gause, F. (1992). “Sovereignty, statecraft and stability in the Middle East.”  Journal of International Affairs 45 (2): 441.

[14] Ayoob, Mohammed (2019). “Subaltern realism meets the Arab world.” In Routledge Handbook of International Relations in the Middle East, edited by Shahram Akbarzadeh, Routledge: 59-68.

[15] Niva, Steve (1999). “Contested Sovereignties and Postcolonial Insecurities in the Middle East.” In Cultures of insecurity: states, communities, and the production of danger, edited by Jutta Weldes, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press: 147-172.

[16] Dodge, Toby (2019). Beyond structure and agency: Rethinking political identities in Iraq after 2003. Nations and Nationalism.

[17] Haddad, Fanar (2019), The Diminishing Relevance of the Sunni-Shi’a Divide, POMEPS studies 35, October 2019; Dodge, Toby (2019). Muhasasa Ta’ifiya and its Others: Domination and Contestation in Iraq’s Political Field, POMEPS studies 35, October 2019,

[18] Clausen, Maria-Louise (2019). Breaking the cycle. Iraq following the military defeat of Islamic State, DIIS report, Denmark, Copenhagen.

[19] Haddad, Fanar (2019). “Shia-centric State-Building and Sunni Rejection in Post-2003 Iraq.” In Beyond Sunni and Shia: the roots of sectarianism in a changing Middle East, edited by Frederic Wehrey. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

[20] Haddad, Fanar (2019). Hip hop, poetry and Shia iconography: How Tahrir Square gave birth to a new Iraq, Middle East Eye, 9 December 2019 (Last accessed 28 February 2020:

[21] Saddam Hussein’s regime wages a campaign of expulsion of Iraqis of Iranian origin, meaning their family had held Persian nationality under the Ottomans (referred to as taba’iyya). Saleh, Zainab (2013), On Iraqi Nationality: Law, Citizenship, And Exclusion, The Arab Studies Journal, Vol. 21, No. 1, pp. 48-78. A revision of the citizenship law that would make it easier to acquire Iraqi citizenship was rejected in March 2019.

[22] Haddad, Fanar (2020), The Iraqi People will pay the price for Iran-US rivalry, again, Al-Jazeera, 9 January 2020 (Last accessed 28 February 2020: