Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider Abadi took office in September 2014 under the worst of circumstances. His predecessor Nouri al-Maliki felt like he should receive a third term, but after the insurgency’s summer offensive and U.S. pressure he was forced to stand aside for Abadi. The Islamic State (IS) held two of Iraq’s largest cities Mosul and Tikrit and large swaths of the northern and western part of the country. The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) had disintegrated in the face of IS’s onslaught, and it took a fatwa from Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani to rally volunteers into the new Hashd al-Shaabi forces to stabilize the battlefront. Iraq’s two major foreign patrons the United States and Iran were competing for influence within the country, and had different views of how to fight the insurgency. The central government was still in a long standing dispute with Kurdistan over the budget and oil exports. Finally, Iraq was heading into a financial crisis as the price of oil collapsed at the end of the year. To help explain the prime minister’s position is Sajad Jiyad of the Iraqi Institute for Economic Reform. He can be followed on Twitter
1. The previous Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was known for challenging anyone he felt was a threat to his power whether that was Moqtada al-Sadr, the Iraqi Islamic Party, the Sahwa, the Kurds or Iraqiya. Premier Hadier Abadi was promoted as a kind of anti-Maliki. What was it about Abadi’s background and characteristics that were supposed to set him apart from Maliki?
He is more of the technocrat style leader that the US wanted back in 2003-2005, his education, background, and personality differ significantly from Maliki’s. He comes from a respected Baghdadi family, he moved to the UK in the late 1970s, and he was not involved in the Dawa Party operations in the 1980s or the splits in the leadership. He is one of the few Shia Islamists who is Western educated, speaks good English, and had a good professional career while in exile. In his time in Parliament he was known to be affable and intelligent, always open to discussion, though still bound by his party allegiances. He was largely outside of the decision making elite in Iraq under the previous governments so he comes with a clean, if untested, reputation. Contrasted with Maliki, he presents an image of a business-like PM, someone who isn’t entrenched in Iraq’s treacherous politics and has few enemies. He is approachable, there is no impenetrable circle that surrounds him and serves to exclude other views. His ties to Iran were minimal, and he was willing to do the job, something hardly anyone wanted to when Maliki refused to step down.
2. In December 2014 Abadi was able to broker a budget-oil deal with the Kurds to overcome one major political problem in the country. There have been constant complaints about it since then with the Kurds not meeting their export quotas and Baghdad not delivering as much money as Kurdistan expected. Will the agreement last?
Any sort of agreement that actually lasts in Iraq is a success, to date there have been very few. So the odds are against this one, but it seems a deal was rushed through without all the details being worked out, and this is one reason why it might break down. Another is that both Baghdad and the KRG owe a lot of money to IOCs and their economies are struggling, with a war against daesh to fight, at the same time as oil prices have dropped significantly, meaning there just is not enough money to go round in Iraq’s cash dependent economy. Definitely attempting a deal was the right way to go but it should have been more thorough so that both sides understand the various scenarios and consequences. The agreement will likely break down by end of year if oil prices do not recover.
3. The Abadi administration offered two major pieces of reform legislation. One was the National Guard bill, which would recruit local fighters into the government’s security forces. The other was to amend the deBaathification process now known as Accountability and Justice. Neither has passed parliament. Why have these bills been held up, and if they pass will they help with reconciliation?
Simply Abadi does not have control of Parliament, which is fractured even within the alliances themselves. The National Guard idea evolved quickly, with more being added to it by the various sides in order to meet their demands, but this is no guarantee of it being acceptable. The PM wants the NG to fall under his command, as the constitution gives him the commander-in-chief prerogative for the armed forces, but his opponents in the Iraqiya bloc want to avoid this and have held up the bill. The rest of the blocs are in no rush as they all have some sort of paramilitary groups operating on their behalf, so the bill will languish until someone concedes or finds a way to break the deadlock. As for the deBaathification, this is still a sensitive issue, the National Alliance have a majority in Parliament, and unless they can avoid what will be seen as allowing a complete return of the Baathists, they will work to change the bill to suit them, but perhaps not in a way that makes significant changes to the process as it is. This is the nature of Iraqi politics, governance by compromise whittles away any significant reform. If both bills do pass I’m not sure what effect they will have in their final form, certainly it will take much more to push real reconciliation ahead, I think that is a separate process.
4. The prime minister has tried to bring the Hashd al-Shaabi under government control. Maliki agreed to have them funded by Baghdad, and recently they were officially put under the control of the commander in chief. What’s on paper and what actually happens in Iraq are often two different things however. The Badr Organization and others have also pushed back against Abadi criticizing him for listening to American advice on fighting the Islamic State, calling the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) cowards, etc. Some Hashd groups asked that they be put in control of security over the ISF. How do you think this will play out?
