Premier Haider Abadi has only been in office for a few weeks now, but he has huge work ahead of him. One main goal is for him to reach out to Iraq’s Sunnis in the hopes that they will support his new government and help in the fight against the insurgency. He knows this, and is being pressured by the Americans do to the same as a precondition for their military support. So far the prime minister has touched on some of the community’s main demands, but he has not done anything concrete about them yet.
Sunnis have voiced a number of demands for the last few years. Some of those include the release of prisoners held without charges or trials, a new Sahwa, and the decentralization of powers to the provinces if not the creation of federal regions. One Sunni politician told the Financial Times that some goodwill gestures would be welcomed s well such as the end of bombing of cities, and aid to the displaced. Premier Abadi has attempted to address several of these concerns.
In early September 2014 Abadi proposed a new National Guard program that could be considered a concession to Sunnis. Under the plan local units would be created, which would be under the control of governors, while being paid for by Baghdad. The Anbar provincial council welcomed the idea saying that they had plans to organize 10,000 guardsmen in the governorate. A former Sahwa leader in southern Baghdad’s Arab Jabour however rejected the idea. He complained that the government neglected the Sahwa after the U.S. left and was worried the same would happen with the National Guard. Former parliamentarian Hamid Mutlaq also warned that if militias were integrated into the new units they would take over, and that would be unacceptable. Despite the criticism, the National Guard offers the chance to devolve some power over the security forces down to the provinces. This was already supposed to have happened with the 2008 Provincial Powers law and the 2013 amendment to that act. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki never agreed to either, as he believed in concentrating power in his hands, especially over the army and police. The National Guard would also be different from the Sahwa as the new recruits would be actual members of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), not just paid fighters like the Awakening and Sons of Iraq were. The idea has the support of the Americans as well who might be willing to provide some type of support.
September 13 the premier ordered the end of government shelling of civilian areas. This had been a complaint of both Sunni politicians and human rights groups. Since fighting started in Anbar in January 2014 hundreds of people have been killed and wounded by mostly indiscriminate fire there. This tactic was expanded to Ninewa, Salahaddin and Kirkuk after the insurgent summer offensive began. Unfortunately this order has not been followed. Starting on September 16 Fallujah was hit by artillery fire, and that has been repeated almost every day since then. This has drawn complaints from some sheikhs who said they had lost faith in the premier as a result. The Anbar provincial council demanded that Abadi hold those officers accountable who have not followed his command. The prime minister has the power to stop this practice, as the ISF are under his authority. It’s likely that Abadi has simply not followed through with his statement and enforced it.
Finally, on September 22 Abadi gave an interview with Al-Arabia television station saying that he had no problem with the formation of a Sunni region. Towards the end of 2011 Salahaddin and Diyala attempted to form federal regions, but was blocked by Maliki. Later, when the Sunni protest movement started there were some who advocated for regions as well although there was no consensus on the matter. By 2014 political parties such as Mutahidun had taken up the call for federalism. Abadi’s remarks then were a major nod towards Sunni demands. How to actually form a region is a bit murky, but more importantly, many Sunni areas are now under insurgent control. The prime minister was smart to bring up the topic, but at the same time he knows that it will not happen any time soon so he can gain political points without having to actually deal with decentralization.
So far Prime Minister Abadi has said all the right things, but taken little actual action to appease Sunnis. He’s talked about decentralizing power and not targeting civilians. The shelling has continued, and regions are impossible with militants holding parts of Anbar, Ninewa, Salahaddin and Kirkuk. The only thing that looks like it will actually be implemented any time soon is the National Guard. Abadi needs to do something substantive and soon otherwise he will begin to face the accusation that he is no different than Maliki. That doesn’t mean he won’t be able to make Sunni allies given the power of the purse he holds as the head of the country, but it will be all the harder without substantive goodwill gestures not just words. Otherwise he will lose the little faith he has as the new premier.
Alsumaria, "Fallujah Hospital announces receiving 28 dead and wounded in renewed shelling of the city," 9/15/14
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