Iraq’s state of play is holding back reform
Even by the standards of the ever-dramatic world of Iraqi politics, today’s stakes are at a current high. On March 31, Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi proposed a near complete reshuffle of his cabinet, with a list of 10 candidates chosen on the basis of “professionalism, competence and integrity” for ministerial positions. He wants to reduce the number of ministers from 22 to 16.
The slated cabinet overhaul by Abadi had come on the back of last month’s massive street protests and sit-ins in front of the main government compound, known as the Green Zone, that hosts Iraq’s major state institutions. The crowd was mostly made up of followers of the once-shunned—but now powerful—Shiite cleric Muqtada Al Sadr. On March 27, Sadr had called for a sit-in, inside the Green Zone. A day later, in a moment of high drama—and while declaring himself “a representative of the people”—Sadr entered the Green Zone to demand an end to the chronic corruption that has crippled state institutions. He and other protesters said they wanted nothing short of radical reforms that would shake up Iraq’s dysfunctional political system. And well they might; Iraq had fared 161 out of 168 nations on Transparency International’s corruption index in 2015.
The herculean task of setting Iraq on a new path largely rests on the shoulders of an embattled Abadi. When Abadi unveiled his cabinet overhaul proposal in front of Iraq’s parliament on March 31, it was something of a sop. Sadr made a victory speech of sorts, and then called on protesters to go home. He and Abadi then exchanged mutual praise during separate speeches.
Both the prime minister and Sadr had called for a cabinet of technocrats and independents, hoping to improve governance practices. But in a country gripped by conflict, deep sectarian and ethnic divides and constant political strife, such ambitious reforms are no easy task.
Even someone such as Dhiaa Al Asadi, the head of the Sadrist bloc in parliament, admits such calls for fundamental reforms are “idealistic.” “But what is important to us is whether this vision of reforms will save the country or worsen it? We believe it will improve the situation,” Asadi tells Newsweek Middle East.
Asadi warns that after years of government mismanagement and incompetence, Iraqis are more radical in their views than those espoused by his group.
“In the past, protests used to call for the collapse of the government,” he says. “Today we are not demanding that. We want to reform it. We are trying to salvage Iraq.”
Despite the concurrent push by Abadi and Sadr for change, the two do not necessarily share the same visions for what reforms should exactly entail, and the strategy under which they should be carried out is still largely vague. Ideas for reform have been generally confined to broad outlines such as fighting corruption, justice and accountability. Since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003 by the United States and its allies, Iraq has had no shortage of such slogans while seeing corruption grow and the country’s situation further deteriorate. Whereas Sadr insists on reforms with or without the blessing of political factions, the prime minister seeks a national consensus for his efforts. In mid-February, Sadr threatened Abadi with impeachment if he failed to actually enact change. Unsurprisingly, that push for reform has further fragmented the Iraqi political scene.
Kurdish parties in parliament have unanimously rejected any overhaul of the cabinet that would usurp political factions. They insist parliamentary blocs should get to nominate new individuals if Abadi insists on shaking up his current cabinet. There are currently two Kurds among the 10 ministers Abadi has proposed.
In a sign of establishment’s influence over the fate of the reform process in Kurdistan, Nizar Numan Doski who was Abadi’s Kurdish candidate for the powerful Ministry of Oil announced that he will not take the coveted office if Kurdish parties do not endorse his candidacy.
“What is the point of such [cabinet] change,” Arez Abdullah, a Kurdish member of Iraq’s parliament, tells Newsweek Middle East. “We have asked Abadi to give us names of ministers who have not been competent so we can change them. He says they are competent but he still wants to change them.”
“We don’t think just by changing ministers you can achieve reforms. If he has anything against them [serving ministers] we are ready to take action, even let them be put on trial,” he adds.
Regardless of whether Abadi is actually satisfied with the performance of the Kurdish ministers, Abdullah’s remarks illustrate the extent of Kurdish opposition to his reform efforts. In a meeting of Kurdish political groups in Baghdad on March 27, they demanded that Kurds should get no less than 20 percent of ministerial portfolios in any new cabinet, a ratio that they believe is proportionate to their share of the Iraqi population.
