EVEN before America sealed it off with blast walls and razor wire, the area now known as the Green Zone in central Baghdad was viewed with a mixture of fear and loathing. Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s brutal late dictator, adorned his palaces with monuments to himself. After toppling him, the American-led coalition moved into one of these—the Republican Palace—and the Green Zone developed around it. The fortifications were meant to be temporary; a response to an insurgency outside. But as the Americans withdrew, Iraq’s new leaders replaced them in the citadel—and as the main target of an angry public.
It has been 13 years since the fall of Saddam, but many Iraqis are still struggling to get by. Successive governments, detached from the people, have produced little more than staggering levels of corruption and incompetence. Idle officials sit in air-conditioned offices even as the population lacks basic services. Progress seemed possible last year, when Haider al-Abadi, the prime minister, introduced a reform agenda, ostensibly backed by the entire parliament. But MPs’ swift reversion to bickering merely fuelled public outrage, which boiled over on April 30th, when hundreds of Iraqis stormed the Green Zone.
The proximate cause is a dispute over cabinet posts, which are divvied up between political blocs based on sect and ethnicity. The blocs have mostly plundered the ministries under their control. Mr Abadi has tried to shrink the cabinet from 22 ministers to 16 (he previously cut 11 posts), and to replace the political appointees with technocrats who might actually do their jobs. His efforts are backed by America, Iran and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Shia Islam’s chief religious authority. He also has the support of Muqtada al-Sadr, a mercurial Shia cleric whose followers dominate the protest movement.
Sadr and sadder
Still, nearly all of Iraq’s political parties cling to the old system, which guarantees them a share of power and its spoils. So even before Mr Abadi’s five least-contentious nominees were confirmed on April 26th, some lawmakers had already hurled water bottles and left the assembly. Days later, a vote on several new nominees was postponed for lack of a quorum.
Forming another will be tough: Kurdish members have returned to their autonomous region, where the crisis is encouraging more talk of independence, and Mr Sadr is off visiting Iran. The speaker says he will try to hold a new session of parliament on May 10th. But some fear it hardly matters and that the country is so divided and corruption so entrenched that it has become ungovernable. Although the prime minister can keep paying salaries, and continue the war against Islamic State (IS), with or without the legislature, there is little anyone can do to fix the Iraqi state.
Mr Abadi had hoped to repair some of the damage wrought by his sectarian predecessor, Nuri al-Maliki. But it may be too late. Tensions are growing between communities, and within them. Shia groups such as the Badr organisation, backed by Iran, and the Sadrist movement battle for influence, while Mr Maliki plots a comeback. In the north the Kurds squabble among themselves. And the jihadists of IS kill more of their fellow Sunnis than anyone else. Emma Sky, a former adviser to the American military in Iraq, suggests viewing the conflicts as “a struggle for power and resources in a collapsing state. A Hobbesian world of all against all.”
Ms Sky says that some Iraqis are reminded of the last days of the monarchy in 1958 when another elite refused to reform, and was overthrown. Mr Sadr has fomented insurrection. “I’m waiting for the great popular uprising and the great revolution to stop the march of corrupted officials,” he has said. More protests are set for May 6th. But the Sadrists may not actually want to topple the government. “They have used their anti-establishment appeal to strengthen their position in the establishment,” says Maria Fantappie of the International Crisis Group, a think-tank.
The economy, meanwhile, is unravelling. The government gets most of its money from oil sales, but the price of the stuff has collapsed. Parliament passed a budget of 107 trillion dinars ($100 billion) for 2016—and projects a deficit of 24 trillion dinars. Officials are hoping for loans from the IMF and World Bank, but the political crisis threatens those, too.
More than 70% of public spending will go to the salaries and pensions of 7m public employees, up from 1m under Saddam. Many sit at empty desks. Mr Abadi has cut the pay of some public employees. But others have been given raises, and politicians will not let him lay anyone off.
Iraq’s war with IS costs millions of dollars each year, and illustrates how the country’s problems compound each other. “If the government was not so messed up, they would have kicked these guys out a year ago,” says Kirk Sowell of Inside Iraqi Politics, a newsletter. During past incidents of unrest, Mr Abadi has withdrawn army units from Anbar province, where IS is strong, in order to secure Baghdad.
The fight to recapture the city of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest, began on March 24th. On May 3rd jihadists counterattacked, breaking through Kurdish defences, killing an American. The eventual liberation of Mosul would damage IS, yet, as Ms Sky notes: “the main lesson of the Iraq surge of 2007-09…was that if the politics do not come together, tactical successes are not sustainable, and things fall apart.”