Welcome to today’s Brief, where we’re following Iraq’s escalating political crisis, Ukraine’s counteroffensive, and the latest developments in Brazil’s presidential race.
What’s Behind Iraq’s Escalating Political Crisis
Deadly clashes flared in Iraq on Monday after hundreds of people stormed its government palace, an ominous turn of events that has plunged the country even deeper into political turmoil.
The protesters, fiercely loyal supporters of the influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, had been enraged by his pledge to leave Iraqi politics—although he has made similar vows before and failed to follow through on them. Some experts say Sadr’s announcement was a dangerous, desperate ploy to maintain his power and galvanize his base.
“[Sadr] doesn’t have any leverage right now, so what he is doing is appealing to the emotions of his followers who are the closest you can get to a personal cult,” said Abbas Kadhim, director of the Atlantic Council’s Iraq Initiative.
“He is telling his followers that, ‘Okay, I was defeated, but it’s up to you to turn me into a victorious player by doing whatever it takes. Or you could say, we give up. We lost,’” Kadhim added. “These people are willing to do anything.”
At the heart of the crisis is a political deadlock that has paralyzed Iraq’s governmental processes and deepened internal rifts since the country’s October 2021 elections, all under the specter of Iranian influence.
Although Sadr was the elections’ biggest victor, he was unable to negotiate a new government after excluding rival Shiite leaders. That pitched Iraq into uncertainty and left it in the hands of a caretaker government that can’t approve budgets or legislation.
As Iraq remained locked in a stalemate in June, Sadr ordered the resignations of the 73 members of parliament loyal to him. It did not go as he may have intended: They were swiftly replaced, effectively eliminating his parliamentary sway for the first time in nearly two decades.
“Sadr anticipated that his rivals … would repair this situation by going to him, begging him to change his mind and bring his MPs back,” Kadhim said. “But they did not. They called his bluff and went ahead and used the law to replace Sadr’s MPs with their own.”
Since July, hundreds of Sadr’s supporters have been camped out inside the parliament building to disrupt rivals’ political efforts. But Monday’s clashes—which killed at least 15 people, injured over 100 people, and pushed the military to impose a nationwide curfew—suggest a worrying new turn in the crisis.
Sadr’s ultimate goal is “to stir the nation and hijack popular sentiment to become the most powerful man in Iraq,” as analyst Shayan Talabany argued in Foreign Policy this month.
That suggests that the country’s crisis could worsen before it shows any signs of reprieve. “Sadr’s willingness to worsen Iraq’s political turmoil, delay Iraq’s government formation, and escalate protests further—threatening an all-out war with rival Shiite groups—should surely serve as a warning that he is capable of catapulting the country into something even worse,” Talabany wrote.
Susie Ferguson on personal toll of reporting the Iraq War: ‘I couldn’t cope with normal stress’
RNZ broadcaster Susie Ferguson has spoken candidly about the toll her six-year stint as a war correspondent took on her mental health in a new interview, saying it changed “every cell in [her] body”.
Ferguson, who will next month step away from hosting Morning Report, revealed she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety and moderate to severe depression while covering the Iraq War and other major conflicts and natural disasters.
Ferguson’s revelations came in the latest episode of re_covering, a Media Chaplaincy New Zealand podcast produced for RNZ, featuring top Kiwi journalists discussing the stories that have shaped their careers, personally and professionally.
In the interview, Ferguson reflected on the personal impact being sent to Iraq in 2003 as a 25-year-old with the British Forces Broadcasting Service had on her.
“I don’t think you are ever prepared until you’re actually there. And when the shooting starts, then there you go – that’s that’s your preparation,” she told re_covering host and media chaplain Rev Frank Ritchie.
It didn’t take long for reporting from a war zone to put a burden on Ferguson’s mental health. Within months, a colleague had noticed her behaviour was out of character – “a very nice way of saying I was self-destructing” – and urged her to get professional help.