The Hashd will be wary of overplaying their hand, I think they have political ambitions to run as a separate bloc in the next elections, so for now they will continue to officially state that they are under the command of the PM. For Abadi he knows that he has to maintain control of the Hashd but with a careful balance, too much and he risks them breaking away, too little and they will begin to smother the ISF, leading to political repercussions and the solidifying of Iranian control over Iraqi politics. The PM will be satisfied if he can keep the Hashd following his orders, reducing the frequency of critical comments from them toward him and the US, and integrating 70-80% of their members in the ISF/National Guard. The Hashd is not a monolithic organization, some of them are rivals and tensions exist between them, a third of them are not influenced by Iran, so it is possible to work on splitting off the more Baghdad friendly elements. But the Hashd have sacrificed a lot, they are popular, they feel their efforts should be better recognized by the politicians and the West, and I think it is this feeling of injustice that needs to be addressed. If the PM can work on a strategy that rewards the Hashd and at the same time subsumes them into the armed forces so that they do not remain a separate entity in the long run, then that will be a success.
5. The U.S. has been pushing Baghdad to reach out to Sunni tribes hoping to create a new Sahwa. Abadi has appeared open to this idea. In some places like Amerli and Tikrit the government was willing to work with local Sunnis. Abadi went to Anbar and handed out guns to Sunnis right before the fall of Ramadi. At the same time, there have been constant complaints by sheikhs and the provincial council in Anbar that Baghdad has neglected them. There has also been strong push back by Shiite politicians who don’t trust the loyalty of some tribes. How do you see this playing out?
This problem has existed since the Zarqawi days, and to be honest the tribes are fickle. Some of the leaders have minimal influence on the ground but project a lot of power in Baghdad and the US. There is a lot of competition and friction between these leaders, and much of that is based on who gets what and how much. Unfortunately the US dealt with all of their problems in Iraq by throwing cash around, so that expectation and way of doing things needs to be reformed. The government needs the tribes on its side, at the same time it needs a monopoly on weapons and force, so only the ISF should be out there, not tribes, or militias, or anyone else. Instead of arming the tribes the government needs to recruit more Sunni men into the Federal Police and the Army, then it will have to provide proper resources for them, rather than the Sahwa model which has its own dangers, and as we have seen means tribes can become anti-government when it suits them. Both sides distrust each other, and justifiably so, but at the end of the day the government has to protect its citizens and having more armed groups out there is not the way. Odierno recently made this remark that a properly integrated ISF was the only way to regain security in Iraq and I agree completely with that.
6. Let’s turn to the big picture. Sunni politicians often talk about being marginalized. The problem as ever is that the Sunnis are fragmented politically. Now with the threat posed by IS many Shiite politicians aren’t willing to make many compromises. Given that situation do you think reconciliation is possible in Iraq and what would it look like?
I think there are two separate tracks for reconciliation and neither are being pursued. Political reconciliation is the harder one because of the way Iraq’s political landscape was shaped in 2003, meaning that sectarian quotas became the basis rather than competency or representation. This played out into elections that vote parties in based on sectarian affiliation. No side wants to change this for fear of losing their voters and because almost every politician in Iraq is tied to a foreign power, there will always be conflict and power-sharing a broken mechanism. The second track, what I call social reconciliation, is much more likely to bring success if pursued, and could force political reconciliation. In this track it requires communities to live together, not being walled off, to accept each other, and to recognize the pain and suffering that has occurred in Iraq. Part of this requires justice and accountability but mostly it requires people to talk to each other, heal their wounds, accept the past tragedies, and move on. Rwanda, South Africa, and Northern Ireland have had experiences which Iraq can learn from, such as how to accept the other and recognize grievances. At the moment people are divided and politicians just play this up for their own gain, so unless social, religious, community leaders can bring people together then reconciliation will only be a mirage.
7. Finally, Iraqi politics is often described as a zero sum game. During the Maliki era the prime minister was a master at playing upon the divisions amongst his opponents and using divide and conquer tactics making the overall political climate deteriorate. Now Abadi is in office and he has tried to reach out to the different factions within the government. Do you think his style of governance will work or are the Iraqi elite so set in the ways that the premier will not be able to make much headway when everything is said and done?
I don’t think he has enough support to make real reform because it risks exposing all the elite including his own party. He is probably seen as a caretaker PM, a one-term premier who helped oust Maliki, but not a leader who can change Iraq in the long-term. If we are honest then all the current generation of Iraq’s politicians have failed because they put their own interests ahead of the nation’s. So unless this approach changes across the board, what effect can one man’s efforts have, even if he is the PM? Good intentions are there, but Iraqi politics is broken. New leaders, new parties, new laws, new attitudes are needed to make reform happen, otherwise it will only be superificial.