When Afghanistan fell to the Taliban last August, the world watched as its new theocratic government gave a press conference from Kabul’s gilded presidential palace. Meanwhile, on the other side of the city, Western nations were airlifting out their diplomats and local staff, while desperate Afghans clung to the wheels of their planes. 

After two decades of US-led intervention, the images of total defeat were unprecedented. Now, some fear they could be playing out once again, almost one year on – this time in Iraq. On Monday, Baghdad’s usually well-guarded Green Zone was rocked by gunfire as crowds surged past the checkpoints and stormed the Republican Palace, posing for pictures splashing around in its vast swimming pool.

Footage of a helicopter landing at the heavily-fortified US Embassy – the largest diplomatic mission anywhere in the world – sparked speculation online that Washington had been forced to pull its staff out. In a statement, the White House rejected those reports as false, but described the situation as “disturbing.” According to a spokesperson, “Iraq’s security, stability, and sovereignty should not be put at risk.”

The unrest is said to have begun after Shia cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, announced he was stepping back from politics, having failed to form a government despite his party winning the most seats in last October’s elections. In response, his supporters took over government buildings and vandalised posters of his rivals, before an opposing Shia group arrived to fight them off.

al-Sadr has won the support of many from Iraq’s Shia community – which makes up as much as 60% of the population – by opposing outside intervention in the country from both the US and Iran

As they rioted in the Green Zone, pictures of Iranian leaders were torn down, including those of Revolutionary Guards General, Qassem Suleimani, who was killed in an American drone strike in Syria in 2020. His death had sparked massive protests among Iraqi Shias just two years ago, and Iranian rocket attacks on US bases there.

But while the war-torn country is still riven by a great power game unfolding beyond its borders, the fury many Iraqis feel is likely to come from closer to home. The political stalemate that led to al-Sadr’s resignation has given the country a record run without a government, with Shia factions facing off against Kurds for more than ten months.

Without consensus and without unity, the country has struggled to turn around its ailing economy, while nearly one in six fail to find work. Power outages have sparked protests earlier this month after energy grids failed, leaving homes without air conditioning in 50 degree heat. Meanwhile, soaring temperatures have created droughts across much of the country, with water shortages hammering farmers as well as preventing ordinary families from bathing and washing their clothes.

“Afghanistan does not equal Iraq,” US Army chief David Petraeus declared in 2005, seeking to reassure officials that the country would not end up as a failed state. Like Afghanistan, Iraq has had almost two decades of Western intervention, and the US-led mission officially ended in December. Kabul fell, Baghdad didn’t. But that doesn’t mean Iraq is not enduring a similar descent into political and economic chaos. 

The electoral system set up after the fall of Saddam Hussein may have been designed to prevent the emergence of yet another despot, but it has left the developing nation without strong leadership. At the same time, it has made it possible for sectarian politicians like al-Sadr to consolidate power and motivate their supporters to take to the streets on command.

Many analysts now believe that whatever program of nation-building the West had planned for Iraq has failed. “While Iraq may be the only procedural democracy in the Arab world, its big tent Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish government has openly lined its pockets while unemployment, food insecurity, and crumbling infrastructure run rampant,” Amelie Grahm wrote in International Policy Digest just this month. 

“Since the US invasion, sectarian conflict has mostly been kept at bay, but the increasingly corrupt and electorally-distant coalition government, formed by the “active behind the scenes” work of Washington and Tehran, has persistently used patronage politics to guide policy.”

Now, without concerted Western support, the country seems set to continue its decline, with its politicians more and more at odds with the populace. There may not be a heavily-armed theocratic group waiting in the wings to take charge, but a power vacuum could still incubate the kind of unrest and extremism that the Middle East needs now less than ever. 

Likewise, Iran will be hoping that the US faces the same kind of foreign policy rout that it did in Afghanistan, and will be preparing to capitalise on the situation to strengthen its strategic foothold in the region. al-Sadr may have made a name for himself by denouncing foreign influence but, unless Baghdad can work out how to function by itself, his country may soon find itself once again at the mercy of its neighbours.