AMMAN - Iraqis took to the streets Wednesday in another day of protests over high unemployment, a lack of public services and alleged corruption. Some observers believe the ongoing demonstrations, which have left at least 250 people dead in recent weeks, could pave the way for real and badly-needed economic reforms in the oil-rich nation of nearly 40 million people.
Despite their country's vast oil wealth, many Iraqis live in poverty or with limited access to basic services, as the nation struggles to recover from years of sectarian and Islamic State conflict. Some 7 million Iraqis reportedly live below the poverty line and the World Bank puts youth unemployment at 25 percent.
Analysts say corruption, economic mismanagement and runaway spending have eaten away at the potential prosperity Iraqis had hoped for. Also, a boost in government spending has yet to translate into jobs, even though the economy is projected to expand this year by 3.4 percent, buoyed by increased crude oil production, after two years of economic contraction.
Analyst Anthony Pfaff of the Atlantic Council and the U.S. Army War College tells VOA that there are no quick fixes to turn the economy around or bring about better services in the short term. Pfaff says if Baghdad is serious about reform and willing to make the necessary sacrifices, it likely will need initial economic help from outside sources such as the World Bank, Gulf Arab states, the United States and the United Nations to confront systemic woes.
"You can with a little leadership push through those kinds of things that will enhance (sic) its ability to provide services to the people, and open up and grow the economy and divest itself from state-owned enterprises and the other kinds of things it needs to do to diversify its economy and give everybody an equal voice," he said. "Those are the kinds of things that can at least demonstrate the right intent, provide a little hope. But if it stops there, you are back to square one and more protests."
Pfaff says that Iraq has begun to establish banks where individuals can get small loans for business start-ups, but the development is not widespread or well-known. He also urges Iraq to remove barriers to foreign investment.
"The regulations, visa requirements and the inability to move money in and out of Iraq in a transparent, accountable way make it very hard for large corporations or big investors to invest in Iraq," he said. "That's just one of the things they need to try to figure out and get rid of those barriers, the sometimes Byzantine and inconsistently applied regulations that just make licensing and other stuff very difficult."
Jihad Azour, the director of the International Monetary Fund's Middle East and Central Asia Department, was quoted recently as saying Iraq needs more job creation and a boost in infrastructure spending.
Earlier in October, the Iraqi Cabinet issued a new reform plan to respond to the ire and demands put forth in protests that appeared to take authorities by surprise. The unrest has proved to be a major challenge for Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, who formed his government a year ago.