Under the advice of a psychiatrist, she went through periods of working less in an effort to manage the psychological effects of being at the front-line of the conflict. But she couldn’t shield herself from all the stresses of war, which she said altered “every cell in [her] body”.
“It changed my stress response, and I think my stress response has never actually come back to the equilibrium that it had before,” Ferguson explained.
“I became incredibly good at dealing with high-stress situations, like bombs dropping around you or whatever – I can keep talking, I can keep carrying on, I’m absolutely fine and completely in control.
“But then if I’m in my car, stuck in traffic and late for an appointment, I would start crying. I just couldn’t cope with normal stress.”
Ferguson said incidents like this became the norm in what were a “pretty rough” few years.
But combined with her waning capacity to handle normal life, her self-described ‘superpower’ of remaining calm in the face of calamity enabled her to continue reporting on scenes of destruction and desolation.
Interspersed with her coverage of the Iraq War, Ferguson was deployed in Afghanistan and Sierra Leone, and was on the ground in the days after the devastating Kashmir earthquake and the Boxing Day tsunami of 2005.
In these settings, she thrived – but whenever she returned home it was a different story.
“The Iraqs and Afghanistans and Sierra Leones of the world became not quite a happy place, because that sounds really screwed up, but they didn’t stress me out,” Ferguson said.
“Normal life stressed me out. It’s when you come home and have to deal with the mundane that things start going wrong. That’s what I couldn’t handle.
“You lose your perspective on meaning and what matters. When you get so used to living life at 90km/h and you have to come back to 40km/h, everything feels pointless – what am I doing [and] why am I bothering?”
Ultimately, Ferguson would be diagnosed with PTSD, anxiety and moderate to severe depression. But with the support of friends, colleagues and her “incredible partner” Lee, she had the help she needed to work through it and continue telling the stories that mattered.
Now more than a decade on from that time in her life, Ferguson uses what she learned as a war correspondent to encourage young journalists to seek help when covering traumatic news events.
“I remember talking to some of my colleagues, some quite young reporters who were chucked in to report on the aftermath of the Christchurch shooting, and saying to them, ‘Just book the EAP counselling appointment’.
“‘You maybe don’t think you need it – you maybe don’t need it, and I hope you don’t – but you might just need it. So even if you go along and it feels completely pointless, just just go along and see’.”
In the rest of the wide-ranging interview with recovering, Ferguson talks with Ritchie about her decision to leave Morning Report after eight years in the job, and her New York Festivals Radio Awards-winning podcast The Unthinkable, about what it’s like to lose a baby.
What We’re Following Today
Ukraine’s counteroffensive. Ukraine mounted a counteroffensive to retake Russian-occupied territory on Monday, just days after the United States pledged a $3 billion military aid package to support its war efforts.
A delegation from the International Atomic Energy Agency is also set to touch down in the country this week to inspect the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant as the war stokes fears of a potential nuclear accident.
Brazil’s presidential race. As Brazil’s presidential elections loom, the two front-runners—President Jair Bolsonaro and former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who currently holds the lead in polling—traded barbs in a heated television debate. While Bolsonaro accused his predecessor of corruption, Lula blamed the incumbent for ruining the country.
“The country I left is a country that people miss. It’s the country of employment, where people had the right to live with dignity, with their heads held high,” Lula said. “This is the country that the current president is destroying.”
Keep an Eye On
Yemen’s siege. Fifteen human rights organizations have called on Yemen’s Houthi rebels to stop their yearslong blockade of Taizz, Yemen. Main roads into the city have been blocked since 2015, aid groups said, a closure that has had profound humanitarian implications.
“Opening the main roads would help immensely to alleviate the suffering of a population that has been in near-total isolation for seven years,” said Michael Page of Human Rights Watch, one of the signatories of the statement.
China’s new charges. More than two months after a group of men brutally assaulted four women at a restaurant in Tangshan, China, authorities are charging 28 people and investigating 15 officials for corruption in relation to the incident. As a result of the June attack, two of the women were hospitalized for more than 11 days.