A statement in the name of Iraqi Kurdistan’s leader Massoud Barzani questioned the wisdom of an expected cabinet reshuffle branding it as “not important because the principle of partnership in the Iraqi government has been violated and rendered meaningless.”
Going even further, Ala Talabani, a Kurdish MP, said appointing Kurdish ministers without consulting Kurdish political blocs would be a duplication of Saddam’s method of appointing minority representatives in his government that had no popular support. As it stands now, Kurdish groups might even suspend their participation in the Iraqi government if Abadi does not heed their demands.
But it’s not only the Kurds who are alienated by Baghdad’s passion for reform. Many in the country’s Sunni Arab community are just as dubious.
Much of Iraq’s Sunni areas are still dominated by Daesh and hundreds of thousands have been displaced as a result of the militia’s growth. The Sunni community feels more desperate than ever and many fear the reforms will actually affect their representation in national institutions.
“Abadi himself is a politician. He has been born out of the womb of the [Shiite bloc] Iraqi National Alliance. How can he chair a technocratic cabinet?” asks Mohammed Nasir, a parliamentarian from Anbar. “His ideas to overhaul the cabinet are just impractical. Parliament blocs have to vote on any reforms or cabinets. Any cabinet reshuffle without parliament blocs will only result in complications and hurdles.” On the day he presented his list of ministers to parliament, Abadi gave MPs 10 days to investigate his choices and vote on them.
Amid the ado over reforms, the question of practicality weighs heavily on the minds of many. Given the myriad challenges ahead, and with many stemming from political factions who have deep roots in the state institutions and oppose major changes, how far can reforms go?
“It’s difficult for Sadr’s calls to be enacted,” says Ahmed Ali, a fellow at the Institute of Regional and International Studies at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani. “The political system is entrenched in Iraq and slow-changing.”
Abadi also seems to have given in to Kurdish pressure and has said Kurdish blocs in Iraqi parliament can nominate their candidates for three ministries to be given to Kurds. Other blocs might want to follow the example of Kurds and insist that their nominees be placed in ministerial positions.
With Daesh on the back foot in Iraq, many groups in the country are positioning themselves to gain the most from a post-Daesh order. Hence many see the current battle for reforms in Baghdad as a subtle manifestation of political rivalries and the desire for a larger piece of the pie.
“The current political environment is about competition among Iraqi [Shiite] parties as well in the upcoming post-Daesh stage,” explained Ali about the political scene in Iraq. “The Iraqi [Shiite] political groups are more fragmented now with different visions.”
With conflicting views for reforms at loggerheads, the concern among many Iraqis is just how much pressure the system can withhold before matters spiral out of control. Many political blocs are not happy with the changes and mass protests—if they were to emerge again—would consume much of the energy of the government and security forces in Baghdad.
Nasir, the Sunni MP from the Muttahidun bloc, says he has spoken to fellow MPs and political leaders about such a possibility.
“What are the guarantees that in the event of the Green Zone’s collapse, the fighters in the frontlines will continue fighting as they have so far in areas like Anbar and Salahaddin,” Nasir asks. “We fear the collapse of the political process might pave the way for Daesh to expand to other areas.”
The Iraqi forces had a successful year in 2015 rolling Daesh back in parts of Anbar, Salahaddin and Nineveh provinces. Despite his stated desire for bringing about change, Abadi is well aware of the risks. He has pledged his government’s priority will be to secure the nation, and made it clear he will not change defense or interior ministers who run the country’s security forces.
“We reiterate to our people that the government gives the main priority to the war against Daesh terrorists because it’s an existential war for Iraq,” PM Abadi said in a televised speech on March 29. “Until a decisive victory, this war will be our major concern.”
The coming days and weeks will prove crucial for Iraq’s future direction, a country that is no stranger to upheavals, but at the same time possessed of an enduring resilience. This could be Iraq’s make or break moment.
ADDENDUM: This article is updated to reflect current events and differs from the print version.